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Finally a new Constitution for Tunisia, birthplace of Arab Spring (+video)

Tunisia overcame deep political divisions to draft a constitution that has majority support, while other countries in the region have slid into violence and political infighting.

By Correspondent / January 27, 2014

Members of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly celebrate the adoption of the new Constitution in Tunis, Tunisia, Jan. 26, 2014.

Aimen Zine/AP

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Tunis, Tunisia

Three years after protests, blood, and tear gas ended with the flight of a dictator, Tunisians at last have a constitution on which to build a new order. 

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Thousands of Islamist and secular Tunisians marked the third anniversary of autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's downfall on Tuesday, celebrating in the closest the Arab world has to a model transition to democracy. Crowds jammed Habib Bourguiba boulevard in the capital, Tunis, waving flags and chanting in friendly rivalry near the interior ministry building where protesters once shouted "Leave" to Ben Ali. Ben Ali's flight from the country on January 14, 2011 inspired uprisings in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria. But while those countries remain in turmoil or outright war, Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party will compete for power later this year with its secular opponents at the ballot box, not on the street.

The document signed today is yet another example set by the country whose revolution kicked off the 2011 Arab uprisings. It establishes a civil democratic state, and lays the foundation for an independent judiciary and the protection of basic individual freedoms. And its drafting has forced Tunisia’s quarrelsome political parties to start learning the art of compromise after months of arguments and uncertainty.

Still, the Constitution is only a blueprint. Old laws must be reformed and new elections held, while leaders must confront Islamic militancy and cure economic malaise.

But a sense of pride, solidarity, and relief filled the Constituent Assembly chamber today as legislators and media packed into seats and aisles beneath a chandelier blazing with light. Portraits and Tunisian flags were placed on two seats in memory of Assemblymen Mohamed Brahmi, shot dead last July, and Mohamed Allouche, who died last week of a heart attack.

“We have known fear for our country and for its institutions,” said President Moncef Marzouki as he addressed the chamber. “Today we have the right to be joyful.”

A few minutes later, Mr. Marzouki held aloft the new Constitution, kissed it, then signed it. “Merci, president!” a voice cried from the press gallery as Marzouki made V-for-victory signs. Assembly Speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar and Prime Minister Ali Larayedh also signed, and suddenly everyone was singing Tunisia’s national anthem as the three men clutched copies of the Constitution, bound in covers that were red, like the Tunisian flag.

Stop and go

Tunisia's last Constitution was adopted in 1959, three years after gaining independence from France. While in theory a republic, Tunisia swiftly descended into dictatorship as Presidents Habib Bourguiba and, later, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali used a fearsome police apparatus, pliable courts, and batteries of laws to stay in power.

Mr. Ben Ali’s ouster ended a dictatorship but triggered a culture war that has slowed political progress. Secularists have accused the ruling Islamist Ennahda party of harboring a radical agenda and failing to discipline the hard-line Salafi movement; Salafis are suspected in the murders to two opposition politicians last year, including Mr. Brahmi. Ennahda has complained of what it deems secularist obstructionism.

Last summer Tunisia’s transition – including the drafting of the new constitution – slammed to a halt as opposition parties mounted a campaign of street demonstrations and political maneuvering to oust Ennahda, which responded with demonstrations of its own.

Last month, however, after weeks of tortuous negotiations, parties agreed that the government would hand power to a caretaker cabinet. Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly whirred back to life and, with unprecedented energy, finished drafting the new constitution. It passed with 200 "yes" votes, 12 "no" votes, and four abstentions Sunday. Legislators greeted the result with a boisterous standing ovation.

Contradictions

The document reads like an exercise in finding consensus. It firmly cites Islam as Tunisia’s religion, but also describes the state as civil – not religious – in equally firm language and guarantees freedom of worship. Men and women are guaranteed equal rights. Some of the cruelest habits of Ben Ali’s regime – torture, spying on people’s homes and private communications, and forcing citizens into exile – are expressly forbidden. 

Yet there are also apparent contradictions. Among the most contentious is an 11th-hour amendment to an article on religious rights that obliges the state to protect “the sacred” from insult and quash any attempts to brand people as apostates. Fulfilling either of those duties could amount to limiting free speech – guaranteed in another article.

Judges face a similar conundrum with existing laws that clash with the new Constitution, says Kalthoum Kennou, a judge in Tunis and honorary president of the Tunisian Magistrates’ Association. In theory, those wrinkles will be ironed out by a planned constitutional court.

“My fear is that in this initial period, unconstitutional laws may be passed since we won’t have an independent body to check them,” Ms. Kennou says.

Meanwhile, economic troubles loom. Growth is expected to have slipped from 3.6 percent in 2012 to 2.6 percent last year, and to drop again this year, according to the World Bank. Unemployment is hovering around 15 percent and is worse among young people and in rural areas, where revolt against Ben Ali began in late 2010. Several dozen people gathered today outside the assembly hall to voice their frustration at the leaders within. 

“The price of food is high, and they’ve taken many loans from abroad,” said Osama Mrassi, who said he sells used plastic bottles to make ends meet. From his neck hung a sign that said, “The Constitution Doesn’t Represent Me” in Arabic.

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