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Opinion: Tunisia’s new constitution and the triumph of modern values | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Deputies of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly (NCA) with flags jubilate after the adoption of a new constitution on January 26, 2014, in Tunis. (AFP PHOTO / STR)

The ratification of Tunisia’s new constitution marks one of the most significant events to have taken place in the country’s recent history. In fact, this event is so significant that it has to be approached from more than one angle.

Analyzing the articles of the new constitution, it could be said that the modern view has triumphed over the traditional one.

Proponents of this modern vision strongly influenced the mindset governing the constitution-drafting process and won the heated debates that raged during this period. So the voice and values of modernity have the upper hand in Tunisia today. This is thanks to the visionary political elite who were able to promote their ideas and present a modern image of Tunisia at the National Constituent Assembly, despite this body being dominated by the Islamist Ennahda Movement.

How did this triumph of the modern vision demonstrate itself in the drafting of the constitution of the second republic in Tunisia?

It is not difficult to link the triumph of the modern vision with the decline in the features of theocracy. Even though the new constitution maintains Article I of the 1959 constitution—which establishes Islam as the official religion of the country—it shows an implicit commitment to the nature of the modern Tunisian state, inspired by the founder of the first republic, Habib Bourguiba. Furthermore, the reviews that dealt with the constitutional preamble and issue of freedoms in August 2012 and June 2013 combined to consolidate Tunisia’s move towards civil freedom. The new constitution criminalizes takfirism, enshrines freedom of conscience, recognizes human rights and preserves the political gains that have been made by Tunisian women. These are all clear signs that the modern elite has achieved a symbolic victory and laid the foundation stone for a Tunisian civil state.

On the other hand the conservative and Islamist elites failed to impose their ideology on the new constitution, something they fought to enforce. The draft constitution does not provide for the hegemony of religious authority, nor does it endorse the Islamist Shari’a law interpretation of relations between genders or public freedoms.

This triumph of modern values over traditional Islamist principles was neither easily secured nor spontaneous. It was the result of a long struggle and public debate, which was fed, to a large extent, by the series of crises that hit Tunisia’s ruling troika.

To explain the victory of the modern vision, we have to look at a number of issues, namely Tunisia’s own culture and the country’s long-standing ties to reformist views and modern values. Tunisia’s history is steeped in this, dating back to the time of Hayreddine Pasha and the 1857 Fundamental Pact which ensured equality among Tunisia’s Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Following on from that came Tahar Haddad’s famous book Our Women in the Shari’a and Society published in the 1930s, and in the 1950s Tunisians finally saw the establishment of a sovereign state based on a modern project and vision.

The end result is that these gradual modernizing steps have influenced both the Tunisian individual and society as a whole. Therefore, any success of Islamist movements in Tunisia will ultimately only be temporary and fleeting, as they represent a limited demographic.

In addition to the historical, cultural, and social elements, it seems that the failures of the Ennahda Movement’s rule—characterized by the emergence of the phenomenon of political assassinations, a deteriorating security situation and economic woes—have served to silence the voices of these Islamist hawks. During the first year of Ennahda rule, several voices emerged calling for the establishment of an Islamic state, and Tunisia’s mosques opened their doors to the convoys of extremist preachers whose ideology was completely removed from true Islam. The subsequent fading and disappearance of these voices was the result of Ennahda’s failures, or rather, incompetence. This led to Islamists being forced to offer compromises to the more moderate parties and organizations waiting on the sidelines and able to take advantage of the situation.

All in all, Tunisia’s historical national identity, the accumulated political, economic and security setbacks suffered by the Ennahda Movement, and the direct and indirect pressures from the international community have combined to present Tunisian society with a more moderate and liberal constitution that recognizes civil rights and values.