Tunisia shows the way
In contrast to the seemingly endless strife afflicting so much of Africa these days (not to mention the plight of Syria), the people of Tunisia — where the Arab Spring began in 2011 — have embraced a constitution that satisfies all the interested parties, secular and religious alike.
Although it took a lot longer than its authors had hoped — there were assassinations and other disruptions along the way — the third draft of the new constitution has been described by experts as “a carefully worded blend of ideas” that meets the expectations not only of the Islamists who have been in charge of the interim government but also their political opponents.
“They finally found some equilibrium,” Ghazi Gherairi, a constitutional expert who is the secretary general of the International Academy of Constitutional Law in Tunis, the nation’s capital, observed. “It is a result of consensus and this is new in the Arab world.”
Significantly, and despite the preferences of the interim government, the new document makes no mention of the establishment of an Islamic state or the supremacy of Sharia law in Tunisia, although it does concede that Islam is the nation’s religion. Also, its preamble recognizes the Arab-Muslim identity of the Tunisian people.
But the more liberal — that is, secular — political parties, who were helped by interested westerners and Tunisian civil society organizations, persuaded the framers to include guarantees that their nation will remain a civil state, complete with separation of powers.
Similarly, the new document guarantees women’s rights, including parity for women in the country’s elected bodies. That’s another first for an Arab government.
When the article guaranteeing women’s rights passed, the chamber rose as one and sang the national anthem. Will that ever happen in Saudi Arabia? Not any time soon. Nor is it likely to be emulated by the Taliban, should it regain power in Afghanistan.
In Tunisia, the drive toward the adoption of the new constitution gained new energy in the past two weeks as the 217 delegates finally decided to put aside their differences and then worked up to 14 hours a day to draft the final version of the document.
“It’s a positively crazy, fantastic environment,” one member of a small secular party observed. “There is a will to complete it within the time frame, and suddenly things started to work.”
Given the apparent broad support it has generated, the Tunisian charter appears to be far more fair and progressive than the constitution approved by Egypt’s voters last week.
There, the Islamist government that took over after the ouster of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak was itself soon ousted by the Egyptian military, which sees itself as a protector of the nation’s political priorities. That regime, in turn, put its own proposed new charter on the ballot last week only to see the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups boycott it.
During two days of voting last week, at least 11 protesters were killed in the streets of Cairo.
Nathan Brown of George Washington University, an expert on Arab legal matters, said “train wreck” might describe the situation in Egypt. In Tunisia, he said, “Everyone keeps dancing on the edge of a cliff but they never fall off.”
Egypt’s new constitution, which passed by an overwhelming margin but drew few people to the polls, deletes Islamist language, but it would strengthen those state institutions that overthrew the democratically elected government — the military, the police and the judiciary.
The Arab states, broadly speaking, continue to resist the concept of political and cultural pluralism. Tunisia is the admirable exception.