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Tunisia: The Birth of the Second Republic - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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A copy of the new Tunisian Constitution lays on a parliament member's desk at the Constituent Assembly in Tunis on Monday, January 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

A copy of the new Tunisian Constitution lays on a parliament member’s desk at the Constituent Assembly in Tunis on Monday, January 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat—From 1978 onwards, January 26 in Tunisia has been imbued with significance as the day on which popular uprisings swept across the country. That year’s bloody confrontations between Tunisian security forces and angry mobs and labor unions resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people and left thousands more injured. But from this year onwards, January 26 will represent the birth of the Second Republic, as it is the date the new constitution was ratified. The ratification took place in the presence of Arab and international delegates, in what has been called “the Tunisian political miracle.”

Tunisia has long been distinguished by its strong, secular, liberal and Leftist elite. Governments and heads of state in Europe and the US have praised the peaceful transition of power in Tunisia, the state that sparked the Arab Spring three years ago. But over the past several months the North African state has experienced a variety of political and security crises. At the heart of some of these crises have been the confrontations between those elites and the new majority that emerged after the Islamist Ennahda Movement’s strong showing in the October 2011 elections.

But contrary to all expectations, these crises and confrontations did not result in the resurgence of the military, but rather in almost unanimous consent regarding the wording of the constitution between the various parties involved. In another surprise for observers, just over 92 percent of members of the National Constituent Assembly voted in favor of the constitution, which was passed in the last week of January.

With the ratification of the Constitution of the Second Republic—albeit without a popular referendum—has Tunisia finally emerged from the labyrinth? Or will new tensions boil over in the coming months, despite public declarations of agreement on the constitution and the formation of a “government of technocrats” to replace the troika led by Ali Laarayedh of Ennahda?

The minority of parliamentary representatives who objected to the final version of the new Tunisian constitution, as well as those who abstained, did not include any of the controversial leftist or Islamist leaders who have been in the spotlight over the past two years for their strong opposition to the new draft constitution.

Unlikely allies

Far-left parliamentarians, who for months had decried the draft constitution as a “constitution of Islam” in local and international news outlets, were among the most prominent supporters of the new basic law. Their support came after a series of amendments and compromises in the weeks preceding the ratification vote.

Despite a record of previous hostility, the moderate Leftist opposition also sided with Ennahda. Both the Republican Party and Al-Massar, formerly the Communist Party, had previously withdrawn from plenary sessions, citing the “predominance of political Islam among Ennahda’s activists and their allies,” resulting in a five-month paralysis of the National Constituent Assembly. During this time many observers began to speculate that a military intervention was in the pipeline.

But a marathon negotiating session forced mutual political concessions and brought the insurrectionists back to the table. This led to the collapse of the Tunisian National Salvation Front and the Tamarod movement, both inspired by and named after the pre-June 30 Egyptian opposition factions.

Even Ennahda’s hawkish former presidents, Sadok Chourou and Habib Ellouze, were among those who voted in favor of the constitution. The two also supported the party’s current president, Rachid Ghannouchi, despite their earlier accusations that he had caved in to special interests by taking a stance against adopting Islamic Shari’a and the criminalization of the denigration of Islam. But they joined other party hawks in labeling the new constitution as “stillborn” and “contrary to Islam.”

One Ennahda party member, Najib Mourad, voted against the final version of the constitution. As the representative of Monastir province, home of the late Habib Bourguiba, he has become known for his fiery comments condemning the “free concessions to communists, elements of the old regime, and secular extremists.”

Mourad has thus found himself aligned with the Popular Petition for Freedom, Justice and Development, led by Dr. Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi, who lives in London. Two years ago, this group criticized Ennahda and their representatives in the transitional parliament on religious grounds. Dr. Hamdi went so far as to liken Ennahda’s concessions to a Muslim giving up wudhu, the ritual washing before prayer.

A range of Salafist groups and the Islamic Liberation Party also leveled a similar criticism against Ennahda. They accused Ennahda of framing a constitution “devoid of Islamic ideological grounding” and claimed that the party had “relinquished the foundations of legitimacy.”

Ghannouchi replied to these accusations in a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat: “We are content with Article 1 of the 1959 constitution, which we adopt in the new constitution, because it clearly states that Tunisia is an independent nation whose religion is Islam, whose language is Arabic, and whose government is democratic. We do not want to divide Tunisia between those who simply want an Islamic identity for the nation, and those who call for the full adoption of Shari’a. The majority of politicians in Tunisia mistakenly consider Shari’a the objective of Islamic law, and call for a judiciary that cuts off the hands of thieves and skins adulterers.”

Meeting in the middle

Backing for the new constitution remains widespread. It should be noted that the hawks of Ennahda and their allies maintain that the new constitution is somewhat deficient in honoring our Islamic legacy, but do concede that there are many strong points.

A member of the Leftist leadership in the transitional parliament told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Tunisia’s ruling party, the opposition and independents have succeeded in ratifying a final draft, and have presented to all Arabs and the international community the first progressive constitution in the whole of the Arab world.”

