Debate continues over women’s rights in the new Tunisian constitution

As I noted in my post of August 3, the Tunisian Constituent Assembly created controversy when the commission on rights and liberties approved an article in the constitution that states: women’s rights should be protected under the principal of complementarity at the heart of the family and as man’s associate in the development of the country.

Women’s rights groups reacted strongly to the language, which has been seen by many in the country as an attempt to undermine women’s rights . As Aljazeera noted: “When Tunisia’s National Constitutional Assembly published the new draft constitution, a storm broke out over its words about women. Thousands of Tunisians were not impressed. “Oh woman, rebel – guarantee your rights in the constitution,” chanted supporters of gender equality as they marched on August 13 from the 14 January Square to the Conference Palace in the capital of Tunis…Estimates placed the number of protesters between 5,000 and 30,000. “Equality all the way – no complementarity in the constitution,” they shouted. Sister marches were held across Tunisia, in celebration of National Women’s Day [which celebrates the signing into law of the personal status code].”

How Ennahda sees it
Ennahda responded to these protests by reaffirming that it sees men and women as equal and considered the debate over the subject politicized by its opponents. Many in the party saw the law as nothing more than a misunderstanding over words.

The National explains: “Complementarity is at the heart of how Ennahda sees the role of women: party members believe that women have an equal, but different, role to play in the society. This is not an uncommon view among religious groups, especially from the Abrahamic faiths, who believe God created mankind in pairs and assigned different roles to each gender. That makes this proposed insertion of women’s “complementary” role something of a political misfire. Ennahda is picking an unnecessary fight. The party tried to row back a bit from the wording, arguing that “complementarity should be construed in a positive way”, according to Farida Abidi, an assembly member. She pointed out that there is a clear article in the proposed constitution: “All citizens have equal rights and duties before the law notwithstanding any kind of discrimination whatsoever.” But this is slightly disingenuous. What critics of complementarity are arguing for is the freedom to choose roles in society. Equal treatment before the law is not the same as equal participation in society.”

Monica Marks argues that Tunisians, the media, and activists have misinterpreted what she considers to be the correct Arabic translation used in the draft law, preferring to translate complementarity as fulfillment of each other. It should be noted, however, many in the Ennahda movement have embraced the language of complementarity, including party leader Rached Ghannouchi.

Regardless of the true intentions of the language, and the continued support for the article by Ennahda’s leadership, Marks says that the language is unlikely to pass. She writes in the FP “It is unlikely that Article 28 will pass muster with the revisionary committee scheduled to edit and harmonize this draft constitution over the coming months. Sihem Badi, Tunisia’s Minister of Women and Families, has already spoken out against the law, and a prominent female representative of Ennahda, Ms. Souad Abderrahim, has also suggested it is in need of revision. Though Ennahda controls a majority of seats on the rights and liberties committee, it will have a difficult time obtaining the necessary 109 out of 217 total votes needed within the constituent assembly to pass the article. Ennahda holds 41 percent of seats in the current constituent assembly — enough for a plurality, but not enough to bulldoze an absolute majority of parliamentarians into voting for the law.”

More controversially, and questionably (given that the constitution will be the high law and the basis for all civil law, including the PSC), Marks argues the law will have no effect on women in Tunisia. “Even if the article does pass as it is currently formulated, it is unlikely to seriously undermine women’s current legal standing in Tunisia. The law does not contradict or negate Tunisia’s Personal Status Code — a landmark piece of legislation enacted in 1956 that continues to set Tunisia apart as the most progressive Arab country regarding women’s rights. The Personal Status Code prohibited polygamy and gave women the right to divorce.

Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s party leader, rejects Marks and embraces the language of complementarity in a recent interview with Jeune Afrique:

The article on the Rights of the Child adopted by the commission rights and freedoms of the Constituent Assembly gives full powers to the family education and care. There he not a disengagement of the state?

Nothing replaces the family. The role of government is to ensure that the structure is preserved. There is no question of sacrificing children to improve economic productivity. By children, we take responsibility, we must assume until the end. The State must also assume its responsibilities by providing education and care for children. Must intervene. For example, you cannot ask a woman who has six children to go to work, it must be given the means to raise them. We ask a lot of women.

For women, another article considers the complement of man. No there not a decline in women’s gains?

