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Originally published Friday, September 7, 2012 at 4:08 AM

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Tunisia designs its democracy, painfully

Tunisia dived into a fierce debate this week over a document that could be an example for the changing Arab world: a long-awaited constitution that will lay out what women are free to do, Islam's role in society and art, and how to share political power after decades of dictatorship.

Associated Press

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TUNIS, Tunisia —

Tunisia dived into a fierce debate this week over a document that could be an example for the changing Arab world: a long-awaited constitution that will lay out what women are free to do, Islam's role in society and art, and how to share political power after decades of dictatorship.

Differences over how to word the document are already threatening to tear apart the ruling alliance of secular and religious parties that hold Tunisia precariously together, a year and a half after it started the pro-democracy wave of uprisings across the Middle East known as the Arab Spring. Tunisia's experience will be closely watched by the rest of the region.

Amid recent unrest by disgruntled jobless protesters and violent youths pushing their ultraconservative form of Islam, the assembly that was elected last year to run Tunisia and create the constitution reconvened this week.

The charter will have to be approved by two-thirds of the assembly before elections next March or, failing that, a popular referendum. There are already disputes over the status of women, whether power resides with the president or prime minister and the role of blasphemy.

After Tunisians overthrew their long-ruling dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, they overwhelmingly voted for a moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, giving it more than 40 percent of seats in the assembly.

Ennahda, allied with two secular, left-wing parties, has struggled to get the economy on track, cacreate jobs and keep the peace.

During the holy month of Ramadan, in July and August, gangs of ultraconservative Salafis attacked several artistic festivals for being impious. A visiting French parliamentarian of Tunisian origin was beaten by a gang who objected to his wife and daughter's skimpy summer clothes.

The latest threat to the ruling party, however, has come from within its coalition, from President Moncef Marzouki, a long-time human rights activist from the leftist Congress for the Republic.

At the opening of the annual conference for his party on Aug. 24, an associate read out a statement from Marzouki that slammed Ennahda for monopolizing power.

"There is rising sentiment that our brothers in Ennahda are trying to dominate all the political and administrative levers of the state and place their followers in position of power, regardless of whether they are competent or not," he said. "These practices recall those of the past regime."

But there are parts of the old Tunisia that Marzouki and secular activists want to retain, particularly its progressive women's rights. Legislation passed after Tunisia won independence from France decades ago outlawed polygamy, gave women a say in divorce and mandated equality of the sexes. Women are prominent in medicine, government and the security forces.

Marzouki attacked draft language in the constitution that describes women as "complementary" to men, rather than equal. Many fear that might be an attempt roll back women's rights legislation.

Marzouki is also fiercely opposed to Ennahda's efforts to vest power in the prime minister, rather than an elected president.

The assembly will have to decide whether the president will be elected directly by the people, or be a more symbolic figure elected by parliament.

Many of the secular parties are hoping for a strong, elected presidency, since they don't believe they will be able to match Ennahda's strong grassroots movement and large presence in the parliament.

"Marzouki wants to rediscover his image as an activist and a man of principle," said Neziha Rejiba, an activist who left the Congress for the Republic out of disgust with Marzouki's alliance with the Islamists. "But it is too late for him, he's played his cards and Ennahda has truly buried him."

The other area expected to come under serious debate will be the balance between freedom of expression and respect for religion.

While freedom of expression is enshrined in the draft constitution, Article 3, along with others, criminalizes "attacks on the sacred."

Since the 2011 uprising, there have been several cases of people handed fines and jail time for art that has been deemed by judges insulting to Islam. Secular activists fear that the vague wording will have a chilling effect on media and art.

The recent case of Samir Fehri, a television producer arrested for alleged corruption, has also raised alarms over freedom of expression. Some believe he was in fact targeted for his satirical television show, Ellogique Essiyassi, which featured puppets parodying political figures along the lines of the 1980s British show "Spitting Image."

He turned himself into authorities last week after an arrest warrant was issued on charges of improper use of government funds in setting up a production company in the 1990s.

"Given the timing of these charges against Sami Fehri, we believe they are politically motivated," said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Ennahda's other coalition partner, the Ettakatol or Forum party of assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar, has largely stayed out of the spat. However, Ben Jaafar made it clear that the red lines for his party in any future constitution would be over women's equality and guaranteeing freedoms.

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Paul Schemm in Rabat contributed to this report.

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