Tunisians divided over new constitution

As Tunisia builds its democracy, it faces challenges about women's rights, religious expression, and more

Topics: From the Wires, Tunisia, Africa, Arab Spring, Middle East,

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia dived into a fierce debate this week over a document that could be an example for the changing Arab world: a long-awaited constitution that will lay out what women are free to do, Islam’s role in society and art, and how to share political power after decades of dictatorship.

Differences over how to word the document are already threatening to tear apart the ruling alliance of secular and religious parties that hold Tunisia precariously together, a year and a half after it started the pro-democracy wave of uprisings across the Middle East known as the Arab Spring. Tunisia’s experience will be closely watched by the rest of the region.

Amid recent unrest by disgruntled jobless protesters and violent youths pushing their ultraconservative form of Islam, the assembly that was elected last year to run Tunisia and create the constitution reconvened this week.

The charter will have to be approved by two-thirds of the assembly before elections next March or, failing that, a popular referendum. There are already disputes over the status of women, whether power resides with the president or prime minister and the role of blasphemy.

After Tunisians overthrew their long-ruling dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, they overwhelmingly voted for a moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, giving it more than 40 percent of seats in the assembly.

Ennahda, allied with two secular, left-wing parties, has struggled to get the economy on track, cacreate jobs and keep the peace.

During the holy month of Ramadan, in July and August, gangs of ultraconservative Salafis attacked several artistic festivals for being impious. A visiting French parliamentarian of Tunisian origin was beaten by a gang who objected to his wife and daughter’s skimpy summer clothes.

The latest threat to the ruling party, however, has come from within its coalition, from President Moncef Marzouki, a long-time human rights activist from the leftist Congress for the Republic.

At the opening of the annual conference for his party on Aug. 24, an associate read out a statement from Marzouki that slammed Ennahda for monopolizing power.

“There is rising sentiment that our brothers in Ennahda are trying to dominate all the political and administrative levers of the state and place their followers in position of power, regardless of whether they are competent or not,” he said. “These practices recall those of the past regime.”

But there are parts of the old Tunisia that Marzouki and secular activists want to retain, particularly its progressive women’s rights. Legislation passed after Tunisia won independence from France decades ago outlawed polygamy, gave women a say in divorce and mandated equality of the sexes. Women are prominent in medicine, government and the security forces.

Marzouki attacked draft language in the constitution that describes women as “complementary” to men, rather than equal. Many fear that might be an attempt roll back women’s rights legislation.

Marzouki is also fiercely opposed to Ennahda’s efforts to vest power in the prime minister, rather than an elected president.

The assembly will have to decide whether the president will be elected directly by the people, or be a more symbolic figure elected by parliament.

Many of the secular parties are hoping for a strong, elected presidency, since they don’t believe they will be able to match Ennahda’s strong grassroots movement and large presence in the parliament.

“Marzouki wants to rediscover his image as an activist and a man of principle,” said Neziha Rejiba, an activist who left the Congress for the Republic out of disgust with Marzouki’s alliance with the Islamists. “But it is too late for him, he’s played his cards and Ennahda has truly buried him.”

The other area expected to come under serious debate will be the balance between freedom of expression and respect for religion.

While freedom of expression is enshrined in the draft constitution, Article 3, along with others, criminalizes “attacks on the sacred.”

Since the 2011 uprising, there have been several cases of people handed fines and jail time for art that has been deemed by judges insulting to Islam. Secular activists fear that the vague wording will have a chilling effect on media and art.

The recent case of Samir Fehri, a television producer arrested for alleged corruption, has also raised alarms over freedom of expression. Some believe he was in fact targeted for his satirical television show, Ellogique Essiyassi, which featured puppets parodying political figures along the lines of the 1980s British show “Spitting Image.”

He turned himself into authorities last week after an arrest warrant was issued on charges of improper use of government funds in setting up a production company in the 1990s.

“Given the timing of these charges against Sami Fehri, we believe they are politically motivated,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Ennahda’s other coalition partner, the Ettakatol or Forum party of assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar, has largely stayed out of the spat. However, Ben Jaafar made it clear that the red lines for his party in any future constitution would be over women’s equality and guaranteeing freedoms.


Paul Schemm in Rabat contributed to this report.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>