World and Nation

Tunisian constitution, praised for balance, nears passage

TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly is close to passing a new Constitution that legislators across the political spectrum, human rights organizations and constitutional experts are hailing as a triumph of consensus politics.

Two years in the making and now in its third draft, the charter is a carefully worded blend of ideas that has won the support of both Ennahda, the Islamist party that leads the interim government, and the secular opposition. It is being hailed as one of the most liberal constitutions in an Arab nation.

“They finally found some equilibrium,” said Ghazi Gherairi, secretary general of the International Academy of Constitutional Law in Tunis, the capital. “It is a result of consensus, and this is new in the Arab world.”

The process of drafting and approving a new constitution took a year longer than planned. It was buffeted by two assassinations and rising terrorism last year, and by political divisions that nearly derailed the government.

Ennahda ultimately gave up many of its original goals for the constitution: It says nothing, for instance, about the establishment of an Islamic state or the supremacy of Sharia law. But the party succeeded in injecting an Islamic flavor, with wording stating that Islam is the religion of Tunisia and a preamble that recognizes Tunisians’ Arab-Muslim identity.

With Western support and strong lobbying by civil society groups, the country’s more liberal parties secured constitutional guarantees that Tunisia will remain a civil state with separation of powers. The constitution enshrines universal freedoms and rights, and calls for parity for women in elected bodies.

The first two articles lay out the balance between Islamist and secular views in careful language that is not subject to amendment by future governments. “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state, Islam is her religion, Arabic her language and republic her regime,” they say. “Tunisia is a state of civil character, based on citizenship, the will of the people and the primacy of law.”

Although the country remains divided over the role of religion in public life, those divisions were set aside in order to guarantee freedoms and prevent a return to the kind of dictatorial rule Tunisians overthrew in 2011, at the start of the Arab Spring.

The atmosphere in the 217-member assembly drafting the charter changed remarkably in the last 12 days, as members put aside the hostilities that had suspended the proceedings for five months and worked 14-hour days to debate and vote on the draft, article by article.

“It’s a positively crazy, fantastic environment,” said Noomane Fehri, a member of a small secular party, Afek Tounes. “There is a will to complete it within the time frame, and suddenly things started to work.” The assembly is likely to ratify the full charter with the necessary two-thirds majority when the final vote is taken, he said. The vote may come in the next few days.