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.

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.

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.

Have Tunisian politicians skirted the issue of Sharia?

Short answer – not quite. But it certainly will not be secular.

The official government press agency, TAP, reports today that a consensus has been found on the issue of the preamble of the constitution. This is where many conservative/Islamist politicians (e.g., Sadok Chorou) have argued Sharia (Islamic) law should be enshrined in the preamble to the constitution.

The TAP press release quotes Ennahdha member Abdelmajid Najjar:

…the preamble will state four essential elements that will be the source of inspiration in writing the next constitution, namely “the system of Islamic values,” “the reformist andcivilizational heritage of the Tunisian people,” “the goals of the revolution,” and “high human values. “

This is a step further than the current constitution which states in article 1:

Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state. Its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic and its type of
government is the Republic.

Of course, it should be remembered, this is just the preamble. In Ennahdha’s draft constitution, Sharia is only mentioned by the time you get to article 10.

Ennahdha leader Rached Ghanouchi spoke about the constitution in an interview with Turkish newspaper, Zaman:

Noting that the new constitution will reflect the will of Tunisian people, al-Ghannushi said the constitution will strongly emphasize that Islam is not incompatible with democracy and modernity. He said all the members of parliament think that some values of Islam should be reflected in the constitution. Additionally, there is strong consensus among Tunisian parties that democracy, gender equality, human rights and plurality should be included in new constitution. Moreover, al-Ghannushi noted that the terms “secularism” and “laicism” will not be included in the constitution.

A democratic coup d’etat? Secularists debate the new Tunisian constitution

As debate over the new constitution begins in the Constituent Assembly, Tunisian secular activists are crying foul of attempts to introduce Islamic law in the new constitution. Ons Bouali writes in Nawaat:

After months of comedy, the masks are falling off. Ennahdha’s true colors have been revealed, abandoning the charade of “a civil party with Islamic references” and seeing its theocratic project go ahead successfully, all with our blessing. Without unfounded dramatizing or timidity as to the question of the compatibility of Islam and democracy, Proposing Charia as the “essential” source of law, coupled with criminalization of any damage to public order as constitutional principles, we are plunged into dark tunnel which we will inevitably fall into the trap of a religious dictatorship

She goes on to condemn the prospect of putting the question to voters in a referendum:

If the Constituent Assembly cannot reach a consensus, this article will be subject to a referendum. “Let the ballot boxes decide! Let the people choose! Long live democracy!” Nonsense. Submitting this article to a referendum will deeply divide Tunisia and will have irreversible consequences given the noxious atmosphere prevailing in the country. The question “For or against charia as an essential source of law” will be transformed in public opinion as “for or against Islam” when in reality the question is actually “for or against a religious dictatorship.” It’s all a question of interpretation and individual analysis. The lunacy of such a referendum rests in the invitation of a people to renounce their own sovereignty, putting it in the hands of religious men who because of their high religious authority will be impossible to “degage.”

The rest of the article is an interesting analysis and an insight into secularist thought in Tunisia.

Tunisia during Ramadan: A month of (political) reflection

The holy month of Ramadan tends to grind most daily activities to a halt in Tunisia. The work day is cut in half, and productivity plummets, especially so this year, as Ramadan coincides with the scorching Tunisian summer.

The night, however, is a different story. After breaking the fast – usually with family – Tunisians take to the streets, cafes, and public spaces to enjoy the cool evenings, listen to music, or chat with friends.

This year, evenings during Ramadan have also included public debates, political rallies, and meetings of civil society. On any given evening in Tunis, usually starting around 10 p.m., one can find Tunisians gathering to debate the future of the country. In many cases, these gatherings evoke previous political or social leaders from Tunisia’s history, such as early Tunisian poet Abou el Kacem el Chebbi or Saleh Ben Youssef. Political rallies tend to be more understated than usual, a reflection of a religious, rather than competitive, mentality.

