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    Discriminatory Qualifications for Tunisia’s President Cause Controversy

    By Sana Ajmi | Dec 11 2011 Share on Linkedin Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google Share on pinterest Print

    Tags: a human rights lawyer , a provisional constitution , bi-nationals , center-left party Ettakatol , christian Tunisian ,

    Nearly a month and a half after Tunisia’s first, post-revolution election, the National Constituent Assembly has adopted a provisional constitution that lays out a framework for the nation to appoint a new government. After five days of discussions, and often tumultuous debate, the Constituent Assembly has approved the document.

    Articles VIII and IX, which contain some of the most controversial subject matter in the provisional constitution, deal with the requisite preconditions candidates must meet to be considered eligible for the Tunisian presidency. After passionate deliberation, Mustapha Ben Jaafer, speaker of the National Constituent Assembly, announced that the president must be: exclusively Tunisian, a Muslim, a child of Tunisian parents, and at least 35 years old.

    Nejib Gharbi, a member of the Islamic party, Ennahda, stated that, ”Both genders have the right to run for presidency, but having dual nationality might cause a conflict of interest.  How can we guarantee they will be loyal only to Tunisia?”

    When asked about the exclusion of non-Muslims he referenced the overwhelming Muslim character of Tunisia. “Islam is the religion of the majority of Tunisians, and the official religion of Tunisia is Islam. It is normal for the president of the country to be Muslim.”

    The Sunni Muslim religious demographic of Tunisia accounts for more than 98% of the country’s population.

    Mohamed Benour, spokesperson of the center-left party Ettakatol, said that theoretically non-Muslims should have the right to run for presidency. However, in reality, the president of Tunisia cannot be a Jew or a Christian while the majority of Tunisians are Muslims. “I don’t think the Tunisian president will make an oath on the Bible or Torah. The constitution states that Tunisia’s official religion is Islam.”

    Benour also touched upon the bi-nationality issue, “Tunisians having two nationalities are permitted to relinquish one of them to meet the criteria [for presidential eligibility]. We know that many Tunisians were exiled during Ben Ali’s era; they were forced to leave this country.” Many Tunisian political dissidents that fled during the reign of the former regime adopted new nationalities to avoid being classified as refugees.

    In spite of receiving the approval of the Assembly, agreement was by no means universal. Some members objected to the articles’ passage, seeing it as the constitutionalization of a form of discrimination against Tunisian
    minorities and bi-nationals.

    According to Radhia Nasroui, a human rights lawyer, the final decision was “clearly discriminatory,” and deprives minorities of their rights. “This is sad that we are regressing. They [the members of the Constituent Assembly] do not respect the rights of minorities. Freedom of belief is a fundamental right, and should not be violated. All Tunisians should be treated equally, and enjoy the same rights.”

    Karima Souid holds two nationalities.  She is a Member of the Assembly elected from an Ettakatol list representing the Tunisian Diaspora in France. Souid questioned the fairness of the newly added conditions for president. “This is discrimination against bi-nationals…When it comes to investment and tourism we are considered Tunisians. However, when we want to serve our country and be politically active, we become second-class citizens. What makes other members of the Constituent Assembly more Tunisian than I am?” she asked.

    Bariza Rahali, a Tunisian Christian, lamented the new religious qualifications to be president. “This is discrimination against minorities, religion should not be the main criteria…Ben Ali was a Muslim in name but he did not guarantee basic human rights.”

    There are currently 25,000 Christians residing in Tunisia, though foreign nationals represent the majority of this demographic.

    Rabbi Daniel Cohen, of the La Goulette Synagogue, considers the new law unacceptable and unfair. “Tunisians should not be deprived of their rights simply because they are from another religion. The most important criteria are a president’s qualifications and trustworthiness. This is not about religion.”

    Approximately 1,800 Tunsians constitute the country’s Jewish community.

  • By Sana Ajmi  / 
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      Samir /

      I read about this at Al Jazeera Enligsh. I must say this is really embarrassing for Tunisia. These paragraphs signal authoritarian rule. In a democracy, people are equal before the law, regardless of religion or ethnicity. Surely, the tunisian MP:s must understand this. (?)

      If the Tunisian people want a muslim president, then they will vote for a muslim president. If they want a hindu president, or whatever, they will vote for a hindu president. The point is: it is up to the people to decide. This is democracy! Have faith in the people.

