With the constitution out of the way and a technocratic government appointed to oversee the country up until the election, Tunisia’s cultural wars have taken a backseat, but that does not mean they are not over. Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa replaced the Ennahda-led coalition government after it stepped down on 29 January following months of negotiations between representatives of the governing parties and leading opposition parties and facilitated by a quartet of civilian organizations. The various parties involved in the “National Dialogue" agreed that Jomaa’s government has a mandate to focus its attention on the economy and battling insecurity in the months leading to the presidential and parliamentary election in late 2014.
The standoff between the government and the opposition secularists followed the assassination of National Constituent Assembly member, Mohamed Brahimi last July—circumstances that have not yet been fully elucidated. Ennahda had initially pushed for a unity government, arguing that the opposition’s calls for a “technocratic” government were essentially a ruse to force them out of power. For the loosely-knit opposition parties, the Ennahda-led coalition had overstayed its mandate.
Since the collapse of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, Tunisians have undoubtedly gained greater freedom of expression. While many Tunisians have willingly used this hard won gain on a personal level, it also means having to get used to the shock of many competing voices renegotiating the public space. After the initial elation of early 2011, the hard reality that building a democracy after decades of authoritarianism have sunken in. These days, headlines about political violence dominate the media.
On Monday 3 March, the new prime minister warned Tunisians that the economy is heading toward catastrophe and that Tunisians should prepare to make sacrifices. Tunisia has already taken on considerable external debt during the course of the past three years, and international institutions have proven more willing to deliver funding to Jomaa’s government than they were in the turmoil of 2013. The World Bank, to cite but one example, approved 1.2 billion dollars in new loans to Tunisia on 29 January, the day he took over, while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released loans that had been put on hold. Jomaa says he will be knocking on doors of the Gulf, France, and the United States to find further funding. By the time 2014 is out, the debt is forecasted to surpass fifty percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). This money does not come without strings. Tunisia is now under international pressure to carry out reforms that are not always in the spirit of the demands for socio-economic justice that helped spark the uprising. Ignoring deep structural inequalities will only lead to further instability. Add to this the desperate need for major reforms to the judiciary, security forces, the education system, and decentralization, among others—and Tunisia’s challenges can sometimes seem insurmountable.
A key argument from the many critics of the Ennahda-led coalition government was, they argued, that only an “apolitical” government had the capacity to govern in such a period of turmoil. In Ennahda’s view, “technocrat” means not Islamists. Interestingly, such a viewpoint reflects arguments many leftists made in several southern European countries against the wave of technocrat governments “appointed” in response to the financial crisis (see this 2011 article from The New Statesman).
Tunisians received much praise for the long winding process of cross-partisan consensus that birthed a new constitution inclusive enough to satisfy all sides of the political spectrum. It has been called a "model" for the Arab world by countless world leaders, from United States President Barak Obama to French Francois Hollande. Representatives from arguably less democratic neighbors, including Algeria and Morocco, congratulated Tunisia heartily, while some Libyan politicians have referred to the Tunisia example as a ray of hope, however elusive, as they set about writing a constitution of their own in the coming weeks and months. (The response from Egypt, it goes without saying, has been mute silence). The constitution the National Constituent Assembly produced does not mark the end of the debate over identity. Islamists and the varied secularist parties—some of which, it is important to note, have been coalition partners with Ennahda—are now taking time out to gather their forces and re-strategize for the next round. Everyone is acutely aware that there are arch-fundamental issues, namely over questions of national identity and the exact relationship between religion and the state, that have not yet been resolved.
There were many embraces on the day of the signing of the constitution that marked the birth of the new republic, but it was a hug between Habib Ellouze, one of Ennahda’s most stridently conservative MPs, and Mongi Rahoui, the leader of the leftist Popular Front and one of the staunchest secularists in the assembly, that was the most stunning. In the mood of relief and elation that followed the passing of Tunisia’s new constitution after two very long years of political battles that had begun to feel like a form of particularly fruitless trench warfare, the two men exchanged French-style air kisses. Encouraged by fellow politicians looking on, they went in for a second one. In spite of the tragedy, cynicism, power struggles, and economic instability that have marred Tunisia over these past three years, some singularly exceptional moments of shared triumph have characterized the country’s road to democracy. But make no mistake, Rahoui tells me, kiss is just a kiss. “It was part of the euphoria, the wave of emotion,” Rahoui says. “That’s it. Nothing changed. He was wrong. He represents the hard wing of Ennahda. That is still the case.”
For despite all the talk of consensus, Tunisian politicians, like politicians the world over, have not suddenly agreed with each other on their visions of society. Both Rahoui and Ellouze were among the two hundred out of two hundred fifteen MPs who voted in favor of the constitution on 26 January, ushering in the country’s new republic, yet they interpret key texts of the document in very different ways. In fact, it is precisely because some key articles are so vague that they are open to radically divergent interpretations that it was possible for such a consensus to be reached at all.
A case in point is the first article of the constitution, which reads: “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state. Islam is its religion, Arabic its language, and the republic its system. This article cannot be amended.” It was passed on 4 January with one hundred forty-six votes in favor, one against, and two abstentions. Rahoui voted for the article, as did Ellouze. It remains unchanged from the 1959 constitution, yet during the presidencies of Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, both secular authoritarians, there was only one interpretation possible. While elements of the country’s legislation and political life could on some level be said to have Islamic inspiration, religion was largely exorcised from the public sphere.
