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Tunisia’s Constitution: The Battle for Islam and Democracy

After nearly two years since Ben Ali's ouster, En-Nahda's commitment to democratic principles remains unclear. While the party appears to defend certain core democratic institutions, its stance towards Salafism and women’s rights appears to push in a new direction.

As Tunisia drafts its new constitution, Tunisians and the international community are eager to see whether the country in the Maghreb will successfully establish the foundations of a democracy.

Following the elections for a National Constituent Assembly (NCA) on October 23, 2011, En-Nahda – a once banned Islamist party repeatedly claiming to be moderate and committed to the promotion of democracy – became the dominant power winning a plurality of seats. The remaining seats went to a collection of parties; two of them, the centrist Congress for the Republic (CPR) and the leftist Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties (Ettakatol), became part of a coalition with En-Nahda referred to as the Troika.

En-Nahda's claim to be moderate initially referred to a general defence of democratic principles such as free and fair elections, broad participation, the separation of powers, and the promotion of individual freedom. Its moderation has lately been questioned due to its ambiguous position vis-à-vis the democratic principle of individual freedom.

The New Constitution

The NCA's task is to draft Tunisia's new constitution and to establish the foundations for the country's democracy before legislative and presidential elections in June 2013. Having been repressed under former President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, the parties now in government are struggling to define Tunisia's democracy.

In the process of establishing a democracy many issues are at stake in Tunisia. These are most clearly illustrated by the debates surrounding the drafting of the new constitution which mainly revolve around the idea of creating an “Islamic democracy” – a democracy with space for Tunisia's religious identity.

Prior to the October 2011 elections, the introduction of Islamist politics into the democratic process had started as part of the reassertion of Tunisia's Muslim identity. Under Ben Ali, Islamist politics had mostly been excluded from the political arena on the grounds that it would push against democracy. Yet, what the revolution and En-Nahda's electoral results have highlighted is that Islamist politics must be recognised as forming part of the process of democratization. A democracy without space for Islamist politics would not seem credible in the Arab-Muslim world – even in the case of Tunisia which has often been hailed as one of the most modern and liberal countries in the region.

Beyond the reintroduction of Islamist politics into the political process, related issues remain to be determined. These include, among others, the relationship between religion and state, the scope for participation and representation, and the space for political opposition. These issues were not openly debated under Ben Ali's regime. As Tunisians discover that difference of opinion is wider than expected, a basis for pluralism has to be established in order to promote democratic principles while defending the Islamic identity of the nation.

The Salafists

One of the pressing issues that seem to challenge these debates is Salafism. It was not until after the revolution that Salafism clearly surfaced in Tunisia. Many Tunisians did not even know of its existence as the previous regime emphasised the unity of vision in Tunisia, and the moderation of its people. With the aim of promoting a more modern image of the country, Ben Ali curbed religious conservatism as men were banned from growing long beards, as well as women from wearing the niqab (full-face veil). This meant both an assault on individual freedom for those who wished to practice religion differently and the elimination of political opposition. While religious conservatives were often portrayed as a threat to order and security, it was often simply a justification for Ben Ali to undermine ideological opposition and maintain the status quo.

Today, Salafist presence is felt in mosques throughout the country and while they are relatively small in numbers — approximately 6,000 citizens — their demands are posing a challenge to the establishment of democracy in Tunisia. This is due to the fact that their requests are very conservative and not compatible with the basic principles of democracy. Notably, in March 2012, a group of Salafist preachers tried to incite violence against Jews thereby attacking the rights of religious minorities. Furthermore, while some Salafists are more tolerant than others, the fact that they all want to see Shari'a (Islamic law) enshrined in the constitution puts certain individual freedoms – notably gender equality – at risk.

This desire to introduce Shari'a is shared by some members of En-Nahda who have sought to propose Shari'a as a source of the constitution when the preamble was drafted in March 2012. In fact, En-Nahda's position towards Shari'a has been unclear and the leading party's position with regards to democracy and Salafists has been questioned. When preparing for the electoral campaign in 2011, En-Nahda had promised not to introduce Shari'a in the constitution. The other members of the Troika and seculars in general, as well as some of En-Nahda's constituents,  fear that some of the party's electoral promises are fading.