This is a good project. Who can deny that the man and woman complete each other? The woman alone can do nothing, man either. The man and woman are independent but complementary as the two halves of a bean. There is no incompatibility between gender equality and complementarity. Everyone needs his half to flourish. But women are free and responsible, and they are equal to men. The prayer of a woman is not worth less than a man, they fast in the same way. They are equal under God and the law, the law of God and of men.

Tunisian militant Emna Mnif also counters Marks on the law’s potential impact, arguing that the article in question is a direct attack on the personal status code. Stigmatization of women and the personal status code, which Tunisia earned in the wake of independence in 1956, is nothing other putting into doubt the process of emancipation and modernization of Tunisian society which has been a societal model that has been the exception in the Maghreb Tunisian and Arab-Muslim world…It is an infringement of rights of not only Tunisian women, but also those of the family and, more broadly, a society that values the individual, regardless of gender or condition, (an individual elevated to the level of citizen, sovereign and responsible, placed at the center of the foundation of the democratic state.”

Mnif’s argument about the family and the individual is also a major concern of human rights activists concerning this language. Giving familial rights, as Ghannouchi notes in his interview with Jeune Afrique, emphasizes a family structure as the center of the society, subverting the rights of individuals.

Beji Caid Essebsi condemned the draft law and called those who would call into question women’s rights similar to animals.

Tunisia assembly defines woman as man’s associate, reactions from Tunisia

Perhaps we can blame it on the summertime; which is usual in its heat, but lately with an unseasonable mugginess. But the latest news from Tunisia’s constituent assembly has caused outrage for many here. At issue is constitutional article 27, passed yesterday in the committee on rights and freedoms, one of the six committees drafting the new constitution. As Tunisia Live states:

The article….states that women’s rights should be protected “under the principal of complementarity at the heart of the family and as man’s associate in the development of the country,” …It was approved by a vote of 12 to 8 by the Commission of Rights and Liberties, with 9 of those voting for the clause coming from Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party, Ennahdha.

After the committee passed the law, Tunisian lawmaker Selma Mabrouk went to Facebook to protest what she saw as a backward step for women’s rights, in this the country with some of the most liberal rights for women in the Arab world. Mag 14 writes:

Ms. Mabrouk has posted a text simply titled “Bad day at the commission rights and freedoms.” She stresses that “the problem is that this meeting served as a pretext to members of Ennahdha to return to the principle of equality between men and women, that principle was unanimously endorsed in the article 22.” Article 22 in states that “citizens have equal rights and freedoms before the law without discrimination of any kind.”

Mabrouk is arguing that even though another article in the constitution (#22) has endorsed the principle of equality, article 27 is a backdoor way to go back on what had been a campaign promise of Tunisia’s dominant party, Ennahda.

Tunisia analyst and blogger Thierry Bressillon looks at the text proposed by Mabrouk, which was not passed: “The state guarantees the rights of women and her achievements in every field. It is forbidden to enact laws that may impair (her rights or achievements) in any manner whatsoever. The state must fight against all forms of discrimination or physical or psychological violence against women.” comparing it to the text that was passed by the majority: “The state protects the rights of women and its achievements under the principle of complementarity with the man within the family and as a partner to man in the development of the country. The State guarantees equal opportunities for women in all responsibilities. The State guarantees the fight against violence against women.”

He adds: “The notion of complementarity raises strong emotions. It challenges the principle of equality which was until now the official doctrine in Tunisia and internalized by many Tunisians.”

Tunisian-American activist Wafa Ben Hassine confirms this sentiment in an article in Nawaat: “Of all aspects of the constitution that Tunisians were worried about, women’s rights was the last on many people’s minds – the gains that women have acquired in Tunisia are admittedly unmatched in the Arab world, and Tunisians are proud of that.”

Bresillon goes on to argue that the article conforms to many Islamist notions of feminism, which value the role of women, but reject the notion of equality as a Western import. I can’t speak to the Islamist notions of equality, but this is certainly the perception of Ennahda that many of Tunisia’s opposition members hold. This especially after the fact that Ennahda lawmakers this week also proposed a blasphemy law that would criminalize any blasphemous speech or actions, including the recent art exhibit which caused riots in Tunisia in June by Salafists. directed against the three main monotheistic religions. The new law was also widely criticized by human rights groups including Human Rights Watch:

 

While the blasphemy law is likely to have more widespread support in Tunisian society, which remains religious and conservative, it is unclear if the law on women’s rights will have the same support. Support for women’s rights has deep roots in Tunisia, not just because of the famous personal status code, put into place by Habib Bourguiba, but also from a deep intellectual tradition from Tunisian intellectuals such as Tahar Hadad, both of whom remain national heroes.

