News / Middle East

Tunisia MPs Move Forward on New Constitution

A member of Tunisia's parliament holds up a copy of a document that reads in Arabic "Draft Constitution of the Republic of Tunisia,"Jan. 3, 2014 in Tunis.
A member of Tunisia's parliament holds up a copy of a document that reads in Arabic "Draft Constitution of the Republic of Tunisia,"Jan. 3, 2014 in Tunis.
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Lisa Bryant
— Tunisian lawmakers are hoping to approve a long-delayed new constitution by January 14, coinciding with the anniversary of Tunisia's 2011 revolution. But there are growing doubts that will happen.
 
The parliament has passed several articles since it began voting on the draft constitution last Friday.  But there are more than 145 articles, and the process was delayed by death threats against several secular opposition members.
 
Amnesty International Tunisia Director Lotfi Azzouz says after months of gridlock the voting represents a major step forward.
 
What is important, Azzouz says, is that Tunisians have a constitution that guarantees rights and liberties.  He points to several strides so far, including language that makes Islam the country's religion, but also allows for religious freedom.
 
On Monday, lawmakers also agreed on language guaranteeing gender equality.  Tunisia has long been hailed as a leader on women's rights in the Arab world.
 
Amnesty and a number of rights groups are calling for Tunisia's parliament to strengthen other parts of the draft constitution to meet international standards and laws.
 
But Azzouz praises politicians and civil society groups for emerging from what he calls an 'impasse.'
 
Tunisia was expected to get a new constitution more than a year ago, paving the way for new elections.   Instead, the ruling Islamist Ennahda Party and the secular opposition bickered over the role of Islam in politics, among other issues.  The crisis deepened last year, with the assassinations of two secular opposition leaders.
 
Tunisia's 2011 revolution inspired popular uprisings across the Arab world.  Observers hope Tunisia will eventually become a democratic model for the region. 
 
But many are cautious about the future.  That includes law professor Hatem Ben Salem, a former diplomat under Tunisia's ousted president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  Ben Salem has been working with various political groups to move the process forward.
 
"Tunisia is in a position of 'wait and see.'  ... my biggest fear is the issue of terrorism.  Everyone knows today that in Tunisia you have groups of terrorists and you have lots of weapons hidden in many different places of the country.  It has never been the case before in Tunisia," says Ben Salem.
 
As for the constitution, Ben Salem joins those who doubt it will be passed by January 14, when Tunisia marks the third anniversary of its revolution.  But he does not think that will be a catastrophe.  It has taken months to draft the charter, Ben Salem says, rushing to adopt it would be a big mistake.

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