Tag Archives: ennahda

Constituent Assembly Debates Arab-Muslim Identity in Constitution

The drafting of Tunisia’s new constitution began today with discussion of what will be perhaps one of the most divisive issues in Tunisian politics: the constitutional definition of the country’s national identity.

The first article of Tunisia’s current constitution currently names the language of the country as Arabic and its religion as Islam. With an Islamist party, Ennahda, in power, the question is whether this will be enough to define the religious orientation of Tunisia’s juridical future.

Sadok Bel Aid, Former Dean of the Faculty of Law at the Free University of Tunis, and a specialist in constitutional law, believes that Ennahda has moderated its position with regards to the religious content of the preamble. While previously, according to Bel Aid, members had wished for a reference to an Islamic source for Tunisian law, the party seems to have reached a consensus now that some version of the current first article would be sufficient.

However, from the onset of the meeting it was clear that reaching agreement concerning Tunisia’s national identity would be no small task. Hajer Azaiez, the commission’s vice-rapporteur and a member from Ennahda, casually mentioned, “We are already all in agreement with Islam being the official religion, and Arabic the official language. Why don’t we discuss the rest of preamble?”

This statement received a quick response from Taher Hmila, a representative from the centrist Congress for the Republic (CPR) party, who replied, “No – we are not. We cannot do that. We, as a republic and state, cannot have an official religion. We want to be consistent with the republican form of government.”

Issam Chebbi, a representative from the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), later proposed including references to religion and language in the body of the constitution instead of the preamble or general principles. Maya Jeribi, secretary general of the PDP, agreed with Chebbi’s proposition.

The Congress for the Republic (CPR) party, which has formed an alliance with Ennahda and the center-left Ettakatol party, seemed to be in agreement that a reference to Islam within the opening clauses of the constitution was not a foregone conclusion.

Rafik Telili, a member of the CPR, argued that the preamble should affirm the state’s civic character. “We need to make it clear that minorities will be protected. We need to say that our relations with Jews, for example, are peaceful,” he said.

Another member from the CPR, Mabrouka Mbarek, suggested that the constitution use a declaration of human rights as the preamble’s point of reference instead of ‘Islamic values,’ since it would hold more collective weight. “The revolution was triggered because of socioeconomic constraints, not religious values. Freedom of religion is only one facet of their demands,” she said.

Bel Aid did not believe that foregoing any reference to religion in the preamble to Tunisia’s constitution was a plausible proposition in a country that is ninety-nine percent Sunni Muslim. However, he felt that the religious character of the definition could indeed be softened.

“I think we could have a reference that mentions religion in light of our history, a ‘light’ version of the formulation that wouldn’t erase it. You know, even in America, on the dollar bill you have ‘In God We Trust,” said Bel Aid.

While the preamble of a constitution has a largely symbolic value, it can set the tone and color of the document to follow. The preamble of France’s constitution, for example, makes reference to the 1789 “Declaration of the Rights of Man” and establishes the states as secular. In light of recent controversies in the country concerning secularism, such as the ban on the niqab (a full-body Islamic veil), that clause would seem significant.

“Preambles can have a certain ideological value, and a certain political value, but also a certain juridical value,” said Bel Aid. He explained that, if worded properly, preambles could be “creative” of principles to follow in the constitution and could act as a guide for future disputes concerning the document’s interpretation.

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Dilou face aux familles des martyrs

Yesterday, Human Rights Minister and Spokesperson of the Tunisian government Samir Dilou explaining to martyr’s families that the government has yet to decide how to pay them compensation.

Much of what he said is logical – however, the way he was speaking did not sit well with me. Additionally, the government needs to be more transparent in the way it  is establishing the necessary institutions to deliver on its promises dealing with compensation.

A nerve with a dose of optimism

For the past few days or so, many Tunisians have been taking to the streets once again in protest of pan-Maghreb Nessma TV’s airing of the critically acclaimed Iranian film Persepolis. The film, an animated one, expresses dismay and is indeed protesting the confiscation of the Iranian revolution by hardline Islamists in 1979. What’s the problem, you ask? The film contains a scene that, only a few seconds long, shows a young Marjane (the film’s main character) engaging in an imaginary conversation with God. The personification, characterization, or manifestation of God in any visual form is, as is well known, prohibited in Islam – and many other faiths at that. Thus, those protesting are vexed and offended that Nessma TV screened such a disrespectful film. They are demanding that the government shut down the channel’s headquarters, effectively ceasing the channel’s operations. Nabil Karoui, the channel’s owner, has issued a public apology on Tuesday that was broadcast on national TV last night. Yet the protests continue – latest we’ve heard, some even attempted burning Karoui’s house down.

