Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Tunisia ratifies its constitution

Tunisia ratified its new constitution earlier this week, a key demand of the 2011 revolution and a major step forward in the transitional process, writes Lassaad Ben Ahmed in Tunis

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Monday, 27 January 2014, was a historic day for Tunisia since it was the day on which the country’s new constitution was ratified after it had been approved by 200 votes in the constituent assembly. Of the 216 members present for the vote, four abstained and 12 voted against the new constitution.

With this new constitution, Tunisians are looking forward to the end of a past characterised by dictatorship, marginalisation and exclusion and towards a future in which all Tunisians will be able to live together in peace and security regardless of their various religious, political or ideological affiliations. 

The new constitution, which affirms the Islamic and Arab identity of the country and the spirit of openness to others and the rejection of violence, translates the desire among the majority of the Tunisian people to promote modern values and interaction with the world while safeguarding the components of national identity.

When compared to the country’s previous constitution, first introduced in 1959, the new Tunisian constitution innovates by creating a constitutional court, establishing constitutional oversight of the laws and legislation, guaranteeing the freedom of opinion and faith, establishing a system of checks and balances between the legislative, executive and judicial powers of the state, and guaranteeing freedom of expression and the press.

The last aspect is particularly significant given the restrictions that existed under the regime of ousted former president Zein Al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The new document also upholds the principle of equality between all citizens in terms of rights and duties, as well as the principle of gender equality. It incorporates provisions pertaining to human rights in the abstract sense and to how these are treated in international law. The new constitution retains the death penalty, but it introduces new safeguards regarding its use.

The new constitution also retains the first article of the old one, which states that Tunisia is a free and independent state, that Islam is its official religion and Arabic its official language, and that it has a republican system of government. The second article upholds the civil nature of the state, and these foundational articles cannot in future be amended.

Parties from across the political spectrum have been relieved to note that the country now has a charter that satisfies the overwhelming majority of Tunisians. This relief has been mixed with a rekindled spirit of optimism, all the more so now that Tunisia’s traditional partners – most notably the EU – have taken this occasion to renew their support for the country during its transitional process.

According to Mustafa Ben Jaafar, secretary-general of the Ettakatol Party and president of the constituent assembly, the key to the near unanimous approval of the new constitution was the consensus that had reigned in the Assembly. Ben Jaafar said that when differences had arisen in the ratification process, a “dialogue framework” had been created either within the Assembly itself or at the national level in order to find solutions satisfactory to all parties.

The drafting process brought to the fore various controversial issues, among them the application of Islamic Law, the status of women and gender equality, identity issues, questions regarding intellectual and creative freedoms, and religious freedoms including the right not to have a religion. Whenever such issues were brought into the dialogue framework, Ben Jaafar said, they were also discussed in the country’s media and civil society in order to ensure that consensus could be found and that the exchange of opinions was an enriching experience.

Once the final vote had been taken on the full text of the new constitution, Assembly members stood up and congratulated one another, shaking hands across political or ideological divides. Many members of the Assembly began to sing the national anthem, tears of joy in their eyes. It seemed as if the tensions of the last two years had finally vanished and Tunisia was well on the way towards a new period of peace and stability.

The drafting of a new constitution was a chief demand of the revolution that ousted the former president three years ago, and though this demand has now been met the tasks of the constituent assembly will continue. This body will continue to perform its legislative duties until a new parliament is elected, and one of the top items on its agenda will be to produce the electoral law that will establish the rules and procedures for the parliamentary elections.

Once those elections have been held, the interim phase will be complete and the focus will turn to the establishment of the permanent institutions of government.

For the time being, the current Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, has been charged with forming a new government in accordance with the country’s roadmap. The main mission of the new cabinet will be organise the forthcoming elections, and Jomaa was supposed to have submitted his proposals for these on Saturday, though in the event there have been delays.

Jomaa said last week that he had been under too much pressure to meet the Saturday deadline, especially with regard to the interior ministry portfolio which had been planned for Lotfi Ben Jeddou, also the current minister of the interior.

Jeddou is an independent and non-partisan figure, but the country’s opposition wants him to be dismissed from the government on the grounds that he allegedly had advance knowledge that the opposition figure Mohammed Al-Brahmi was targeted for assassination but did nothing to prevent it.

Al-Brahmi, a prominent left-wing activist and opposition leader, was assassinated on 25 July 2013. His assassination triggered a lengthy opposition campaign demanding the resignation of the then Ali Laarayedh government.

Jomaa has reiterated his confidence in his candidate for the interior portfolio. Jeddou, he has said, has demonstrated strong resolve in addressing the problem of terrorism in Tunisia and has made significant progress in the security domain. However, the opposition has also remained adamant in its demands that the current government must be replaced in full, arguing that the forthcoming elections need to be overseen by a thoroughly impartial and technocratic government.

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