Tunisia Finally Passes Progressive Constitution


After decades of dictatorship and two years of arguments and
compromises, Tunisians on Sunday finally have a new constitution 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 got written
at all. It passed late Sunday by 200 votes out of 216 in the Muslim
Mediterranean country that inspired uprisings across the region after
overthrowing a dictator in 2011.
“This constitution, without being perfect, is one of consensus,”
assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar said after the vote. “We had today a
new rendezvous with history to build a democracy founded on rights and
The constitution enshrining freedom of religion and women’s rights took
two years to finish. 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.
At 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 little public
debate or input. In Tunisia, an elected assembly of Tunisian Islamists,
leftists and liberals worked on a detailed roadmap for their political
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.

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“We needed time to get this constitution as it is today,” said Amira
Yahyaoui, who has closely followed the assembly’s activities with her
monitoring group Bawsala. “Clearly, writing this constitution to do a
real transformation of the minds of people needed time and I absolutely
don’t regret these two years and I am happy we had time to discuss and
think about all the arguments.”
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.
“This is the real revolution, many democratic constitution don’t even
have that,” said Yahyaoui. “It will have a real impact on the rest of
the Arab region, because finally we can say that women’s rights are not a
Western concept only, but also exist in Tunisia.”
Tunisia has always had the most progressive legislation on women’s
rights in the Arab world and Yahyaoui believes the long period of
writing has made people comfortable with its contents.
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 Islamic 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.

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