Recent polling by the Pew Forum has shown that many women in Tunisia are concerned over whether the ruling party would protect women’s rights, with over 36% of young women worried that their rights would be reduced. I’ll close with quote from Wafa Ben Hassine, who writes:

Putting aside the crude, incondite language the clause uses – an awful injustice is done to a whole society when the constitution of a country deems it apt to define a woman and her rights as complementary to man’s existence. The real debate should not be centered on women’s rights. Instead, it should focus on humancitizen rights. Relegating the woman’s role to complementary to that of a man’s could have serious effects on generations to come. The clause insinuates that women cannot stand alone as complete – that they are dependent on men.

 

[Finally, a note to readers, I'll be on summer holidays for the next couple weeks, more from Tunisia upon my return]

A glitch in Egyptian protocol or a purposeful humiliation? Marzouki’s trip to Egypt

Proper protocol: Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba being greeted by U.S. President John F Kennedy in New York in 1961. Photo courtesy of JFK Library.

Tunisian social networks have been abuzz today over President Moncef Marzouki’s visit to Egypt and the apparent lack of protocol provided for the Tunisia head of state. While newly elected Egyptian president Morsi held a joint press conference with Marzouki today and met with him privately, many commenters have been outraged that Marzouki was greeted not by Morsi, or the Egyptian prime minister (as had been expected), but by the relatively low level minister of electricity.

More abuzz came this afternoon as photos came out of Marzouki’s meeting with Morsi, in which contrary to usual protocol, only the Egyptian flag was on display (see photo below).Embedded image permalink

Of course, none of these events are happening in a vacuum. Marzouki has had a difficult few weeks with his presidential powers coming into question over the government’s apparent non-consultation with him over the extradition of the former Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi Mahmoudi. Marzouki then proceeded to try to fire the Central Bank governor, a decision that backfired after the prime minister, Ennahda member Hamadi Jebali, reversed his position on the firing and refused to support Marzouki’s move.

Against these troubles for Marzouki, came the reports that Ennahda is pushing strongly in the Constituent Assembly for an unelected, figurehead presidency in the new constitution. This adds further fuel to the fire for those who think that the Islamist party is trying to diminish the role of the presidency for their own policy gains – this time through their counterparts in Egypt.

The strange constitutional crisis in Tunisia – Marzouki’s role in question

I’m on assignment this week, without time to post extensively, but I did want to draw attention to what appears to be a nascent constitutional crisis in Tunisia. The issue stems from the extradition last week of former Libyan prime minister Baghdadi Mahmoudi. While other news sources offer greater coverage of the crisis itself, one interesting aspect is the role of Moncef Marzouki, the Tunisian president. Since Marzouki took office he has been beset by chatter among the political classes that he is not up to being the president, and that he sacrificed his party for his own political gain.

The fact that he was excluded from the decision to extradite Mahmoudi only confirmed some of these prejudices against the president. Even to his supporters, the row has shown that he does not exercise the power of a chief executive who is supposed to be in charge of foreign policy. Marzouki has decided to fight this battle in the court of public opinion and he appears to have the support of a number of opposition politicians – who are nominally in opposition to his own party. Over 70 members of the constituent assembly voted in favor of no-confidence for the prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, who made the decision to extradite Mahmoudi. It is unclear what a vote of this nature would entail, as there is no functional constitution in place that would govern new elections. It is more likely that the opposition vote is simply a show of strength against the government for what they consider to be an illegal and unilateral decision.

One final note, Tunisia Live reports that Marzouki has even threatened to resign over the issue. While this is unlikely, the threat shows the very open fissures that have been created within the ruling coalition.

Constitution watch – Reaction and problems with the preamble

Last week the Constituent Assembly officially released the agreed upon preamble to the new constitution. Here are a few brief takeaways from its release.

1) It’s just a preamble. Constitutional preambles set the tone and background for a constitution, but they are rarely in and of themselves law. The preamble to the U.S. constitution is one sentence (54 words)(1). The French constitution is 100 words and two sentences(2). Even the UN, not known for its brevity, has a charter in bullet points of only 236 words.

