Tunisia dived into a fierce debate last week over a document that could be an example for the changing Arab world: a long-awaited constitution that will lay out what women are free to do, Islam’s role in society and art, and how to share political power after decades of dictatorship.
Differences over how to word the document are already threatening to tear apart the ruling alliance of secular and religious parties that hold Tunisia precariously together, one-year-and-a-half after it started the pro-democracy wave of uprisings across the Middle East known as the Arab Spring. Tunisia’s experience will be closely watched by the rest of the region.
Amid recent unrest by disgruntled jobless protesters and violent youths pushing their ultraconservative form of Islam, the assembly that was elected last year to run Tunisia and create the constitution reconvened last week.
The charter will have to be approved by two-thirds of the assembly before elections next March or, failing that, a popular referendum. There are already disputes over the status of women, whether power resides with the president or prime minister and the role of blasphemy.
After Tunisians overthrew their long-ruling leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January last year, they overwhelmingly voted for a moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, giving it more than 40 percent of seats in the assembly.
Ennahda, allied with two secular, left-wing parties, has struggled to get the economy on track, create jobs and keep the peace.
During the holy month of Ramadan, in July and last month, gangs of ultraconservative Salafis attacked several artistic festivals for being impious. A visiting French parliamentarian of Tunisian origin was beaten by a gang who objected to his wife and daughter’s skimpy summer clothes.
However, the latest threat to the ruling party has come from within its coalition, from Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, a long-time human rights activist from the leftist Congress for the Republic Party.
At the opening of the annual conference for his party on Aug. 24, an associate read out a statement from Marzouki that slammed Ennahda for monopolizing power.
“There is rising sentiment that our brothers in Ennahda are trying to dominate all the political and administrative levers of the state and place their followers in position of power, regardless of whether they are competent or not,” he said. “These practices recall those of the past regime.”
However, there are parts of the old Tunisia that Marzouki and secular activists want to retain, particularly its progressive women’s rights. Legislation passed after Tunisia won independence from France decades ago outlawed polygamy, gave women a say in divorce and mandated equality of the sexes. Women are prominent in medicine, government and the security forces.
Marzouki attacked draft language in the constitution that describes women as “complementary” to men, rather than equal. Many fear that might be an attempt roll back women’s rights legislation.
Marzouki is also fiercely opposed to Ennahda’s efforts to vest power in the prime minister, rather than an elected president.
The assembly will have to decide whether the president will be elected directly by the people, or be a more symbolic figure elected by parliament.
Many of the secular parties are hoping for a strong, elected presidency, since they do not believe they will be able to match Ennahda’s strong grassroots movement and large presence in the parliament.