When Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor who hoped to someday own a pickup truck, set himself on fire in rural Tunisia on 17th December 2010, following perceived harassment from a police officer, few imagined that his sacrifice would lead to a functioning constitution for the Tunisian people. As the world was riveted by the events in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, far fewer seemed to be cognizant of the several hundred Tunisians killed in protests against the then leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the furious and complex negotiations taking place to construct a government out of the ashes of a revolution, but Tunisia is the first of the ‘Arab Awakening’ nations to generate tangible governmental changes.
While the Tunisian constitution has some ambiguities and inconsistencies, it is an extraordinary step forward in the decades-long process to bring democratic reform into the Middle East. The Constitution of Tunisia, adopted 26th January 2014, should be held up as a model for other nations to follow as it was born of negotiation and compromise, the latter being a skill lacking in many of the Western nations who so publically lionized the revolutionaries that overthrew corrupt and ruthless governments. The Tunisian people have much to celebrate and should be heralded as the first certifiable ‘success story’ of the Arab Awakening. The Tunisian constitution is progressive and allows one to believe that a republic based on the principles of human dignity and individual freedoms can flourish in an area of the world too long associated with repression and degradation.
Perhaps the events in Ukraine, coupled with the prolonged suffering of the innocent in Syria, have worked to muffle the excitement about the Tunisian achievement, but there are other points of potential contention as well. The Tunisian constitution is not a flawless document, but democracy itself certainly has blemishes. The Tunisian government has the footing necessary to solidify tangible reforms in a country dominated by an autocrat. While the trepidation felt by some critics is valid, the language of the document places Tunisia firmly in a direction of outstanding evolvement. A concern among observers of the Tunisian revolution is the role Islam will play in the nation’s new government.1 The prominent fear was greater influence upon the judicial system by the Nahda Islamic Party (al-Nahda); however, al-Nahda’s leaders demonstrated a commitment to nationalism by openly compromising with secular groups resulting in a document that includes in its opening preamble a dedication to work in ‘cooperation with the peoples who struggle to achieve justice and liberty’.2 Within that phrase is the culmination of the goals and aspirations of those throughout Libya, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere in the Arab world, who have been brave enough to take to the streets and social media to generate real change within their nations. Tunisia is the living embodiment that revolution can be effective only if leaders are willing to sacrifice personal platforms and agendas and place the best interest of their nation above all. The Preamble continues with a pledge ‘to establish a democracy founded on the sovereignty of the people’ with a ‘stable political system based on separation of powers’.3 Tunisia is taking her political cues from the Enlightenment-era works of Locke and Montesquieu, incorporating reason and a rejection of despotism as the political backbone of a governmental structure that should be emulated by her neighbours.
Selecting the motto of ‘Freedom, Order, Justice’, Tunisia unequivocally promotes personal liberties and the right for individuals to express their opinions without fear of repression.4 Political parties in Tunisia may not ‘take religion, language, race, sex, or region’ as its principal platform, thereby encouraging a separation of church and state.5Undoubtedly, this will be tested by groups as Tunisia travels down its path of insipient democracy, but the constitution crafted by combined religious and secular forces clearly states that religion should not be allowed to dominate political life in the nation. Tunisia’s constitution mentions the ideals of Islam in its Preamble and the country does declare itself an Islamic nation, but the idea of Sharia law does not appear in the constitution, and judgments are ‘rendered in the name of the People’, not in the name of Allah.6
The Chapter detailing the role of the Judiciary is secular in tone and surprisingly brief. Judicial power rests in the hands of Presidential-appointed judges who answer only to the law and not to any scripture. This may be the greatest challenge for Tunisia as the country moves forward, as the struggle to balance religious ideals and judicial independence has long been muddy waters in Islamic nations. Undoubtedly, the sparse language of this section will be tested as the nation moved forward, but one should not be immediately dismissive of Tunisia’s ability to maintain a balance of power between law and faith and wait to see how such instances play themselves out within the newly formed judicial structure. Other personal freedoms including freedom of expression, press, and public assembly are guaranteed as well, with the Tunisian government recognising the sovereignty of their citizens to legally embrace the ability to challenge political decisions and actions; in short, dissent is allowed and dissent is a fundamental building block of democracy. The true implementation of these policies remains to be seen and the world will watch closely if and when some form of dissent occurs within Tunisia. The purpose of any constitution is to protest the rights of the citizens over whom it governs, but constitutions also provide frameworks to theoretically limit abuses of power. The real test of the Tunisia’s constitution will not be its passage, but rather how the government responds to a substantial rally for change.
