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Tunisia's Constitution: A Model for Arab States?

By Henry D'Souza

Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, February 14, 2014


There are several reasons why Tunisia decided to modernize its constitution by following the Copenhagen criteria within the context of an Islamic state: respect for democracy, obeying the rule of law, human and minority rights, and a market economy.

Before the Muslim Brotherhood gained power in Egypt, the region looked to Turkey as a model for constitutional development.  Unfortunately, under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the country allegedly moved gradually away from moderation to dictatorship:  his Islamic moves included the imprisonment of several officers for allegedly trying to overthrow his government, the increasing use of a head scarf, and the use of the state institutions to enrich his supporters and his family.  By virtue of these actions, Turkey lost its leadership role.

Secondly, Tunisia witnessed in despair two political assassinations, those of Chokri Balaad, a left-wing politician and Mohamed Brahimi.  In the first case, the Islamic party Ennahda had to relinquish control of the foreign, interior and justice ministries to appease the opposition.  After the second one, Ennahda relinquished power.1   Fundamentalists in Tunisia were blamed for these murders and most Tunisians did not want to see the armed forces taking over power, as they did in Egypt.

Thirdly, Tunisia is the most westernized of the Arab states: it has compulsory education up to the age of 16, an economic model where services are much greater than manufacturing in the economy, and the rights of women were guaranteed by President Bourgiba’s constitution in the nineteen fifties.2   This explains why the President of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly Mustafa Ben Jaafar requested the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe to review the draft constitution on June 3, 2013. Ten experts had been assigned to the project.3   It was better for the Tunisians to approach the Europeans for advice rather than the other way round.  Had it been the other way, the EU would have been accused of being imperialists.

After two years of discussions among political groups the constitution was finally passed by 200 to 12, with 4 abstentions on January 26, 2014.  Just 3 months before this signing, a reporter concluded that the three main parties did not trust each other and that their divisions were deep. 

The main party Ennahda could have blocked the constitution since it controlled the government, but it stepped down, a sign of maturity.  Ennahda consisted of Islamists and various conservative Salafi groups.  The Centrists were secular and fragmented.  The Left was made up of small parties in the Popular Front under the leadership of CIETT, the Labor Union Federation.4 

Yet these groups, with disparate ideologies, came to a consensus, and with jubilation President Moncef Marzouki and the Head of the National Assembly signed the document into law. 

A caretaker cabinet of experienced technocrats was appointed with engineer Mehdi Jomaa as Premier, economist Hakim Ben Hammonda as Finance Minister, and former UN official Mongi Hamdi as the Foreign Minister.5   

Tunisia was tired of dictators who ruled for too long and changed the rules to suit themselves.  The father of the nation Habib Bourgiba ruled for 31 years and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was president for about 25 years.  Consequently, it was decided by Article 70 to split power between the President and Prime Minister and the former’s term was not to be more than two, consecutive or otherwise.  These terms could not be amended or increased, notes Oussama Romdhani.6 

Compromises tend to lead to contradictions.  Thus the constitution notes that Tunisia is a “sovereign state” whose “religion is Islam” but the “state is civil.”  Considerable effort was made to emphasize individual rights, the right of citizens to belong to religious minorities, the use foreign languages while promoting Arabic, and freedom of expression.  The state’s duty was to protect the sacred, a word which could be interpreted in several ways.  A constitutional court would decide on controversial issues.  Although the constitution says that “Allah is the Arbiter of success,” the document has deliberately left out sharia law.

Another Arab first was women’s rights and parity for women in elected bodies by Article 45.  The chamber burst into song. The national anthem was sung as this Article was passed.  However, women academics also wanted equality in the home which could not be guaranteed in the constitution.

As a few leaders had been refugees in Europe, Article 20 included the rights of refugees.  Should the flow of refugees change from a trickle to a flood, this welcoming clause might have to be amended.  Britain is seeking such a change in the European Union.7

Another, probably unique inclusion is the need for Tunisia to cope with climate change.  Arable land is just 17.3% of the country, the desert is expanding, and population explosion accounts for the annual per capita GDP being a meagre $10,000.  Protection of the environment is, therefore, an important clause in the constitution.

Economic development tends to be concentrated in the capital and a few cities.  To remedy this defect, a clause deals with decentralizing the distribution of wealth for development.  As in Europe, so in Tunisia youth unemployment is dangerously high for stability, at 24%.  The memory of the self-immolation of unemployed Mohammed Bouazizi and the subsequent regime change remains embedded in Tunisian minds.

It is creditable that Tunisians chose to give their constitution an Islamic flavour yet embracing dramatic changes like the Copenhagen criteria.  Tunisians realize that the country is less than 200 kilometers from the tip of Italy, and that their famous general Hannibal took elephants through the Pyrenees and Alps to conquer Rome.  Tunisians realize a geographical reality, too, that Africa ends with the Alps and that Europe ends with the Atlas Mountains.  Tunisians, therefore, see themselves with one foot in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and another in Europe.

A former foreign affairs spokesman for the Ennahda Party, and an ex-Foreign Minister of Tunisia Rafik Abdessalem felt that the constitution made Tunisia “a pioneer of Arab democracy.”8   Bissan al-Sheikh also felt, like many others, that the passing of the constitution was a “turning point for Islamic movements.”9

These views are not quite true as the trend-setter was Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk who decreed:

“My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth and the teachings of science. Superstition must go. Let them worship as they will, every man can follow his own conscience provided it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him act against the liberty of his fellow men.”

Western writers, too, joined in the euphoria.  Carlotta Gall of the New York Times felt that there was balance in the document.  Even the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon added his voice by saying that the document was a “historic milestone.”10   For Tunisia, it was, but not for the Islamic world.

Morsi’s doctrine of supporting Hamas and respecting the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty provided that Israel kept its share of the bargain did not go down well with Israel, US, and Saudi Arabia. 

Consequently, for Tunisia’s constitution to be appreciably potent, the government’s future actions should not collide with those of Western powers particularly, in this case, France, Britain and Israel.




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