Tunisia's new constitution

The pain and joy of giving birth

It took the political parties in Tunisia two years to agree on the country's draft constitution, which was adopted on Sunday, 26 January. The resulting document, however, is as contradictory as Tunisian society itself. By Sarah Mersch

The exhaustion on the faces of Tunisian parliamentarians is plain to see. "It's like giving birth: painful, but in the end everyone is happy when the child is safely delivered," says Mehrezia Laabidi, a member of Tunisia's Islamist political party Ennahda.

As deputy chair of Tunisia's constituent assembly, she headed numerous plenary sessions over a period of several weeks, often having to raise her voice to restore order when the debate about the country's future constitution became too heated among the approximately 200 members of the assembly. After the postponement of the original vote, which was scheduled for Saturday, the National Assembly finally voted on the proposed constitution on Sunday, 26 January. The requisite two-thirds majority was reached, and the constitution thereby adopted.

There is no denying that Tunisia's new constitution has had a very tumultuous birth, marked by bitter debates about religion, women's rights and the independence of the judiciary. The tension between the members of the assembly was palpable. But in the end, the conservatives and liberals managed to reconcile their differences, partly thanks to the conservative majority giving in on some issues. This consensus, however, has also resulted in contradictions in the text.

Mehrezia Laabidi (photo: DW/S. Mersch)
The sessions during which the draft constitution was debated were often so turbulent that Mehrezia Laabidi, deputy chair of the constituent assembly, was frequently left hoarse by having to call for order in the chamber

Religion as a bone of contention

One of the key bones of contention throughout the process was the role of religion in modern Tunisia. While the preamble and Article 1 of the constitution mention Islam without defining its national significance, other passages are more definite. Article 6, which was initially rejected and then approved following several alterations, guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of thought but also states that the government protects all that is "holy".

For Amira Yahyaoui, president of Al Bawsala, an NGO devoted to monitoring local politics, this is the perfect example of the overall contradictory nature of the new constitution. "Religious freedom and the protection of the holy don't go together," she says. Another controversial point is that the text stipulates that the future president of the republic has to be Muslim.

"This is a schizophrenic text that includes statements and opposing statements in order to please everybody," says Salwa Hamrouni, an expert in constitutional law, adding that the constitution will present a real challenge to the judges of the future constitutional court.

Progress on women's rights

Apart from the role of religion, Tunisians are anxious to see how the topic of gender equality will be played out in the light of the new constitution. There were fears that the new constitution would be a setback for Tunisian women, who were granted many rights in 1956 shortly after Tunisia achieved independence from France, including the right to vote and the right to file for divorce. At the time, only Islamic inheritance rights, which grant sons a larger proportion of a legacy than daughters, were retained.

Despite repeated assurances by the Ennahda-led coalition that women's rights would not be diminished, doubts remain. Articles 20 and 45 of the new constitution can be seen as progressive in this area. They not only grant men and women equal status, but also guarantee equal opportunities in politics by stipulating that a certain number of seats in city and district governments must be given to women. The adoption of these articles prompted jubilation among many parliamentarians, some of whom broke into a spontaneous rendition of the national anthem.

However, women's rights campaigners fear that other articles in the constitution will be misused for the purpose of limiting the newly won freedoms. For example, they warn that the "holy right to life" could be used to combat abortion.

Tunisian parliamentarians in discussions (photo: DW/S. Mersch)
Progress through compromise: although the draft constitution has now been adopted, the reaction to the text was somewhat subdued because both sides had to make painful concessions

Lukewarm reaction

The uprisings that took place in Tunisia three years ago are reflected in the new constitution. The country's poorer, rural regions will be empowered, and the division of power among the president and prime minister are defined in a way that aims to prevent an autocratic takeover of power. Moreover, a newly formed constitutional court is to monitor the legitimacy of future laws.

But despite these measures, the response to the final draft, which is as polarised as Tunisian society itself, has been lukewarm. Both sides have been forced to make painful concessions.

Karima Souid, a member of the left-leaning Al-Massar (Social Democratic Path) party points out that young people, who were the driving force behind the protests three years ago, have been marginalised. "Having to fight for the rights of women and young people in this day and age isn't normal; we should be able to take these rights for granted," she says. "It shows that we don't all pursue the same social model." Souid hopes that the future parliament will improve the current text.

Tunisia's next parliament, just like its next president, is to be elected sometime later this year. Prime Minister Ali Larayedh (Ennahda) announced his resignation in early January in order to put an end to the country's escalating political crisis, triggered by the murder of two opposition politicians. A transitional government under the leadership of former industry minister Mehdi Jomaa is due to get down to business within a week. This new government will also include a number of independent experts.

Sarah Mersch

© Deutsche Welle 2014

Editor: Gregg Benzow/dw.de and Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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