While the Tunisian constitution appears to embrace progressive reform and the celebration of human dignity, there are no specific references to women. The repression of women within the Middle East has been a widely detailed area of discussion and frustration for many in the West and therefore, as Tunisia offers a promise of a future with greater opportunities for women, one must be cautious about how women’s lives will be impacted by a more democratic government. The constitution makes note of ‘citizens’ and the ‘Tunisian people’, but nothing is said about women specifically. The document does note equality for all people under the law, but if the Tunisian constitution is to truly be heralded as the harbinger of reform within the Middle East, the government and specifically, its judicial system, must truly embrace what the constitution guarantees. Issues including veiling and polygamy were supported by members of al-Nahda but ultimately defeated and left out of the constitution.7 Tunisia is evidence that Islamic groups can be flexible in the name of progressive change that elevates the collective notion of the state. Ben Ali had ruled a nation that was religiously moderate and his removal, while a triumph for those seeking greater political representation and individual liberties, also marked an opportunity for politicians with more non-secular agendas to influence the formation of the new government. The debate around the role of religion within the Tunisian government was fierce and a balance seems to have been struck in which a freedom of religion is respected, but this too, must be observed carefully. To this end, women can cautiously celebrate the new Tunisia; women will be guaranteed equality within the legal system on paper, but will this translate into the court room? What will the level of transparency be for the new coalition government? How much agency will women possess in the new Tunisia or will traditional male hegemony still rule? There remains tremendous uncertainty about Tunisia’s future, but the achievement of a constitution so imbued with a goal of celebrating individual freedoms should be embraced firmly and paraded proudly as motivation for other populaces struggling under the weight of repression.
The Arab Awakening is far from over; the quest for stability in Libya and Syria rage on and Egypt, the centerpiece of the movement, continues to wrestle with the transition from Morsi to Mansour. However, along the coast of Northern Africa, there is a beacon of hope for progressive and true reform. The people of Tunisia took to the streets and demanded secular reforms. Their demands were answered with violence initially but the sacrifices made by so many, starting with Mohamed Bouazizi over three years ago, have resulted in a document to be heralded by the world as a symbol of democratic reform throughout the region. It would be horrifically naive to believe that one document will permanently alter the lives of millions throughout the Middle East and I am not suggesting that Tunisia has constructed a flawless piece of legislation; clearly women’s rights must be carefully monitored and there is always room for abuses of authority. Additionally, the Tunisian government features power sharing between a president and prime minister. While the President holds executive power and is Commander-in-Chief of the military, the Prime Minister ‘directs and coordinates the work of the government.’ This abstruse power structure could force a reexamination of authority and a more finite definition of powers. However, rather than highlighting the potential pitfalls of Tunisia’s first steps towards full democratic immersion, one should recognise the magnitude of this achievement. The Tunisian leadership, through months of debate, negotiation, and compromise, generated a national constitution that places limits on presidential authority, recognises the rights and legal protections of all people, and honours religion without making it the defining aspect of canon law. The future of Tunisia is naturally uncertain, but unlike so many of the nations surrounding her, Tunisia has ratified a constitution with clear democratic ideals that should help to guide her through the tumultuous times that undoubtedly lie ahead.
Rich Quinlan was born and raised in Rumford, Rhode Island, and is currently a teacher of history at the Green Vale School in Old Brookville, New York. A lifelong student of Middle Eastern affairs, he lives in Huntington Station, New York with his wife, son, and cat.