Tunisian assembly passes new constitution

The Tunisian parliament adopted a new constitution on January 26th, the first since the overthrow of the country’s long-time ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. The new constitution replaces the constitution written in 1956 after Tunisia’s independence from France. The new constitution, which was passed by 200 votes from 216, is seen as a crucial step to getting the democratic transition back on track for establishing full democracy. ‘This constitution was the dream of Tunisians, this constitution is proof of the revival of the revolution, this constitution creates a democratic civil nation,’ National Constituent Assembly chief and leader of the social democratic Ettakatol party, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, said.The document is seen as one of the most progressive constitutions in the Arab world and Tunisia’s compromise and progress contrasts sharply with the democratic transitions in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, which are caught up in turmoil after ousting their own longstanding leaders in 2011 revolts and uprisings. Earlier this month, Tunisia’s Prime Minister Ali Larayedh stepped down and was replaced by Mehdi Jomaa as part of a deal to ease the crisis between Tunisia’s Islamist party and its secular opposition until new elections later this year.

The constitution
The new constitution was drafted by the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), an assembly of Tunisian Islamists, leftists and liberals that was elected in October 2011 to write the new constitution. Tunisia hopes its care in drafting this constitution makes a difference in returning the country’s stability and reassuring investors and allies such as the United States. Assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar said ‘this constitution, without being perfect, is one of consensus’. At the end of the negotiations, Ennahda granted a number of concessions, including dropping references to Islamic law. The constitution says Islam is the state religion but guarantees freedom of worship.

The constitution sets out to make Tunisia a democracy, with a civil state whose laws are not based on Islamic law, unlike many other Arab constitutions. Furthermore, an entire chapter of the constitution is dedicated to protecting citizens’ rights, including protection from torture, and the right to due process and it guarantees equal rights for men and women. The document divides the executive power between the prime minister, who will have the dominant role, and the president, who retains important prerogatives, notably in defense and foreign affairs. However, there has been some criticism that the constitution has not banned the death penalty and there are also some restrictions on freedom of speech. On Monday 27 January President Moncef Marzouki, outgoing PM Ali Larayedh and head of the NCA Mustapha Ben Jaafar signed the new constitution.

New caretaker government
On January 26th, just before the constitution´s approval, Tunisia´s Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa named a new caretaker cabinet, which needs to govern the country until elections will be held in one of the last steps to democracy. The country’s young democracy was threatened after the assassination of two secular opposition leaders last year by militant Islamist gunmen. This, in combination with an economic crisis, forced the country into a political deadlock between the former moderate Islamist ruling party Ennahda and opposition parties. The new caretaker cabinet needs to send out a message of stability after this deadlock.

Jomaa, who does not belong to any political party, appointed mainly independents and technocrats and gave key posts of the caretaker administration to technocrats with international experience. Hakim Ben Hammouda, an economist with experience at the African Development Bank, was named as finance ministers and Mongi Hamdi, a former UN official, will be the country’s foreign minister. ‘The objective is to arrive at elections and create the security and economic climate to get out of this crisis,’ Jomaa said. Jomaa’s new government will have to tackle demands from international lenders to cut public spending and curb the budget deficit without triggering protests over social welfare. Besides, armed groups tied to Al-Qaeda operations in North Africa are also an increasing threat for Tunisia, a country that relies heavily on European tourism and overseas remittances for its hard currency income.

Tunisia's dominant Islamist party expects elections to take place in October, senior Ennahda official Ameur Larayedh told media on 27 January. "Within six weeks there will be an electoral law. There is a clear path to the next elections, which will probably take place in October 2014," said Larayedh, speaking inside the national assembly. "Tunisia is now building its democratic model," he added. The official dates of the parliamentary and presidential elections must be decided by the electoral body (ISIE) that was set up in January.

Here you can read the first unofficial English translation of the Tunisian draft constitution. This unofficial translation provides a clear overview of the draft constitution.

Sources: Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, BBC, The Guardian, Al-Bawaba, Reuters, Time

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