New Tunisian constitution ‘turning point’ for Islamist movements

Article Summary
The ratification of constitutional articles calling for freedom of conscience in Tunisia, with the support of the Islamist Ennahda Party, leaves one hopeful about the future.

From Tunisia comes a glimmer of hope in the dark Arab Spring tunnel. As Tunisia prepares to commemorate the third anniversary of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s departure — and amid the political crisis, the economic downturn, the security vacuum, and the rise of Salafist groups — the majority’s vote on the draft constitution is unprecedented in the Arab world and in Tunisia itself.

The new constitution may be better than Bourguiba’s constitution, which was a “revolutionary breakthrough” for separating state and religion. The latest draft constitution, some of whose provisions are still under discussion, is a major accomplishment, given the dominance of religion on politics and society.

The constitution’s second article, which among others cannot be amended, stipulates that Tunisia is a civil state based on citizenship and the rule of law. That settles the debate once and for all regarding making Sharia the only source or one of the sources of legislation. Article 2 turns the page over a long debate and a deep fear that Tunisians, especially Tunisian women, may lose their gains.

The concept of citizenship was consecrated in granting women rights and duties that are equal to those of men, thus banning any discrimination against women. Before that, Ennahda MPs had proposed making the woman “complementary to man,” which threatened the gains made by women in the family and personal status laws and after decades of moral equality enjoyed by Tunisian women since the time of Bourguiba.

But feminists weren’t satisfied with “equality before the law.” They demanded equality in personal and family life. What has been achieved thus far is true progress, which was not even on the horizon less than a year ago.

The most important article ratified in the new constitution is the one about “freedom of conscience.” It allows individuals to profess any religion, or even “no religion,” and practice their beliefs without being deemed apostates. Granting individuals the freedom to choose their own paths prevents anyone from declaring himself a judge on society and a guardian for its intentions. Or at least, it makes such a move very difficult.

Tunisia has seen such extremist figures appear over the past two years. Ennahda, and its leader Rachid Ghannouchi, justified attacks and violent acts by extremists, sometimes under the pretext of “reckless youth enthusiasm” and at other times for being powerless in controlling “unruly elements.”

Freedom of conscience is not limited to religious beliefs. It also safeguards freedom of political, intellectual and ideological affiliation, and freedom of opinion away from accusations of apostasy and incitement to violence.

That is another gain achieved by leftist lobbies, which used the assassinations by extremists of MP Mohammad Brahmi, and activist Chokri Belaid before him, to push their agenda.

The struggle by leftist and secular pressure groups is not surprising. They have long struggled for working people and hold a deep-seated human rights and civic culture. What’s happening today is but the logical result of that long struggle.

The slogan “Islam is the solution,” which was raised by Islamic organizations as an alternative to the previous regime’s “secular” slogan, never appealed to those Tunisians who practice their religion (or don’t practice it) out of self-motivation. They voted for Ennahda only as a means to oppose the remnants of Ben Ali’s regime and because the non-Islamic forces were fragmented.

But what’s surprising is that the freedom of conscience article was ratified by a parliament where Ennahda has the majority. Ennahda, like other Islamist parties, is supposed to be seeking an Islamic state governed by Sharia. So why did Ennahda deputies approve articles (some of which cannot be amended) in contradiction to their party’s most basic principles?

It is easy to say that Ennahda’s failure in running the affairs of the country, its lack of experience in institutional work and the popular opposition that arose against it forced the party to acknowledge its powerlessness and embrace realpolitik. Perhaps the lessons learned from the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt affected what happened in Tunisia. Perhaps it was a move to prevent the return of military rule, however unlikely. Or perhaps, the rise of Islamist forces in Syria and them taking control of the popular revolution has put the forces of political Islam everywhere under the local and international microscope.

Without minimizing the effort done by the civil and secular opposition, it remains that Ennahda was the one that ratified the draft constitution while the party had all the means to prevent its birth. That is an additional indicator of the Islamic parties’ pragmatism. Those parties make a few concessions in return for a share in the power. That Ennahda has so far not chosen to return to secret opposition work and has accepted to play by the rules of the game according to the constitution, leaves one hopeful about the future.

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Found in: tunisian women, tunisian politics, tunisian opposition, tunisian islamists, tunisian constitution, ennahdha party, constitutional reform
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