Birthplace of Arab Spring begins constitutional debate, possible regional model

from The Washington Post..

By Associated Press

July 1, 2013

TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisia’s slow transition from dictatorship to democracy reaches an end with a final debate on the new constitution, the first in the Arab world to avoid mentioning Islamic law and written by elected representatives.

Bordered by chaotic Libya on one side and autocratic Algeria on the other, the political consensus over the country’s national charter could provide a model for a turbulent region struggling with the conflicts between liberals and Islamists in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

The opening of the debate at the Constitutional Assembly on Monday was marred by the deep polarization in Tunisia’s politics, as dozens of opposition deputies marched out of the chamber singing the national anthem in protest over the constitution’s latest draft.

Such theatrics, however, have been common during the nearly two-year lifespan of this body elected in October 2011 to write a new charter for a country of 10 million that spent the last half century under authoritarian rule.

The transition has been marked by the assassination of a politician, attacks on foreign embassies, street battles between hardline Islamists and their opponents as well as a deeply troubled economy that has been repeatedly downgraded by international lending agencies.

Yet with neighboring Libya filled with warring militias, millions in Egypt’s streets seeking to depose a democratically elected president and Syria mired in brutal civil war, Tunisia’s halting progress is a standout for democratization in the region.

Alone among the countries democratizing under the Arab Spring, Tunisia took the route of electing the authors of its new constitution. In Egypt and Morocco, two other countries that received new national charters, the writing was done by a panel of appointed experts.

The difference, said Ghazi Ghareiri, a constitutional scholar at Tunis University, is that Tunisia will have a constitution in which everyone has an investment. So while it takes much longer, the result will have greater legitimacy.

“It’s not so much the content that is important but the degree of popular involvement in the constitutional question,” he said. “Other constitutions have been handed down from on high — this is the first one that will be a real expression of the competing forces in society.”

Since the appearance of its first draft last year, the document has already been hotly debated by civil society and in the assembly’s committees. Demonstrations and popular pressure have already caused it to be revised three times.

The walkout by the opposition on Monday was in part due to what they said were the additions of new clauses by the ruling coalition, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party. That suggests a rocky debate ahead during the holy month of Ramadan set to begin in a week.

For some, the transition period has gone on long enough and this democratic approach was disastrous for a country that needs to present the world with a permanent government and regain international confidence in its deeply scarred economy.


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