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After three years of turmoil, Tunisia has the Arab world’s most progressive constitution

Arab Spring: Tunisians push for democracy. marcovdz

Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly (NCA) has approved a new constitution which marks a milestone in the country’s democratic transition. With 200 votes in favour out of a possible 216, and with only four votes against, the constitution represents both a reassuring consensus among the political elites and an important demonstration that they recognise the crucial importance of making political compromises in managing pluralist systems.

In this they have so far proved to be unique among the Arab Spring countries, although the path to this point has been by no means trouble-free. The NCA was formed following Tunisia’s first free and fair elections in October 2011 with a mandate to draft a new constitution and electoral law which would pave the way for a new democratic political system.

As in Egypt, Tunisia’s first elections produced a victory for the Islamists, but when Tunisia’s Ennahda party won just 40% of the popular vote it chose to form a coalition with secularist liberal parties rather than like-minded conservatives in a demonstration of its commitments to both national unity and a democratic state as opposed to a state based on sharia law.

In the absence of a powerful and interventionist military to take sides, and with no party able to mobilise a clear majority of popular support, the three parties in the Tunisian government – the Troika – have been forced to negotiate their way through their political differences, at times in spite of the strident public behaviour of their respective popular supporters.

Growing pains

Of course, it was never quite that simple. Ennahda found it difficult to resist the temptation to use its dominant position to influence government policy and institutions in favour of a religiously-oriented agenda. And as it sought to contain its own right wing, not to mention a newly emergent and somewhat uncivil salafist activism, it all too frequently turned a blind eye to Islamist excesses such as the persecution of journalists and liberal artists and attempts to impose gender segregation within university campuses by force. There were also attacks by armed gangs against the offices and staff of trades unions and the leftist opposition parties.

Appointees used the judicial system, the media regulatory body and the education ministry to begin silencing critics and reformulating official expressions of the national identity. Not surprisingly, these apparent reversals of Ennahda’s electoral promises to promote the values and institutions of democratic government and to protect the progressive achievements of previous years – especially regarding the status of women – served to unite and mobilise the previously fragmented secular opposition, as well as many within the Troika itself.

Large-scale popular protests kept the pressure on secularist members of the NCA to resist any efforts by Ennahda to embed such incursions on civil freedoms within the constitution. The drafting process was bedevilled by the debate over whether, and in what ways, the Muslim identity of the vast majority of citizens should or should not be allowed to shape the political system and structures. Early efforts by Ennahda to include references to sharia as a primary source of law, to define womens’ status as complementary to (rather than absolutely equal to) that of men, and to outlaw blasphemy (or attacks on an ill-defined notion of “sacred”) were bitterly rejected. This was a feature of politics both on the streets and within the NCA – even as the religious right was arguing that the proposed articles did not go far enough in establishing Tunisia as a new Islamic state.

Things came to a head last year. The assassinations of two leading leftist opposition politicians, reportedly by an extremist Islamist group, united the secularists around an agenda which drew from the military-secular alliance against the Muslim Brotherhood rulers in Cairo. When the military there intervened in a coup to remove the Islamist Mohammed Morsi from power, a large portion of the Tunisian population demanded a similar expulsion of Ennahda from government. A national strike was called and the NCA itself was suspended.

Even many of those who had voted for Ennahda in 2011 were now disenchanted with the latter’s failures to sustain the political momentum for transition and the resulting decline into severe economic crisis. Things were getting worse, not better, and Tunisians wanted a return to the national unity needed to make political and economic progress.

Popular protests ensured a secular state. Nasser Nouri

To add to Ennahda’s worries, Islamist militants were spilling over from Mali and neighbouring Algeria, forcing a military campaign to secure the western borders and to outlaw the more radical Islamist groups which supported the militants. Having decided in favour of national security and unity over the regional Islamist project, Ennahda had little choice in the end but to surrender power to a new national unity government in the late autumn of 2013. Progress on a revised draft of the constitution was resumed, with pressure from all sides for speedy results.

Flaws and compromises

Not surprisingly then, the constitution itself still has flaws and ambiguities which result from the urgency with which compromises have had to be made. The political system is a half-way house between parliamentary and presidential precedence. Islam features heavily in the preamble and attacks on the sacred remain prohibited. But the fundamentals are good. Sovereignty lies specifically and absolutely with the people. The state will be a civil state, with an extensive and impressive list of freedoms, rights and protections for all citizens. Female citizens are the legal equals of men, and freedoms of worship, belief and non-belief are protected (with the charge of apostasy being specifically prohibited). It is, in substance, the most progressive constitution in the Arab region and holds its own against most around the globe.

One can argue about whether Ennahda has exhibited a political maturity and genuine democratic commitment in making the list of compromises it has – and it has come a great deal further towards the secular parties than distance has been travelled in the other direction. Alternatively, a cynic might suggest it has simply sought to avoid the mistakes of hubris made by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Ennahda has lived to fight another day – and in the next elections. The truth is probably somewhere in between. It can also be said that the secular parties, both those in government and opposition, have not sought to impose a final humiliation or exclusion on the Islamist party (even supposing that had been possible), but rather have recognised that Islamists too must be included in the country’s political future if pluralist politics are to truly embed.

The path is now clear for a new electoral law to be approved. The presidential decrees which formed the institutional and legal framework for the 2011 elections, and the lessons learned those elections, mean this is not entirely new ground and should be more straightforward than devising a constitution. There will probably still be wrangling over important questions such as the rules around party financing, the drawing of constituencies boundaries and judicial review process. But Tunisia has taken a massive step forward in consolidating its democratic transition. It may have taken three years instead of one, but it would seem to have been time worth taking.

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