He explained that the major breakthroughs in this process were the exclusion of references to Shari’a and the consensus reached on Article 6, which entrenches many of values present in the constitutions of most of the world’s developed nations. “These include freedom of conscience, which forbids the nation and any future governments from intruding on personal privacy, whether behavioral, ideological, or intellectual,” he said.

Mongi Rahoui, a representative of the far Left in the Constituent Assembly, said: “The new constitution is not without its shortcomings, but overall it is dedicated to the principles of democracy, freedom and inclusion.”

So the new constitution has many backers, but will the agreement forestall political conflict until the next presidential and parliamentary elections take place? Most politicians, journalists and independent writers think this is likely. Some say that help from abroad plays a significant role. Khaled Hudad, a writer for the Al Chourouk newspaper, says that the influence of foreign money in Tunisia and other Arab Spring nations has not been given enough attention, and he adds that several European ambassadors have played a role in pushing the various factions towards agreement, both on the constitution and on interim Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa’s technocratic government.

On the other hand, Mohsen Bin Abdullah, a writer and political analyst, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “foreign politicians will create new conflict within the political class, with the intention of aborting the peaceful transition process and influencing the coming elections.”

The differences between Tunisia’s political factions will remain despite the agreement and fund of goodwill built up by the passage of the new constitution. The leader of the Communist Workers’ Party, Hamma El-Hammami, has expressed that the ratification of the constitution “will not lead the opposition to give up its demands to increase accountability for the leaders of Ennahda and their allies.”

After opinion polls found that the Popular Front had won 10 percent of votes, Hammami appeared more optimistic. He said that the coming struggle would go in his constituents’ favor, claiming: “No party will rise above the Salvation Front; we have a wider scope and the fate of the nation is tied to us.”

Hammami went on to accuse the leaders of political Islam of fraud, and he pledged to fight them: “Islam is bigger than this deceit . . . they deal in Islam but do not defend it. They have failed on all fronts and are nothing more than religion-mongers.”

A ray of hope?

While the differences between the political parties remain stark in some cases, for now the government is headed by a group of independents led by Jomaa, as the result of an exhausting round of negotiations between Ennahda and its opponents. But will the constitutional vote and the technocratic government finally lead Tunisia out of the quagmire of political point-scoring that has plagued it for the past three years?

Dr. Kemal Gharbi, president of the Transitional Justice Network and a number of other civil society organizations, told Asharq Al-Awsat that he sympathized with hardliners on both the Right and Left and their disenchantment with some aspects of Tunisia’s political transition, but he personally felt “the path Tunisia is on is very promising overall.” He believed this process would culminate in a phase of “rational dialogue between ideological and political factions.”

He added: “I believe the constitutional and governmental path is at an end, and the elections will occur within nine months.” Dr. Gharbi said he considered the 1959 constitution to be an expression of “national agreement that was particular to that period of time . . . but it has since been tarnished by many amendments, and it has become impossible to adopt today.”

He added: “The new constitution was completed thanks to the transitional parliament’s inclusion of independents, experts and civil activists, especially with regard to the political, social and economic rights and rights to mobile communication that were not ensured in the previous constitution.”

In contrast, some experts such as Sadek Belaid and Amin Mahfoudh agree that “the risk [remains] of a new crisis exploding once the Constituent Assembly begins the drafting of the electoral law.” On the other hand, in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsatsecurity and legal expert Dr. Haykel Ben Mahfoudh presented all the criticisms of what he described as “fatal flaws in the constitution concerning good governance, the path to reforming nationalist security institutions and the army, the regulation of the relationship between the executive, legislative and judicial powers, the relationship between the head of state and the government, the contradictions between restricting the powers of the President of the Republic and parliament, and the chapter pertaining to the possibility of parliament overthrowing the president.”

Mahfoudh asked: “Why was good governance linked, confined and reduced to political rivalry, while it is the basis of reforming all other state institutions, including the military and security services, and the system of effectively administrating them so as to ensure the quality of all public facilities and good performance, first and foremost public security? Security is a service, before being a job.”

The road ahead

Assessments of the Constitution of the Second Republic and its implications for the future political landscape and parties vary. Moreover, opinion polls have confirmed that more than two-thirds of Tunisians were betting more on independents, experts and youth not belonging to political parties and ideological groups.

On this issue, Abdelfattah Mourou, a lawyer and member of the moderate Islamist current, said: “Approval of the Constitution, the independent government, and the Independent High Authority for Elections is a great, historic achievement. But it is imperfect because all parties, syndicates, and political factions need to undergo self-criticism and calmly reexamine their priorities. Then they must adopt a new strategy dedicated to true coexistence of all parts of Tunisian society, and announce a path to national reconciliation, because the past three years proved that no faction can be excluded, and that no party, whatever its strength, can run the country alone. Rather, coexistence between the minority and the majority is necessary.”

In this vein, Mahfoudh said: “The constitution contains important principles, but it must do more to enshrine laws and policies of compromise. A preface is needed announcing a national path to justice and reconciliation, whose adoption has been postponed because of the speculation from the ‘revolutionaries’ and some of the parties.”