Tunisia finally passes constitution

TUNIS, Tunisia — After decades of dictatorship and two years of arguments and compromises, Tunisians received a new constitution  Sunday laying the foundations for a new democracy.

The document is groundbreaking as one of the most progressive constitutions in the Arab world — and for the fact that it exists. It passed late Sunday by a 200-16 vote in the Muslim Mediterranean country.

Assembly Speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar:

“This constitutions, without being perfect, is one of consensus. We had today a new rendezvous with history to build a democracy founded on rights and equality.”

The constitutions enshrining freedom of religion and women’s rights took two years to complete. During that period, the country was battered by high unemployment, protests, terrorist attacks, political assassinations and politicians who seemed more interested in posturing than finishing the charter.

In the same time, Egypt wrote two constitutions and went through a military coup against an elected government. Egypt’s charters were quickly drafted by appointed committees and involved public debate or input. In Tunisia, an elected assembly of Tunisian Islamists, leftists and liberals worked on a detailed roadmap for their political future.

Tunisians hope its care in drafting the constitution makes a difference in returning stability to the country and reassuring investors and allies such as the U.S.

The new constitution sets out to make the North African country of 11 million people a democracy, with a civil state whose laws are not based on Islamic law, unlike many other Arab constitutions. An entire chapter of the document, some 28 articles, is dedicated to protecting citizens’ rights, including protection from torture, the right to due process, and freedom of worship. It guarantees equality between men and women before the law and the state commits itself to protecting women’s rights.

Tunisia has always had the most progressive legislation on women’s rights in the Arab world.

One of the most hotly debated articles guarantees “freedom of belief and conscience,” which would permit atheism and the practice of non-Abrahamic religions frowned upon in other Islamist countries. It also bans incitement to violence and declaring a Muslim an apostate – a fallen Muslim – which leaves them open to death threats. In response, conservative law makers insisted that “attacks on the sacred” be forbidden, which many see as a threat to freedom of expression.

Since the revolution, there has been a rise in convictions for so-called attacks on religion, especially by artists. A Tunisian cartoonist is in the second year of a seven-year sentence for posting cartoons insulting to the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook.

The completion of the constitution is also a tribute to the assembly’s disparate parties to come to compromise and negotiate to reach a consensus.

The moderate Islamist party Ennahda, which holds more than 40 percent of the seats in the assembly, backed down on putting a number of religious-inspired measures into the constitution in the fact of wide opposition.

At times, the constitution looked like it would never get written, with numerous walkouts by different parties and at one point a complete suspension of its activities in the wake of the assassination of a left-wing deputy in July.

In the end, Ennahda made concessions to the opposition and stepped down in favor of caretaker government to manage the rest of the transition, allowing the constitution to be completed.

The willingnessof Ennahda to negotiate stood in sharp contrast to the more overbearing approach of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which had a more dominant position in the elected parliament and held the presidency. It ran roughshod over the demands of the opposition, citing its electoral successes.

Source: AP, via USA Today

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