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.