The Tunisian preamble, on the other hand, runs 433 words (in English) and 8 paragraphs. It includes references to Tunisian history, Arab history, Muslim culture, the Palestinians, and the environment. The fact that the preamble took six months to draft, and the fact that it is a kitchen sink of ideas does not necessarily bode well for the timeline set out by the Constituent Assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jafaar, who has promised that the document will be complete by October 2012.

Additionally, Constituent members took the not so humble step of honoring themselves in the first line. “We, the deputies of the Tunisian People, members of the National Constituent Assembly, elected through the merits of the Revolution of dignity, freedom, and justice”. It’s noteworthy in comparison to other constitutions, such as the U.S. and French, which make pains to show that the constitution itself emanates not from their leaders, but from the people themselves (“We the people”).

2) This is clearly a document of compromise. The length and wordiness of the document is no doubt a result of compromise positions within the Constituent Assembly. More conservative members were no doubt pacified by the document’s reference to the country being founded on the “fundamentals of Islam” – something that liberal Tunisians see as a back door to introducing Sharia law.

Meanwhile more liberal members will be happy with references to an “open and moderate” Islam based on its reformist movement. The latter is a reference to Tunisian intellectual theologians who in the early part of the 20th century helped provide a path toward a civil state through a more modern interpretation of Islamic theology. Contrast this with previous versions of the document that were released through members of the constituent assembly, which provided a much more bold references to Islam and the country’s Islamic identity.

3) The document is careful to avoid references to universal values or rights. While the document does endorse human and equal rights among Tunisians, it does not take the bold step of endorsing universal rights, such as the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many Muslim countries have refused to sign on to this document as some consider it to subjugate Islamic sharia to man-made rights. Liberals in Tunisia had hoped that the assembly would have taken this bold step which would have set precedents for the country’s judges to use as a basis for adjudicating rights claims. The document as is remains so vague that the constitution itself or the country’s civil code will have to set out exactly what rights will be considered fundamental.

4) The question of Palestine makes a not-so-subtle, and somewhat problematic, appearance. The document states that “individuals have the right to self determination, and for movements of justified liberation, at the forefront of which is the liberation of Palestine.” It’s a curious construction,  obviously based first and foremost by the motivation to include the populist sentiment to support the Palestinian cause. What’s interesting is the reference to self-determination, which is the legal basis for Palestinian statehood, in the absence of warfare. However, self-determination is also the basis for independence movements across the world, notably among Western Saharans in their dispute with the Moroccan government and in Berbers in Kabylie in Algeria. It will be interesting to see whether this clause will cause diplomatic problems for the government at the same time that it is looking to restart the cause of pan-Maghreb unity.

Finally it’s important to note that beyond calling for the separation of powers, the preamble does not provide for the system of government (parliamentary, presidential, mixed) or outline a “bill of rights”. These hugely important questions will be the subject of future debates at the Constituent Assembly.

Tunisia Live has translated an English version of the preamble into English, it can be accessed here.

For more on the constitution see also Alice Fordham’s article in the National and Thierry Bresillon’s excellent article in French at Rue 89, and Nadia from Tunis on her blog.

Previous Constitution watch can be found here and here.

1) We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

2) « Le peuple français proclame solennellement son attachement aux Droits de l’homme et aux principes de la souveraineté nationale tels qu’ils ont été définis par la Déclaration de 1789, confirmée et complétée par le préambule de la Constitution de 1946, ainsi qu’aux droits et devoirs définis dans la Charte de l’environnement de 2004.En vertu de ces principes et de celui de la libre détermination des peuples, la République offre aux territoires d’Outre-Mer qui manifestent la volonté d’y adhérer des institutions nouvelles fondées sur l’idéal commun de liberté, d’égalité et de fraternité et conçues en vue de leur évolution démocratique. »

Constitution watch – updates on the drafting of Tunisia’s new constitution

In what hopefully (depending on government progress and my discipline) will be a regular feature on the blog over the coming months, I give you my first “constitution watch” – updating readers on progress in the Constituent Assembly in drafting Tunisia’s new constitution.

——

Two articles this week discussed contents of the preambule of the new constitution, which were leaked, separately, to reporters.

An article appearing in the Tunisian magazine Leaders reports that the new constitution will explicitly define the Tunisian republic as a civil state. According to their sources in the assembly it will also maintain the first article of the constitution and define the regime as republican, abolish the death penalty, and confirm respect for universal values.