    1. Afif /

      I think we started on the wrong foot. The religious requirement, in the Constitution, strikes at the heart of the freedom of religion, and I personally find it offensive, because it, by Constitutional mandate, excludes my fellow Christian and Jewish Tunsisians, who otherwise are competent to fulfill this position. As a Muslim Tunisian, I dissent!!!

    2. Lutfiya /

      I agree with Samir. The only qualification to be president should be the support of the majority of Tunisians. In reality it is almost inconceivable that a free nation proud of asserting its islamic values will in fact ever vote in someone other than a muslim so including the exemption was a mistake.

    3. McLovin /

      “Islam is the religion of the majority of Tunisians, and the official religion of Tunisia is Islam. It is normal for the president of the country to be Muslim.”

      Why stop at religion? I can think of lots of other things that aren’t normal for Tunisians. Since the majority of Tunisians aren’t handicapped or homosexual, why don’t we also pass laws stating that the president must be able to walk without a cane and he must be married to a women? This law represents the first big step towards institutionalizing the tyranny of the majority.

      This constitution — upon which all future laws will be based — clearly states that from the moment of their birth, some Tunisians are more equal than others. While this law doesn’t address women’s rights, I fear that it sets a precedent that could be used to justify future laws that discriminate against women. Tunisian women already face discrimination in matters of inheritance and marriage (it is illegal for them to marry non-Muslims) and I think that this law will just be the first of many that will slowly eat away at women’s rights.

      The constitution should be a model of what Tunisia aspires to become. The values and ambitions outlined in it, will shape future laws and ultimately define Tunisia as a whole. Unfortunately, this constitution is one that promotes intolerance over equality.

      …Oh, I almost forgot — did anyone else notice that this law would exclude Bourguiba’s own son from running for president because his mother was French?

    4. Tunisian /

      It is up to the people, and the people have decided that the president must be Muslim. What’s wrong with that? For the majority of Tunisians a president being Muslim is the most basic of requirements. What the left and the west don’t understand is that for Muslims your religion means a lot and it’s not just something you keep between yourself and God. As Muslims religion plays an important role in our daily lives therefore we expect a president to understand that.

      • McLovin /


        Clearly your religion means a lot to you and you would never vote for a non-Muslim. That’s fine. In fact, I’m sure that the majority of Tunisians feel the same way — but that doesn’t mean that no one should have the right to vote for a non-Muslim.

        You say that “it is up to the people.” So then, should the people be allowed to decide who qualifies as a Muslim. I, for example, am a Muslim, but I drink beer and eat pork. Should I be allowed to run for President?

        • Tunisian /

          I see where you are coming from, but let me try clarify further. Islam is the religion of the state, as outlined in the constitution therefore religion is an important factor and thus is a requirement for a president. I compare religion to age which is outlined as 35 years. One can say that we are discriminating against younger people but the argument will be that the proper functioning of the presidency requires a mature person. Similarly, the presidency requires a Muslim because they will not be able to fulfil the first clause of the constitution.

          This raises 2 points; firstly, one can argue that a young person has to just wait to get older so he can be nominated which is unlike changing religions. This however does not take away from my argument that a non-muslim does not have the capabilities to be a president primarily because he doesn’t understand it.

          Secondly, and this is to answer your question about non practising Muslims. Again to the age requirement, see how age is specified to meet a maturity requirement but we don’t actually specify in the constitution a certain maturity level. It will be absurd to do so even though you can have older than 35 but still be immature. Similarly, religion is specified as Muslim but it will be absurd to actually define the level of practising Muslim you have to be. Even though the voting populace will most certainly take it into account when they’re voting.

          • McLovin /

            Exactly. The voting public has to take it into account. So then let them decide who would represent them best. Frankly, I think that many voters might think that an observant Jew would be of better moral fibre and more capable of representing Tunisia’s values than me.

            There are two fundamental problems with this law. The first is that it clearly states that not all Tunisians are equal. My children, for example, apparently aren’t Tunisian enough to be president. Worse still they did nothing to exclude themselves from being president. By virtue of their birth, they are simply excluded.
            The second problem is that this law essentially states that Tunisians can’t be trusted with democracy. By limiting who Tunisians have the right to vote for, we’re basically saying that “Yes, you can have elections, but but I’m going to tell you who you’re allowed to vote for”. How is that any different than the way elections were under ZABA?

        • Lutfiya /

          Dear Mclovin, if you describe yourself as a muslim (as you do) then you are one. Drinking beer and eating pork is your personal choice and you alone are answerable for that. Some might not vote for you as president as a result but you have a right to stand. In reality the proviso that the President be muslim is meanigless as he/she will undoubtedly be. My personal view is they cannot justify specifying that as in principle any Tunisian should have that right wether it is realistic or not.

