Tunisia opts to tread fine line on draft constitution

CAIRO // More than a year after the uprising that overthrew Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisian authorities have unveiled a draft preamble of a new constitution that refers to the Islamic foundations of the country and to "humanistic values".

In what politicians and analysts describe as a compromise, the document, released by the National Constituent Assembly last week, strikes a fine balance between the liberal and conservative ideas now competing to dominate the country's new politics.

But it does not mention Sharia, which some citizens have called for, but which Rached El Ghannouchi, the leader of the dominant Ennahda moderate Islamist party, ruled out earlier this year.

The short document is a prelude to the full constitution that is expected to be completed in draft form in October, and which is likely to be subject to intense scrutiny in Tunisia and in the Arab countries struggling to redefine themselves after the uprisings that changed the political landscape.

The preamble's limited but pointed references to Islam and human rights seem designed to fit around both Islamist ideology, which was repressed under Ben Ali, and the country's liberal activists and civil society campaigners.

Tensions between Islamist and secular-leaning groups also exist in Libya and Egypt, where the autocratic leaders, Muammar Qaddafi and Hosni Mubarak, were overthrown last year.

The constitution-writing process in the cradle of the Arab revolts will doubtless be watched carefully in those nations, said Duncan Pickard, a constitutional expert at the Democracy Reporting International.

"Tunisians definitely see themselves as potentially setting both positive and negative precedents, and they are taking the constitution-making process very seriously, not just for the country but for the rest of the world," said Mr Pickard. "Tunisians are real trendsetters."

Mr Pickard added that the preamble is also unorthodox in some ways. For instance, it includes a clause - which crowds of demonstrators have supported - calling for the rights of all people, including Palestinians, to determine their fates and liberate their lands.

It also stresses the importance of respecting the uprising and those who died in it.

The draft document has received a muted reaction in Tunisia, said Erik Churchill, a long-term resident of Tunis and political blogger. He suggested the lack of controversy may be due to the care taken to steer a middle path between religious and secularist ideologies, after months when activists from both sides have often taken to the streets.

"I think Ennahda was under a lot of pressure to make sure they made something that would not inflame tensions ... it takes a lot of nuance to walk this tightrope," said Mr Churchill, adding that rights groups have focused less on the constitution itself than on its implementation.

"The problem is not the law, the problem is how to guarantee the respect of the constitution," said Hedia Haouamem, an activist with the Tunisia Women's Union. "Under the old constitution, there were many laws on human rights, but the women suffered because there was no guarantee that the regime would respect the law."

The most prominent constitutional discussion now centres on Article One of the existing constitution, which defines the state religion as Islam, and which some legislators have said would likely give an Islamist tinge to legislation.

However, Ms Haouamem said she felt optimistic that Tunisia's new political framework would not embrace any of the more rigid strictures on women recommended by some Islamists who have staged demonstrations that have occasionally turned violent. "There are a good number of women working on the constitution," she said. "We have a good civil society who can propose many suggestions.

"There are some people who have behaved badly but the conservative parts of our society are a minority - everything will return to stability and we can solve this."


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