In a separate article published by Tunisia Live on Wednesday, the English-language site reports that the constitution will emphasize “applying Islamic principles to the constitution, explicitly defining the Arab-Muslim identity of the state.” The article is unclear on whether these are separate articles in the preambule or not. “The draft also describes the new regime as “republican, democratic, and participatory,” based on respect for the people’s sovereignty and the separation of state powers.” The report also states that the draft will be released to the public next Monday, June 4.

There are no major revelations here, although it will be interesting to see how “applying Islamic principles to the constitution” will actually read in the final draft. Many secular opponents of the government have feared that while Ennahdha has specifically rejected references to sharia in the constitution, they will try to introduce a form of religion-based value tests for the country’s lawmakers and judiciary.

For a further discussion on how the constitution is actually being put together, see this article by Duncan Pickard in the Carnegie Endowment.

See also my previous discussion of including Sharia in the preambule here.

Will Egypt’s disfunction spillover to Tunisia? The presidential race raises questions

Despite the obvious parallels between the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, and the clear effect Tunisia’s successful ouster of Ben Ali inspired Egyptian activists, there has been surprisingly little cross-pollination of democratic ideas between Egypt and Tunisia. But as the Egyptian presidential race heats up and Tunisia enters another dangerous escalation between secularists and Islamists, there is the possibility that Tunisia’s Islamists, long a bastion of moderation among Muslim Brotherhood-inspired parties, will adopt Egypt’s more conservative approach. This could have two contradictory effects in Tunisia, both of which could drive further fissures through Tunisia’s increasingly divided political landscape.

Despite the dominate narrative of the Arab Spring – as a collection of uprisings linked by common cause against authoritarianism in the Arab world – Tunisian public debate has been largely insulated from events elsewhere in the Arab world. While Tunisians are aware of and sympathetic toward the other uprisings – especially in Libya and Egypt – there has been little public discussion of the paths toward democracy these countries have taken. Tunisians rightly see their path as a model to follow – rather than the violent and chaotic paths followed by their neighbors.

Tunisia’s separate path has also been due to the much more moderate inclinations of its leaders. After well-run and fair elections, Tunisia’s Islamist party immediately joined hands with secularist counterparts to run the government and write the constitution. Unencumbered by ultra-conservative political parties in the government – such as Salafi parties – the coalition has taken many moderate stances, including the announcement last month that Ennahdha would not endorse inclusion of sharia law in the new constitution.

Ennahdha’s moderation, however, has cost it support both among its more conservative members, many of whom are more influenced by traditional Muslim Brotherhood political ideas (from whence the movement began) and by an increasingly vocal Salafi movement, which while officially excluded from politics, is making itself and its views seen across the country. And despite its moderation on key positions, its inaction against rising extremism and its seeming complicity against very public threats to basic freedoms has made Tunisian secularists skeptical if not openly worried about the future path Ennahdha will take.

It is against this backdrop that events in Egypt could conspire to influence Tunisian politics. The New York Times reported today that the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate has taken a much more conservative line:

“This is the old ‘Islam is the solution’ platform,” he said, recalling the group’s traditional slogan in his first television interview as a candidate. “It has been developed and crystallized so that God could bless society with it.” At his first rally, he led supporters in a chant: “The Koran is our constitution, and Shariah is our guide!”

One month before Egyptians begin voting for their first president after Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Morsi’s record is escalating a campaign battle here over the place of Islam in the new democracies promised by the Arab Spring revolts.

The article goes on to describe how throughout the post-Mubarak period, Egypt’s MB has played a much more moderate game:

The Brotherhood, the 84-year-old religious revival group known here for its preaching and charity as well as for its moderate Islamist politics, took a much softer approach in the official platform it released last year. It dropped the “Islam is the solution” slogan, omitted controversial proposals about a religious council or a Muslim president and promised to respect the Camp David accords with Israel.

What effects could a more conservative Egypt have on Tunisia? They are twofold:

Firstly, while Ennahdha is a well-oiled and disciplined political machine, its leadership is widely recognized as lying at the more liberal end of the party’s political spectrum. The debate over sharia was, by Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi’s own confession, widely contested within the party before being decided upon. Ghannouchi’s argument was not a defense of civil institutions, but rather a wish to avoid a controversial debate at a critical time for the country.

