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The best and worst of Tunisia’s new constitution

Friday 21 February 2014, by siawi3


The elected representatives in Tunisia took two years, three months and three days to complete the drafting of the new constitution. From Oct. 23, 2011, when the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) was elected, until Jan. 26, 2014, the constitution was being written word by word, article by article. This occurred under the watchful eyes of observers and civil society, under the spotlight of the media and commentators and sometimes under pressure from the street and the echoes of public opinion.

Author Posted January 29, 2014

Translator(s)Sahar Ghoussoub

Original Article Lire l’original en français

The constitution was finally adopted in its entirety on Jan. 26, 2014, marking a historic event in the process of democratic transition. But, the drafting of this constitution has not always been easy and the NCA plenary sessions have not always been smooth. There were clashes, tears, fits of laughter, sleepiness, restlessness, compliments and insults. In short, the NCA has seen it all. On Jan. 14, 2012, the process of drafting the articles of the constitution was kicked off. During committee meetings and plenary sessions, articles succeeded one another, giving birth on Dec. 14, 2012, to the first draft of the new constitution.

Then, on Jan. 3, 2013, the discussion of each article of the constitution started. On April 22, 2013, a second draft of the constitution was introduced. A third one followed shortly after, on June 1, 2013. The works of the NCA have certainly experienced many key developments. But, the most painful remains the assassination of Mohammed Brahmi, general coordinator of the Popular Movement and member of the National Constituent Assembly, on the 56th anniversary of the republic’s declaration, on July 25, 2013. This assassination had a great impact on the security situation in the country and led Mustafa Ben Jaafar, the NCA President, to suspend on Aug. 6, 2013, the NCA’s work, awaiting the start of the national dialogue. The NCA resumed its work on Sept. 12, 2013.

It is worth mentioning that members of the NCA witnessed moments of great anger, disagreements and tension. The clash between Mongi Rahoui, representative of the Democratic Patriots’ Movement, and Sahbi Atig, president of Ennahda’s group in the NCA, was a prime example of the turmoil witnessed by the NCA. As a result, the plenary session, which was held on Friday April 19, 2013, was adjourned. After that, both representatives continued throwing insults at each other. Some recorded excerpts speak of uttering insults and accusations that were just too low. Another clash worth recalling occurred on Dec. 27, 2013. Jamel Bouajaja, a member of Ennahda’s group in the NCA, said while brandishing a copy of the Quran, “Some people feel uncomfortable towards this book today. Yet it is the people’s choice to be governed under legitimacy and Sharia law.†Bouajaja’s remarks obviously displeased some NCA members and created a commotion. Rahoui, member of the Popular Front, then said, “The Quran is the book of all Tunisians and it is not property of Ennahda.â€

The scope of the constitution articles itself was the source of stormy discussions and intellectual tug-of-war between different ideologies and political affiliations. The first article, for example, was at the heart of a great debate about the relation between the state, religion and language, which is a matter of identity par excellence. Article 6, which stipulates, “The state protects religion, guarantees freedom of belief, conscience and religious practices, protects sanctities, and ensures the neutrality of mosques and places of worship,†also created controversy.

Let us recall that this article sparked an argument between Azed Badi and Iyed Dahmani. This same article was behind the dispute between Mongi Rahoui and Habib Ellouze on Jan. 5, 2014. The latter questioned the religious faith of his colleague. Rahoui responded saying that these claims resulted in serious death threats being made against him and his family.

Rahoui proclaimed his faith in Islam in a brief, overwhelming speech that brought tears to the eyes of some of the members attending the session.

It should also be noted that, on Jan. 23, Brahim Gassas had a nervous breakdown because of the very same article. He had gone so far as to “declare war on the enemies of Islam†in a scene that will go down tragically in history.

In regard to Article 21, concerning the abolition of the death penalty, it is worth recalling that the right to life is sacred and it cannot be encroached upon, except for extreme cases established by law. This article is closely linked to the practice of abortion. However, differences between members emerged during the plenary sessions, because of universal human considerations and Islamic recommendations.

Another example of a controversial article is Article 33, concerning parity in representation of women in elected assemblies. In this context, we all remember the violent clash between two women, MP Karima Souid and the assembly’s Vice-President Meheriza Labidi.

Furthermore, Article 38 of the constitution is also “problematic.†The article talked about constitutionalizing the Arabization of education. Again, the debate was heated between those who advocate the preservation of the Arab-Muslim identity and those who denounce an insistence on only teaching Arabic as an intellectual autism.

In spite of all the disputes and clashes, the NCA deliberations to draft a new constitution continued, marked by occasional friendly and humorous interactions between the participants.

We all remember little Lina, the newborn baby of elected member of Ennahda, Jawhara Ettis, who brought the baby stroller to the corridors of the NCA — the baby at the time was only a few days old. The video of the deputy pushing the stroller backstage of the NCA did not go unnoticed.

For her part, the representative of the Congress for the Republic Party (CPR), member of parliament Mabrouka Mbarek stood out on Jan 3, when she gave a speech about the musicality and rhythm of the national “clear off†slogan, with her famous humming “pampam.†For his part, Ben Jaafar responded, while repeating the word “pop-up.â€

The best was yet to come. On the evening of Jan. 26, the entire constitution was approved. The atmosphere was very warm and friendly, as everyone was hugging and congratulating one another on the new constitution. Elected members of parliament put aside their disagreements in order to experience a moment of unity and solidarity.

All Tunisians are brothers and friends. This was the message they wanted to convey through their smiles, laughter, congratulations, and cheerful singing.

Even Mongi Rahoui and Habib Ellouze reconciled and embraced each other, under delighted eyes, cries of victory and applause.

It was a beautiful scene, reflecting Tunisian society in its diversity and its unity, but most importantly in its “unique Tunisian identity.â€