Since Tunisia’s uprising, the political terrain has become more inclusive. Under the previous regime, outward expressions of religiosity were not welcome in the parliamentary building, or indeed in any state institutions. Neither were radical leftists. When Article 1 was debated, it was Sadok Chourou, who along with Ellouze is one of the most conservative members of Ennahda, who gave the definition. Rahoui moved to give an alternative interpretation that would allow for the article to also be interpreted in the secularist sense: sticking to the purely symbolic spirit of the previous constitution that, as he says, would keep religion out of state institutions. Because the debates over the new constitution will be the reference point for future legislators and constitutional judges, these two alternative interpretations mean the future is wide open. Amel Azzouz, a prominent Ennahda MP who is more centrist than Ellouze and Chourou, points out that this ambiguity in many parts of the constitution is what being a democracy is all about. “I am not one hundred percent satisfied, and the opposition are not one hundred percent are not satisfied, but that is consensus,” she says. “And each one of us can find herself in this constitution.”
MPs and members of civil society from across the political spectrum expressed surprisingly similar views on the constitution. It is in some ways a continuation of the past, satisfying many secularists, with new freedoms and rights more consistent with democratic principles. Torture is banned, new institutions will be created and there is greater separation of powers. Like much of the constitution, its various strands were woven together in a nice but sometimes lumpy tapestry that aims to satisfy the demands of competing agendas.
The day after the clash over Article 1, Ellouze gave a radio interview denouncing Rahoui’s reaction to Chourou’s speech as proof that the leftist was “an enemy of Islam.” Rahoui, who had already been the subject of repeated death threats throughout the duration of the constitution-drafting process, told his fellow MPs that Ellouze’s statements had led a fatwa calling for him to be killed. “I am a Muslim, my mother is Muslim, my father is Muslim, my grandfather is Muslim and my wife is Muslim, and I am being threatened with death,” Rahoui proclaimed, in a speech that brought some of his fellow MPs to tears. Ellouze defended himself, saying his comments in the interview had been taken out of their context. “I am not the head of a gang and my statements cannot be equated with calls for murder,” he argued, according to media reports. Whatever his intentions, Ellouze was roundly condemned, including by members of his own movement. “Yes there are some [Ennahda MPs] who are against Chourou and Ellouze’s comments, and they expressed themselves clearly on this,” Rahoui acknowledges. This debacle led, in turn, to an amendment outlawing accusations of apostasy and incitement to violence being reintroduced to Article 6, which was passed on January.
Because the debates around Article 6 were so contentious, the resulting article is open-ended and filled with contradictory layers of meaning. So the state is “the guardian of religion” and “protector of the sacred,” whilst guaranteeing “liberty of conscience”:
The State shall protect religion, guarantee freedom of belief and conscience and religious practices, and ensure the impartiality of mosques and places of worship away from partisan instrumentalization. The State shall commit to spreading the values of moderation and tolerance, protecting sanctities and preventing attacks on them, just as it shall commit to preventing calls of takfeer [calling another Muslim an unbeliever] and incitement to hatred and violence and to confronting them.
Amna Guellali, director of Human Rights Watch for Tunisia and Algeria, warned in an article for World Policy Journal that these contradictions risk seriously jeopardizing rights and freedoms: “These paragraphs, overloaded with meaning and references, are filled with contradictions,” she writes. “This ambivalence could hold grave consequences for the country.”
Moving Beyond The Turkish Model
For the past three years, Ennahda has advocated the Turkish model as the one it was aspiring to. Ghannouchi has been publically referring to the Turkish model since the early 1990s. Yet in a January interview, Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, told me that he believed the Tunisian constitution allows more room for religion than the Turkish model. “The Turkish experience is very important…but it is based on secularism,” Ghannouchi says. “The Tunisian model is based on a sort of reconciliation between Islam and secularism.”
Aside from the fact that the Turkish model has been seriously thrown into question since 2013, Ennahda, in fact, drifted away from the Turkish model some time ago. In a 2013 article in Insight Turkey, Stefano Torelli argued that Ennahda was providing an alternative to, rather than a replication of, the Turkish brand of political Islam. Tunisia’s brand of post-independence secularism was more “passive” than the “aggressive” secularism of Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Torelli notes, highlighting the inclusion of Islam in Tunisia’s 1959 constitution. And since most Tunisian secularists in the constituent assembly voted to maintain Article 1, this tradition has not been challenged.
Not everyone is happy about the unanimity within the constituent assembly over Article 1. Haythem El Mekki, a strongly anti-Islamist activist-turned-journalist, is highly critical of the fact that secularist MPs voted this way. “For me, it is when there is consensus that there is an issue, not the other way around,” he says. “They are diametrically opposed in their vision, yet you have the opposition, supposedly progressive, secular and democratic, which voted in favor of maintaining Article 1, which defines Islam as the state religion.”
Ennahda centrists may have opted for a more progressive approach during the transitional era, but at some point in the future, if they want religion to play a greater role in the state and its institutions, it will likely be game on. These questions are currently on hold, but Tunisia will not have a technocratic government forever. As Rahoui says, flashing a smile: “All we have done is delayed the battle.” Rahoui and Ellouze will more than likely clash again in the future. Yet the very fact that such conflicts, however heated, can exist is part of a vibrant democracy - so long as the fighting stays in the democratic ring.