If Egypt tilts further to the right, Tunisia’s more conservative Islamists – many trained side-by-side with their Brothers in Egypt – could begin to press for more conservative stances within Ennahdha – testing Ghannouchi’s leadership. Tunisia’s Salafi groups may be further emboldened at pressing for more radical change. At the same time, Ennahdha’s secular partners in the government (CPR and Ettaktol), already under pressure from opposition groups to join them, would be forced to choose between abandoning their partner in government, or going along with a platform much more conservative than they had agreed upon.

Secondly, Tunisia’s secularists (in this case I use the term to describe both secularists in the liberal sense, as well as those from the Bourguiba mold), already anxious about a country run by Islamists, may take bolder actions against the government. Already Tunisian secularists are sounding the alarm bells. At a meeting yesterday, secularists from various parties gathered to voice their extreme concern over events over the weekend which saw Salafi activists disrupt a planned event of a well-known secularist activist and a physical attack on a political figure. The events, troubling in and of themselves, caused even greater alarm by the perceived luke-warm response of the Ennahdha ministers at the justice and interior ministries. The meeting yesterday included calls for the opposition to boycott the Constituent Assembly and to change their tactics from those of opposition movements to “resistance” movements.

Tunisia’s secularist will look with anxiety to an Egypt which has turned further to the right. Coupled with Ennahdha’s moderate rhetoric, secularist alarmism has mostly fallen on deaf ears in Tunisia. Most Tunisians simply do not see their country following the path of Iran or Saudi Arabia, and the Algerian civil war – with its complex moral narrative – is already a decade in the past. An Egypt which has turned toward the extreme would provide secularists with a narrative that could be a call to action among secular sympathizers in the country.

Both of these effects would be dangerous for Tunisia. Already polarized, Tunisia’s fragile political system would break down if the CPR and Ettaktol abandoned the government. Neither Ennahdha nor the secularists have enough seats to form a majority government. But even barring this extreme example, political parties will find it increasingly difficult to compromise in an even more polarized political environment. With elections scheduled within a year, the government may find it difficult to write the constitution on time – creating further pressure in the system as the country would face a constitutional crisis and the government (in whatever form it took) would face criticism that it could not act.

Ghorbal: Tunisia ignoring the real problem with the constitution – the courts

Samy Ghorbal, a Tunisian writer and political advisor to the opposition PDP, writes in Slate Afrique this week that while secularists celebrated Ennahdha’s abandonment of inscribing sharia law in the new constitution, they are ignoring the real problem – which is how the constitutional council interprets the constitution.

His argument, which no doubt many of my more conservative readers will take issue with, nonetheless raises the important fact that many essential debates over the shape of Tunisia’s future regime have yet to take place.

Some excerpts, translated by me, below. The whole article, in French, is worth a read.

…The real battle [not that based on Article 1 of the constitution], focusing on the architecture and processes of constitutional review, is just beginning. Because it is the role of a constitutional judge to propose and establish an interpretation of this section [Article 1). It is he who will tell how it should be understood, what it permits and what it prohibits….Everything will depend, ultimately, on the court or the Constitutional Council to be established; the checks and balances within it; and how its members will be appointed.

Tunisia has no tradition of independent constitutional justice. It is starting from zero. Established by presidential decree in 1987, the Constitutional Council, which ceased to exist after the (January 2011) Revolution, when the Constitution was repealed, was complicit in the dictatorship of Ben Ali. Can a constitutional court, which has long indulged in a servile/auxiliary role of the state, fulfill its cultural revolution and become the guarantor of rights and freedoms? Will it be given the means to do so?

These issues are of crucial importance for the future of the young Tunisian democracy. Yet they are strangely absent from public debate, and have found little echo in the Constituent Assembly. Most “modernist” parties were content to generalize about the rule of law and the need to ensure separation of powers in their election manifestos – without going into details.

The proposals unveiled by the Islamists in their program by 365 points, submitted on 14 September 2011, are equally succinct. Yet, to think about it, they leave no worry. Ennahda says it wants to establish a parliamentary form of democracy, “based on the separation of powers and judicial independence.”

In fact, in their system, all power emanates from the parliament, and, in the event a party would have the absolute majority, then all power emanates in reality from the majority party. Institutions would become hostage to one party or faction – starting with the Council or the Constitutional Court, whose president is elected directly by Parliament. There would be every reason to fear that this body is diverted from its intended liberal and turns, simply,as the guardian of the Islamic identity of the state and religious morality.

