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Adoption of Tunisia's constitution edges closer

Obstacles remain over the role of the president and extent of rights and freedoms. Alice Fordham reports from Tunis

TUNIS // After more than 18 months of debate, demonstrations and crises of national identity, a new constitution is inching toward ratification in Tunisia, where Arab uprisings began two years ago.

Optimists within the transitional authority tasked with producing the document said it could be adopted as early as August, that elections would follow a few months after, and that Tunisia will become the first post-uprising Arab country to have an elected government and a legally sound framework to rebuild the country.

In comparison with neighbouring Libya - where political debates have been shaped by the presence of armed protesters - or Egypt's chaotic constitution-writing, the process of writing the document has been orderly. This is a source of some hope in an Arab world struggling with transitions to democracy.

But the document is already nearly a year overdue. Stumbling blocks remain in the form of arguments about the role of the president - a highly sensitive issue in a country run autocratically for more than 50 years - and over rights and freedoms, which go to the heart of Tunisia's ongoing national debate between conservative and liberal parts of its society.

"Of course, it's positive," said Habib Kheder, a member of the interim parliament who has co-ordinated successive drafts of the constitution. "The country is moving from bad to good, from oppression to democracy.

"The constitution is going to be suitable for democracy for Tunisians, and we are going to build a country where people can reach their ambitions."

The document as it now stands was written by six committees of elected politicians, helped by constitutional lawyers, and refined after nationwide consultations with civil-society groups.

The most recent draft, produced on June 1, will be debated by the National Constituent Assembly for four days from Monday, while an informal committee tries to hammer out ongoing disagreements between political parties.

The draft attempts to deal with the debate over whether to have a presidential or parliamentary system by splitting powers between the president and prime minister.

Controversial proposals to use Sharia as the source of legislation have been quietly dropped by the leading moderate-Islamist party, Ennahda. However, debate about rights and freedoms still rages.

Selma Baccar, a member of the assembly from the Democratic Modernist Pole coalition, worked on the section of the constitution dealing with rights and freedoms. She said she never thought she would stand for office, but decided to do so when she saw the opportunity to help write a constitution for her country.

But after more than a year of working with colleagues, including many from Ennahda, she despairs of reaching consensus. Citing clauses dealing with freedom of speech and expression, and the rights of women and children, she said that Ennahda's deputies had "imposed their opinion".

"I've been trying to convince myself for more than a year that Islamists can be democratic," said Ms Baccar, a filmmaker. "But these people are not tolerant, so they can't be democratic."

But Duncan Pickard, a fellow for the Rafik Hariri Association in the Middle East, said Ennahda had made considerable concessions, though they have received little credit for them.

A decision by the party's shura council not to press for Sharia as the main source of legislation, he said, was a big sacrifice for consensus, which angered grassroots supporters but was not really leveraged for political benefit.

The party, from which the next prime minister is likely to be drawn, also wanted to grant more power to the prime minister and less to the president, but conceded to a degree on this, too.

"When you look at what the major issues were going to be between the political parties, we knew it was going to be Islam and the system of government," said Mr Pickard. "And Ennahda self-conceded on one and conceded on the other."

Despite ongoing squabbles, the constitution is a legally sound basis for a new Tunisia, said Zaid Al Ali, a constitutional scholar with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

"It has some areas in which it could be improved and it could do with having more consensus - but the text as it currently stands is far from being a disaster," he said. "It achieves much more than other constitutions, and it is much more democratic than any other constitution in the region."

Amid concerns about Tunisia's economy and security, most people wish that the assembly would pass the constitution with the required two-thirds majority that would negate the need for a referendum, said Amel Azzouz, an assembly member from Ennahda.

"There is a real social and popular and political will that wants to put an end to this transitional period,"she added.


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