On a recent evening in the Medina in Tunis, which begins to rouse itself around 9:30, I witnessed gatherings from all kinds of groups, the green parties of Tunisia were discussing climate change, while the center left party PDP was discussing their economic agenda. The Tahar Hadad Club had the the ambiance of a philosophy society  that was thinking about the big ideas Hadad himself contemplated. My Tunisian friends impressed on me the importance of Hadad in Tunisian society. Hadad was a Tunisian thinker from the early 20th century, who fought for women’s and worker’s rights, and against polygamy. Many credit him as the inspiration for the modern, secular society Habib Bourguiba installed in Tunisia upon independence from France. On Saturday, a local radio station broadcast a multi-hour debate on the pros and cons of a parliamentary versus presidential system and the importance of electing a constitutional assembly prior to installing a legitimate government.

In short, it is true that Tunisians remain frustrated at the pace of reform and of the usual cast of characters and issues that dominate the airwaves two months prior to the first free elections in the country’s history. But underneath the bluster, there is a society that is discussing, debating, persuading, and pushing for the ideas that will change this country. It is no surprise that in a country that has been at the vanguard of some of the most important thinkers in the Arab world that these debates are raging. The pace of change may be slow, but it is happening.

High School Civics or Conversations with Taxi Drivers

“Where are you from?” Taxi drivers never fail to ask as you hop into their car. And the question would never fail to be followed by “And what are you doing in Tunisia? Tourism?” and after a look in the mirror, a welcoming smile: “Do you like Tunisia?”

From Tunisia 2011

But since January 14, these conversations now include the follow-up question, “What kind of political system do you have in the US, presidential or parliamentarian?” or “which do you think is the best political system? I mean in an ideal world, what would it be?”

The recent decision by the Tunisian government to delay the election of the constituent assembly (to replace the interim government and form a new constitution) ensures that I will have at least 4 more months of fascinating discussions with taxi drivers, shoe shiners, friends and neighbors about the best system of representative government, conversations that usually have me trying to think back to 10th grade American history classes and what exactly John Stuart Mill meant in On Liberty.

Since the fall of the Ben Ali regime in January, one of the fundamental questions for Tunisians has been whether they should continue with the presidential model of government, choose a parliamentary system, or some sort of mix between the two.

While certain political questions remain very sensitive (the role of women or religion, for example), and thus not entirely open for discussion, the system of government is a question that is openly debated in cafes, on the “drive time” call in shows, and in just about every conversation I’ve had with Tunisians over the last 6 months.

On more than one occasion I’ve been told that all Tunisians want is some sort of alternation in power. The fact that Ben Ali hung on for 23 years is the biggest  problem many Tunisians, especially those who prospered under the regime, seem to have. This led to an unnecessarily abusive and corrupt system.

What is interesting, and surprising for me, given Western perceptions about the Arab Spring, is that so much of the hopes of Tunisians is based on the system of government, rather than the ideology of the government. Many people believe that having the proper structure and constitution – along with accountability and competence – will lead to the best outcomes for the country, regardless of the beliefs of any political party in charge.

In this respect, the debate here is often more along the lines of political theorists, like Locke or Rousseau describing the social contract, than it is about freedom, liberty or expression. This academic perspective in turn perpetuates debates that exclude the hard issues – such as what role women or religion have to play in society.

As I reflect on this, and my 10th grade history lessons, I realize that these were probably the same debates that allowed the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. The hard issues, such as the role of the federal government or the institution of slavery, were fudged or left for later, and difficult compromises were made. And while leaving these issues for later had serious consequences, it allowed the nation to coalesce around the common values of democracy, basic civil rights (if not for everyone), and above all, the rule of law.

As Tunisians continue their national public debate, and as various political parties try to steer the conversation in one direction or another, I will be looking to see if these debate ground rules hold, or if they will be high-jacked. In either case, the taxi cab civics debate will continue….