While I have never been particularly fond of Nessma TV, the chronological alignment of events is in no way coincidental. The constituent assembly elections are only a few days away – Tunisians living within the country’s borders are set to vote on October 23rd, and those abroad will vote October 20nd through the 22nd. Keep in mind, television campaigning is (as of now) still prohibited by the Independent High Authority for the Elections (ISIE) – so Nessma screening Persepolis could be understood as a clever way to campaign against Ennahda – which, by the way, has publicly denied any links with the protests. Make no mistake about it, both sides of this ideological secularist-Islamist ‘divide’ (which is a source of frustration in its own right) are in some way at fault. Some secularists in the country have taken it upon themselves to spew fear-based video advertisements warning the population of the perils associated with a possible Islamist win. Some Islamists, on the other hand, have also been gravely overreacting to this Nessma TV stuff – how does it make sense to shut down a channel just because you disagree with what it airs? Isn’t that what Ben Ali did? Some ask, “Could this mark the beginning of a legitimate counterrevolution?”

The answer is no, it does not. What I think? Some small forces are at play here, helping instigate the masses. Truth is, the vestiges of the old regime are a much bigger threat to the country’s stability than Ennahda. Several small parties have been formed by those in the former Ben Ali regime – and many more unique individuals are operating within the burgeoning electoral architecture covertly.

Yet, I still have full faith that the elections will go as planned, on time, and smoothly. The ISIE estimates that 3.4 million Tunisians will come out on election day – 75.5% of possible voters. While the strength and organizational competence of Ennahda is threatening some, the people will still come out and have its voice heard.

Here’s to the 23rd.

“We will vote for the party of bread.”

Photo by Lauren E. Bohn

“We don’t have faith in politics. Not before, not now. Just show us projects and development, no fancy ideas,” he demands. “We’ll vote for the party of bread.”

After reading Lauren E. Bohn’s article “Tunisia’s Forgotten Revolutionaries,” in Foreign Policy tonight, several questions came to mind:

  • How come the citizens of the country wish to vote for the party that simply facilitates the means to ends – if not the ends themselves, as a government should be partially responsible for – yet, almost every single political party in Tunisia (newly formed or otherwise) seems to be campaigning on ideological issues?
  • How is it that ideology has emerged as a rallying epicenter, not only for the 90 or so political parties and their partnering ideologues, but also for the citizens?
  • Assuming that ideology merits high standing in the realm of developmental importance, why is it that it has not been coupled with any sort of definitive programs?
  • Lastly, we all know that ideology does indeed influence any political platform’s practical ability and style – only if the ideology is translated. For example, while PDP waxes poetic about women’s rights, why have no concrete women’s empowerment programs been campaigned on?

The answer to a few of these questions is the simple fact that most political parties in Tunisia currently lack organizational capacity. With close to zero civic activity allowed under the former regime and the political vacuum created post-January 14, who is to blame? Yet, it is pivotal for any party to seriously refocus their efforts to stand a chance. Currently, the political theatre is plagued with misplaced ideological priorities – most debates center, clumsily flounder, and finally crash at the mention of  Ennahda’s “real” intentions or PDP’s secret RCD members in drag. Yet, we must awake to the fact that whether or not a cafe serves wine is trivial when contrasted to the livelihoods of everyday Tunisians, the grave underdevelopment of the South, or the right to freely unionize.

At the end of the day, of course, the freedom to express oneself does include the right to choose one’s beverage of choice. But until then, show us some sustainable solutions to help jumpstart the economy. Show us solutions that will open up our trading horizons.  Show us solutions that will prevent Chinese MNCs from (again) misusing our resources and taking advantage of our local populations. Show us your solution to the unemployment rate – what will your party tell the young 25-year-olds sitting at the cafe all day?

Show us (and not tell) – are you the party of bread?