When the maintaining of Article 1 of the 1959 constitution was announced on March 26, 2012, most Tunisians were relieved. A vast majority of the population have considered the article, stating that Tunisia is a free, sovereign state “whose religion is Islam, language is Arabic, and regime is republic”, sufficient to confirm the country's Arab and Muslim identity. As such, a clear mention of Shari'a has been avoided while it remains unclear whether references to religious law will be mentioned elsewhere in the constitution. A large segment of Tunisian society (including secularists, En-Nahda constituents, and people from all social classes) believe that referring to Shari'a would undermine citizens' individual freedom and the pursuit of their own beliefs. Salafism, therefore, does not seem to be successfully threatening the establishment of democracy in this regard.

In May 2012, however, En-Nahda granted a license to Jabhat al-Islah, one of the main Salafist groups, allowing it to become an official political party. This could be interpreted as a way to buy back support from Salafists. For the first time, a Salafist group, openly rejecting popular sovereignty and advocating for the sovereignty of Islamic legislation, is participating in the political process. En-Nahda has generally allowed a variety of Salafist groups to express their political opposition within the social sphere providing they do not use violence. Nevertheless, it remains problematic to have a group which rejects a core democratic institution being eligible to participate in elections.

Women's Rights

Another issue testing the vision for democracy in Tunisia is women's rights. For long, Tunisia has been known for its promotion of women's rights, dubbed as one of the Arab world's most liberal nations. A Personal Status Code, promulgated only months after independence in 1956 under Tunisia's first President Habib Bourguiba, defined men and women as equal citizens, made polygamy illegal, established that divorce must be made on mutual consent, and ruled that other personal matters are treated with the aim of defending women’s rights.

En-Nahda has promised to defend the Personal Status Code, but divisions exist within the party. Souad Abderrahim, a member of the party, vociferously stands against a 1998 law that protects single mothers and their children, claiming that these women are a disgrace to Tunisia. Moreover, feminists and secular Tunisians have strongly criticised some of En-Nahda's positions on women's rights and thereby its commitment to the democratic principles of individual freedom and equality.

This was been further questioned when Article 28, which seemingly sees women as “complementary” to or “associates” of men, was passed with 12 votes against 8; nine of which came from En-Nahda. Shortly after the article was proposed, protestors took to the streets of Tunis demanding full and explicit equality between men and women in the constitution.

Analysts argue that Article 28 was misunderstood as it states nowhere in the text that women are “complementary” to men. However, the language of the article clearly departs from the conventional liberal understanding of individual freedoms. Its ambiguous formulation leaves room for doubts; while it may not go against the principle of equality of all citizens as enshrined in Article 22, or even undermine women's acquired rights since independence, it could make further emancipation harder. This would also be the case with inheritance laws which still largely favour men.

Democracy in Tunisia?

The issues of Salafism and women's rights serve to highlight that there are tensions regarding the establishment of a democratic order with space for Islamic values and pluralism in Tunisia.

Islam and democracy can be interpreted to mean different things: on the one hand, Salafists consider democracy anathema to Islamic traditions, while others believe that Islam and democracy are perfectly compatible. Among those who believe that Islam and democracy can exist harmonically, some secularists push for more liberal Western values such as complete female equality, exclusion of religious legislation from the constitution, and free speech. Meanwhile, other portions of Tunisian society — certain Islamist elements and even some secularists — emphasise religious values while at the same time promoting liberal laws. This last position seems to be the one taken by En-Nahda, which appears to defend basic democratic principles like free and fair elections, and broad participation without emphasising liberal individualism to the same extent.

Carving out space for Islamic traditions and values seems to be a positive way to go for a country that has experienced secular dictatorship for so long. However, in no way should this impede the advancement of individual human rights in a society struggling for democracy. Full gender equality is a must, and while the ultra-orthodox Salafist views may be allowed to exist as part of individuals' freedom to pursue their own lifestyles, a commitment to popular sovereignty on part of political parties remains a sine qua non condition for democracy.

With the hope that Tunisia is on the right path, the final shape of Tunisia's democracy will depend on various aspects like the pressure the Troika faces from Salafists, secularists, and within the coalition. Pressure is now increasing as the failure to release a draft of the constitution on time may further put the En-Nahda's democratic credentials and general competence into question. All of this is happening in the midst of a stagnating national economy, and a regional and international political order that is not always on the side of revolutionaries.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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