Tunisian transition leader speaks out – a must read interview

Image courtesy of Tunisia Live

Yadh ben Achour is one of Tunisia’s best known political philosophers. A lawyer by training, his academic work has focused on constitutional law and the role of Islam in a modern democratic state. He is best known for his leadership of Tunisia’s High Commission for the Transition which guided the government’s work and oversaw last October’s elections. You can read more from his bio at Tunisia Live.

Although criticized by some for being too secular, he is generally considered to be a highly respected jurist and his recent interview in La Presse is a must read for its clarity on the political situation. Some excerpts from the interview:

On whether Tunisia’s current situation meets expectations: Yes and no. Yes, insofar as Tunisia is in the midst of a democratic age of rare intensity. Yes, insofar as the strength of democratic civil society is undeniable, forcing governments to be more modest. No, because this period, without a constitution, without a permanent government, has become too long…the longer the transitional period is lengthened, the more dangers proliferate.

On the public debates taking place and Turkey: Everything we’ve done so far has been a waste of valuable time in lamentable and ridiculous discussions about female circumcision, the niqab, Sharia, the caliphate, and other dreams and utopias which all proceed from thoughts which will never be realized. It was these very thoughts that were once the fundamental causes of the general decline of the Muslim world. Turkey, ruled by an Islamic-oriented party, is admired not because it applies Sharia, or agrees with Salafism, or is inspired by the somber niqab for its fashion. The reasons for its success comes from the fact that they lead a secular state, which has achieved an economic growth rate well above 7% and is led by a competent government.

On the current government: For now, what we should avoid is harassing the government critics through impromptu or unjust attacks. But the government must, in turn, avoid blunders or improvising its actions. We need better coordination between the three heads of state. I will not go further in my criticism. I would say, however, that some ministers and secretaries of state, notoriously incompetent, are really not in their place and are sources of problems. I think that there should be a ministerial reshuffle urgently to get rid of some ministers and secretaries of state whose capabilities are extremely limited.

On the consolidation of political parties: What we observed during the elections of October 2011 is a certain lack of rationality, because of fragmentation and the number of political organizations, whether partisan or independent, and the phenomenon of lost votes. Remember that in some electoral districts, voters were forced to choose between 95 lists, which is an aberration. For future elections, therefore, we must first enter into cycles of consolidation among various political parties belonging to the same ideological family. This is what is happening now.

On the government response to security and justice: [The government’s actions on] security and justice give a clear impression of working under the inspiration of the principle of a double standard. From the case of Nessma TV to the recent sentencing of young activists on Facebook sentenced to seven years of prison by the trial court of Mahdia or the repression of the demonstration by unemployed young people on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, despite the ban, to the case of the newspaper “Atounisia”, or the aggression against the journalists Ben Hamida Soufiane and Zied Krichen and Professor Hamadi Redissi , or in the case of the national flag being insulted and defamed at Manouba, justice, every time, proved extremely harsh vis-à-vis the movement of intellectuals or artists of democratic and secular modernists and extremely soft or extremely slow, vis-à-vis the Islamists and Salafist movements of all sizes. All these events leave, objectively, the impression that the state is biased, which is a very bad sign. I’m not trying to judge intentions. They may be good. I describe a fact of opinion, an objective fact. It is true that the reaction of the interior minister, and Mr. Rached Ghannouchi, against the Salafists, tried to reassure the public. This is a good step. But we expect concrete action.

On the nature of the new constitution: Most important in our draft constitution is not about the nature of the regime. On this point, we must rely on the wisdom of the National Constituent Assembly. The real goal will be manifested through a declaration of human rights in the body of the constitution, then by the general principles of state organization which aim to ensure the neutrality of the administration, the separation of politics and religion, very strict control and management of public funds.


Independence day in Tunisia – reactions from around the web

Yesterday Tunisians celebrated their independence day. On a beautiful Spring day in the capital, thousands gathered to show their determination to further the gains they have made as a society – not just since independence from the French over 50 years ago, but from the uprising just 15 months ago.

The reactions across the web were plentiful. Although French media focused on the secularist rally in which thousands of Tunisians marched for a civil state, all reports talked about the increasing divisiveness in the country – pitting for the first time Tunisian citizens against Tunisian citizens. President Marzouki’s addressed this issue in a speech focused on national unity:

This festival is an opportunity for us all to rethink our relationships, to live with our differences and despite our differences…National unity cannot last if it is built on misunderstanding, hatred and division.”

