independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Tunisia finally passes constitution

Interim prime minister Mehdi Jomaa addresses the media at the presidential palace in Carthage (AP)

After decades of dictatorship and two years of arguments and compromises, Tunisians 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 yesterday 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 equality."

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 future.

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 US.

"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 Ms 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 she believes the long period of writing has made people comfortable with its contents.

The completion of the constitution is a tribute to the assembly's disparate parties to come to compromise and negotiate to reach a consensus.

The moderate Islamist party Ennahda, which holds more than 40% of the seats in the assembly, backed down on putting a number of religious-inspired measures into the constitution in the face of wide opposition.

AP

Press Association

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