On January 14, Tunisians will celebrate their revolution, which ignited a wave of protest that swept most of the Arab world. For this third anniversary, the Salvation Front, representing key leaders from political parties and civil society, gave the Tunisian people and the Arab masses a set of rare gifts: another peaceful transfer of power, a new constitution that protects the life and dignity of all Tunisians, and roadmap to a stable future.
Ennahda, the party that won the first post-revolution elections in Tunisia, handed over power to a non-partisan government last week so that it would remain relevant. This decision was the only path that could allow Ennahda to maintain its edge in the coming elections and avert disastrous outcomes similar to those experienced by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the likely diminished power of AKP in Turkey. Importantly, the resignation fosters a promising culture of peaceful transfer of power–a first in the Arab world. Before stepping down, however, Ennahda’s leaders–working with leaders from two secular-leaning political parties, al-Mu’tamar and al-Takattul–managed to reduce the level of violence in the country, stabilize the economy, draft a new constitution, and set the course for a transition to a permanent government though the ballet, not the bullet.
It should be noted, however, that Ennahda did not voluntarily cede power. It took several political crises, many strikes and low-level uprisings, two assassinations of key opposition figures, and active participation of key civil society institutions (notably labor unions and NGOs) for Ennahda and its allies to give in to public pressure. Additionally, the troika (Ennahda, al-Mu’tamar, and al-Takattul) spent too much time drafting the constitution, which is crucial for holding elections that would move the country past the transition phase.
Nonetheless, Ennahda should be given credit for its willingness to be inclusive, for compromising to preserve the dignity of all Tunisians, and for enshrining social justice norms in the new constitution. For instance, while leaders of the movement insisted that Islam be privileged, they nonetheless accepted the codification of the civil state, the supremacy of the rule of law, and the proscription on takfir (branding dissenters infidels or non-believers). The new constitution, drafted under their watch, explicitly protects women as equal citizens, codifies women’s equal participation in public and political life, and highlights the abhorrence of violence against women.
Senior Ennahda leaders have always favored a parliamentarian system of governance, but they signed off on a constitution that defines Tunisia as being a republic: where the president is the top executive, where the people (not some interpretation of religious texts) has the ultimate authority, and where representatives of the people share governing responsibilities with the president. The new constitution emphasizes the principle of separation of powers, sets an absolute term limit for holding the presidency, and establishes a judicial system that is both independent and reflective of the will of the people (the composition of the constitutional court is determined by both the executive and the legislature branches).
In short, the new constitution lays the foundation for a pluralistic system that could empower all Tunisians and end the era of authoritarianism. Ennahda’s relative flexibility and willingness to step away from power at this juncture might be the only and best opportunity for the movement to avoid the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood and preserve public support, which it will need in the critically important elections ahead.
Of course, like any other constitution, Tunisia’s new constitution is not perfect. For instance, the language associated with the first two articles, the most important and most controversial in entire document, seems to confuse two critical concepts: nation and state. That problem could be avoided if the first and second articles are interpreted like so: (1) Tunisia is a free nation (watan/ummah; not dawlah), independent, sovereign, Islam is its national religion, Arabic is its national language, and republicanism is its form of governance; (2) the Tunisian state is civil, founded on citizenship, the will of the people, and the supremacy of the law.
The distinction between state and nation would rectify some of the misconceptions about the place of religion in society and in state institutions. Many Western interpreters of Arab constitutions contend that Islam is codified as the “state” religion. The language and use of the term “dawlah” perpetuates that misunderstanding, which if taken to be true, would make Article 1 and Article 2 contradictory: how can an Islamic state also be a civil state and treat all citizens—Muslims and non-Muslims—equally?
Distinguishing between state and nation means that there is no contradiction in holding that Islam is the religion of the country/nation (given that the majority are indeed Muslim), but the state with all its governing institutions is civil and treats all citizens equally regardless of religious affiliation. This interpretation would soften any harmful interpretations of Article 6, which states that “the state looks after (ra`yah) religion, fosters freedom of belief and conscience and the practice of religious rites, protects the sacred, and guarantees the status of mosques and places of worship as neutral space–free from partisan politics.” It would also make sure that the state does not define orthodoxy or discriminate on sectarian or religious grounds. However, failure to distinguish between making Islam the national religion and making Islam the state religion could empower the government to determine orthodoxy and use that authority to suppress freedom of thought and expression. The state can conceivably privilege a particular religion as part of collective national identity without harm, but that privilege must be balanced by strong safeguards for freedom of thought and expression.
The amendment clauses, too, are ambiguous and leave room for an interpretation that could create two separate paths for amending the constitution. Specifically, it seems that amendments could either pass through the parliament or occur by popular referendum. If the latter, the president could put an amendment directly to the voters and then ask the parliament to approve it by a simple majority, whereas an amendment originating in parliament would require a two-thirds majority. It is not clear whether these different thresholds are the intended result, or whether these clauses represent a poorly-considered balance of power that could result in careless amendments to this foundational document.
These are decisive times for Tunisia. Once again, the people and their representatives have a chance to prove that the Arab Spring was not a fluke, that non-violence is the only constructive path for social change, that Islam is compatible with representative governance, and that authoritarianism is not the only guarantor of security and stability. Tunisians can provide a hopeful model for Arab societies that is worthy of the Arab peoples’ past sacrifices and honors those who struggled for social justice and suffered torture, exile, imprisonment, and death.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.