Bidules blog criticized Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s speech for ignoring Tunisia’s history:

Despite differences of opinion and all that happened in the post-colonial era, Bourguiba, along with Farhat Hached, Hedi Chaker and others, played a very important role in the independence of Tunisia and the implementation establishment of a modern state and strong institutions. To forget this important day is unfair and smells of of ingratitude.

Reuters reports on the secular demonstration in downtown Tunis:

Carrying Tunisia’s red and white flag, several thousand protesters filled Bourguiba Avenue, a focal point of protests that ousted strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 last year and sparked the “Arab Spring” uprisings.

“We came in our thousands to say to those who want to change the course of the revolution that we will confront you,” said rights activist Jaber Ben Hasan, amid chants of “the people want a civil state”.

“We are here to bring victory to the civil state,” he said, referring to a state that was not governed by religious law.

Marianne reports ominously of a Tunisia divided in two as secularists demonstrated downtown while religious groups gathered by the thousands in a neighboring suburb:

And now, once again there were two Tunisias on Tuesday, March 20, for Independence Day. The beautiful, rebellious, feminine, youthful, draped in the national flag,with its bright red star as the eye in its cresent. She marched cheerfully down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the very place where she had made the revolution on January 14 that she refuses to see betrayed. And then there was another, the dark, the veiled, the bearded, not laughing, men on one side, women on the other, and nobody moves … frozen between the green flag from the Koran and the Salafist black standard. This one had gathered at the El Menzah Dome, a few miles from the center of Tunis, to proclaim the divine urgency to introduce Sharia law in the Constitution now being developed by the Assembly…

France’s Le Point gets reactions from Tunisians downtown:

“The Tunisian people are divided. If we continue like this, I would not use the term civil war, but … hatred among Tunisians that is emerging could complicate things. I do not want to put a blinders on, but the gap is growing. And if things do not move quickly, I fear that it will become more complicated,” laments Khaled Bouassida, dentist and member of the association Kolna Tunes.

This is a fear shared by Bassem. Proudly wearing his T-shirt which says  “Tolerant Tunisian,” the engineer of 29 years denounced “the attempt to divide the people.” “They want to create a war between Muslims and those they consider less Muslim. But the Tunisian people are diverse.” At his side, Hussam, an accountant, went further: “I am tolerant because I’m Arab and Muslim”

The President of the Association for Women and Dignity, Zahra Marrakchi, writing in Leaders is more optimistic following the day’s events:

Leaving the [Bourguiba] avenue, the protesters were still waving their flags, cars spread through the city in a concert of horns, waving flags. It was a wonderful event that took place without any accident or incident. No slogan called for hatred, exclusion or the use of force…It was a great day with a promises that there will be others.

Similarly inspired, French blogger, and longtime Tunisia resident, Benoit Delmas gives Tunisia an A+ for yesterday’s events:

The multitude of flags was proof that Tunisians do not want Salafist forces. A Republican atmosphere characterized this beautiful day. March 20, we commemorate independence. 56 years ago, France left Tunisia free to her fate. Today we whistled, shouted, smiled so that the country is a peaceful democracy. Tunisia, where veiled women stood alongside unveiled women in tolerance. Today, thousands of people demanded a Tunisia without Sharia. In peace, good humor, with conviction. Mabrouk.

Tunisia Live reports on the mixed feelings Tunisian’s have for their independence, and the increasingly common concern that Gulf countries and the United States are pulling the strings of the government:

Independence day brings mixed feelings for many Tunisians. While the day officially marked the end of the French colonial period, and the beginning of an era where Tunisia was recognized as a modern state, it also began an era of authoritarian rule. One political group was out distributing signs with photos of Tunisia’s first President and leader of the independence movement, Habib Bourguiba. “This is your worst nightmare,” the signs read.

Mohammed, a restaurant owner, said that even after Independence and the Tunisian Revolution he doesn’t feel like Tunisia is a truly independent country. “I don’t believe that Tunisia is really independent, before the Revolution I knew we were controlled by France. Now we are controlled by Qatar or America– I don’t really know and it does not matter, we are not really independent,” he said.

The question of divisiveness is a new and difficult question for many Tunisians. On the positive side, it is a symbol of a newfound pluralism. On the other hand, it has shown the dark side of Tunisia and exposed vast differences in opinion on important issues – including most importantly, religion. It’s a debate we will continue to hear a lot about in the coming months.