          Lest we forget Bourgibba and Ben Ali were nominally muslims whilst we all know they in fact served the forces of darkness!

      • Afif /


        My dear Tunisian brother or sister.

        It is so easy to become a member of an oppressive majority, and the time in history is now for Tunisians to take the road less traveled, and be among the advanced nations. When we deny others their humanity, by making them look less patriotic than us because of their different faiths, we have in effect established our own inhumanity, and we become undeserving, and we will most assuredly not reap the fruits, of the revolution that regular folks died for or in its midst.

        All persons of good conscience, regardless of their roots or upbringing, agree that Freedom of Religion is a fundamental right of the highest order. The right to believe, or even not to believe at all, is a right that should never be abridged nor be established by any government. Thus, to mandate a particular religion as a qualification of a president of a country or any other high office, is discriminatory per se, and is repugnant.
        As I understand it, your argument is that since the Constitution sets the age of 35 as the qualifying age for the office of the presidency, there is no reason why it cannot also mandate that the religion of Islam be the faith of a Tunisian president. In other words, as you contend, since discrimination on the grounds of age is permitted by the Constitution, so should discrimination on the grounds of religion.

        However, this argument is misplaced. One’s age is not a fundamental right, as is the right to practice one’s religion or faith or the right to vote. For example, the law in several countries, and for a good reason, prohibits persons under the age of 21 from consuming alcohol in public places, such as bars and clubs. Yet, one would be appalled, and the people of those countries will take up arms against their governments if that same person is denied the right to vote. In fact, in some modern countries, you can vote at the age of 18, but you are not allowed to purchase alcohol until the age of 21. You can actually serve your country at the age of 18 by joining the military, and yet you cannot lavish your girlfriend with a Martini at that same age on the bar counter.

        Whether you had cheered, fought against, or silently endured the dictatorship of one individual in Tunisia, whom we shall call “The fleeing Coward,”as your case may be, by requiring the religion of Islam to be a qualification for a Tunisian in order to hold the office of the presidency, you are in effect substituting the old dictatorship with a new dictatorship and oppression by the Muslims of the non-Muslims.
        This is unequal protection under the law that you may have fought against before, why the change now? I even venture to say that I cannot imagine you stating that your own child can never be a president of the country of his birth simply because he has embraced the religion of Islam. But “What is good for the goose is good for the gandor,” a fair-minded would say, or “treat others the way you want to be treated,” as many people of various faiths would tell you.

        However, regardless of notions of fundamental fairness that one may embrace, we as Tunisians, especially we the Tunisian Muslims, who at first blush seem to have matured through the recent revolutionary experience, seem so quick to fall back in the same old ways that kept this beloved country of ours divided and weak, backward and the tempting prey of old and new foes.

        Only when we realize that economic prosperity and strength are concomitant with the happiness of all individuals that make up our society, among which the happiness that stems from the fundamental right of each person to exercise his own religion freely, openly, and without being deprived of the privileges and immunities offered to each citizen, will Tunisia become a bright star among all the nations of the world. Only then, we can say that we have secured the liberties and blessings that Allah or God has bestowed upon us.

        Additionally, just being a Muslim does not make you more patriotic than a non-Muslim, being a non-Muslim does not make one automatically less patriotic than you or render a fellow Tunisia citizen a spy serving foreign powers. We must confess that these prejudices are deeply rooted in our Tunisian society, and I hope you speak up now and spread the gospel so that when the Constitution is adopted in its final form, it will not discriminate against anyone so that it can be worthy of its name.

        As you ponder over my long half-provoked comment, I hope you realize that the enemies of the Arab Spring grow and flourish like bacteria on these failings similar to those the current Constitution. Look no further than some articles in this website and comments that have unwarranted or gratuitous attacks on Ennahda, its leader, the President, and others. Read the manner and tone of the several “objective” comments or article that lament the current hardships of regular folks in Sidi Bouzid, as if to say, “Your revolution has failed! even after one year people are suffering!,” although they were fully aware that the first post revolution cabinet was not yet proposed.
        I call upon you my dear brothers and sisters to insist on a religion blind Constitution, before we fall back into the ages of the Ottoman empire. It does not make us less Muslim by insisting on such omission, but rather a free and truly democratic society for all generations to come. Vive La Tunisie!!!!


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