This week, Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly (NCA) is voting on a new constitution. Two-thirds of the articles have already passed, and the approval process should be done by next week.
Tunisia has become an oasis of optimism in an otherwise tumultuous region. Egypt recently approved a new constitution, but its drafting was hardly a process of consensus, never mind the fact that this is the country’s second constitution in just over a year. The referendum in Egypt was marred by boycotts and violent protests, which doesn’t bode well for this constitution’s shelf life. Meanwhile, Libya hasn’t even started drafting its constitution, Yemen continues to wade through “national dialogue,” and Syria remains engulfed in civil war.
Tunisia’s constitutional process wasn’t easy either and took more than one year longer than planned. Political gridlock and assassinations threatened to derail the entire process. But after a touch and go summer, the country’s various political leaders finally compromised. The result is a solid constitution that holds the center together and leaves a majority of the population feeling relieved and satisfied.
I sat down this week in New York to discuss the new constitution with Zied Mhirsi, a global health professional and one of the founders of Tunisia Live (TL) – an independent news organization born out of the 2011 revolution. Indeed, TL has become one of the leading sources of analysis in English about developments in Tunisia. Mhirsi worked with international news correspondents analyzing the post-revolution political situation in Tunisia, and has since become involved with the Nidaa Tounes political party, led by former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi. Nidaa Tounes is quickly becoming one of the major opposition forces to Rachid Ghannouchi’s Ennahda party.
Mhirsi credits much of the success of the constitution to Essebsi and Ghannouchi, “the two old wise men of Tunisia,” who put aside their differences in the name of consensus. Mhirsi remarked, “When it comes down to it, if [Essebsi and Ghannouchi] hadn’t put their weight behind the consensus we wouldn’t be where we are today.” Mhirsi also credits civil society broadly, and the powerful quartet of labor unions and human rights organizations (the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights; Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; General Labor Union; the National Association of Lawyers), for holding the government accountable, elevating the political debate, and resisting the temptation to slip into populism.
Mhirsi is generally positive about the constitution, and is most proud of Article 2 (which defines Tunisia as a civil state) and Article 45, which enshrines equal rights. Gender equality was one of the most contentious issues throughout the process, but women’s organizations held their ground and ensured that the new constitution granted important rights to women. “I give it an A for the Arab world,” Mhirsi said, after expressing disappointment that the constitution didn’t meet all his expectations. One of Mhirsi’s biggest disappointments was the lost opportunity to eliminate the death penalty. “It’s sad that people who faced the death penalty themselves voted for it,” he noted.
Not surprisingly, the role of religion was a significant point of contention and compromise in constitutional discussions. As a result, the constitution contains some important contradictions: it declares Islam as the state religion, but also defines Tunisia as “a civil state that is based on citizenship, the will of the people and the supremacy of law.”
Going forward, economic reform will remain a major issue in Tunisia. Mhirsi explained that since the revolution, politicians have focused on political rifts and identity disputes while neglecting to resolve many of the economic issues and inequality that brought Tunisians to the streets in 2011. Tunisia also needs to “win against terrorism in 2014″ to ensure stability, but the country’s security infrastructure is limited. The United States has provided minimal help, and Mhirsi urges the West to step up and support this fledgling democracy. In addition, Mhirsi expressed concern that although Tunisia’s adoption of a mixed presidential and parliamentary system might prevent the return of one-party rule, it could also be a source of instability.
Judicial reform is another major sticking point. Under Ben Ali, the judiciary served as an extension of the ruling party, with judges directly appointed by the executive. Article 103, passed earlier today, declares that judges will be appointed by the president under the new constitution as well, causing some to worry that the ruling party will continue to control the judiciary. Hundreds of Tunisians, many judges among them, have held protests outside the NCA, calling for the complete independence of the judicial branch. Tunisia’s broadcast media regulatory authority has also sounded the alarm that some articles in the constitution “represent a threat to the independence and neutrality” of the media.
Ultimately, as Mhirsi noted, the future of Tunisia will depend not on the text of the constitution, but on how it is interpreted and implemented. Still, with the passage of this constitution, Tunisia will be starting on firmer legal ground than any other Arab country.