Opinion | Columnists

Tunisia and the Arab Renaissance

Once the new constitution is adopted, the democratising process will end months of political crises that had plunged the nation into chronic instability

  • By Joseph A. Kechichian | Senior Writer
  • Published: 20:00 January 8, 2014
  • Gulf News

Notwithstanding disparaging comments about the Arab Spring, which honest analysts cannot dismiss, significant progress is under way in Tunisia where Tarek Al Tayyib Mohammad Bouazizi immolated himself on December 17, 2010, and, in so doing, awakened an entire nation. History will record that this desperate act changed the Arab world that, truth be told, frustrated critics who habitually concluded that Arabs were little more than sheep.

Few analysts displayed patience as the world witnessed and continues to observe how uprisings, or awakenings, transform ossified societies. Beyond the Arab Gulf states and Yemen, where important changes were under way, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria also experienced dramatic transformations, though none rivalled those in Tunisia. In fact, the latter embarked on an epochal Renaissance that will, like Bouazizi’s flames — no pun intended — usher in positive developments.

Because extremist groups won early elections in several modernising Arab countries, narrow assessments quickly concluded that ultra-conservative groups would rewrite constitutions, ostensibly to include Sharia as the ultimate source of legislation. In the case of Tunis, a constituent assembly was duly elected in October 2012 to prepare for the transition from Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali’s rule, led by the victorious Al Nahda Islamist party. To its credit, Al Nahda repeatedly declared that it would not back conservative calls to make Islamic law the main source of legislation, though it welcomed the assembly’s near unanimous assertion that Islam was recognised as the state religion while freedom of conscience was guaranteed.

By January 14, 2014, the third anniversary of Bin Ali’s ouster, Tunisian politicians will vote to adopt the country’s new constitution. Simultaneously, they will form a new government to replace the one headed by Prime Minister Ali Larayedh (of Al Nahda) who accepted the alternance principle. Mehdi Jomaa, an independent trade union official, was slated to succeed him, which further confirmed how the concept entered the political lexicon. Larayedh accepted this outcome provided a new constitution and electoral law were introduced and a commission was put in place to supervise elections in 2014. Naturally, he was also motivated by justified criticisms that Tunis failed to rein in Tunisia’s jihadists, though credit must also be given to Mouldi Jendoubi, the Secretary-General of the powerful UGTT trade union that mediated talks. Arbitration was finally agreed upon to brake the political deadlock that gripped Tunisia after Shukri Belaid and Mohammad Brahmi, two leading parliamentarians, were assassinated by suspected Islamists.

For three years, Tunisians endured serious challenges and witnessed cantankerous debates that led to several suspensions after leading members of parliament received death threats. Accusations of apostasy became the norm in public discourse, which led to violent social unrest that, in turn, seriously damaged Tunisia’s image. Still, deliberations continued over the document’s 146 articles that aimed to establish Tunisia as a “civil” republic based on the rule of law (Article 1), with Islam as its state religion (Article 2). Both articles were adopted though a slew of other modifications were suggested, including one that proposed that the Quran and the Prophet’s (PBUH) Sunna be considered “the principal sources of legislation,” which upped the ante.

Against raucous arguments, Al Nahda’s Sonia Bin Toumia countered with what defined the spirit of the assembly, when she declared: “Islam is a religion that guarantees freedom of religious practice to others.” Iyed Dahmani, a secularist parliamentarian chimed with his equally memorable assessments, which emphasised that “those opposed to freedom of conscience want to take us back to the dark periods in history when tribunals examined the beliefs of people”.

A few days ago, the constituent assembly crossed yet another hurdle when it enshrined gender equality in its draft that safeguarded the country’s relatively progressive laws on women’s rights. “All male and female citizens have the same rights and duties, [and] they are equal before the law without discrimination,” stated Article 20 of the text that was approved by 159 lawmakers out of the 169 who cast their votes. During the course of a year-long debate on the subject, gender “complementarity” finally became “equality,” which affirmed how Tunisia intended to move ahead. While human rights groups expressed their reservations, especially since existing regulations granted men various privileges over inheritance matters, the article on gender equality was revolutionary since the subject was taboo in conservative Arab societies. It will remain to be determined how existing discriminatory rules will change, though any bans on inequitable regulations cannot but advance a nation forward.

There were other positive provisions, including the approved article that guaranteed “freedom of opinion, thought, expression and information,” along with one that authorised the government to propose legislation that would ban torture and safeguard rights. That these discussions were carried out in a country that barely emerged from five decades of dictatorship was downright amazing.

Approving a new constitution will require a two-thirds majority of the assembly’s 217 members. Short of that, the document will have to be submitted to a referendum, though either outcome was nothing short of a gargantuan democratic milestone. When it is finally adopted, the democratising procedure will end months of political crises that plunged Tunis into chronic instability, even if Tunisians understood that the very process of regime change did not need to destroy their country or way of life.

Like most European nations that experienced similar prangs when they ushered in their “Renaissance,” Tunisians got the ball rolling, as they renewed Bouazizi’s vision for freedom into reality.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of the recently published Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia (London: Routledge, 2013).

Gulf News
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