Yesterday, the Islamist party Ennahda declared on national evening television that it would keep intact Article 1 of the 1959 Tunisian Constitution.
Article 1 of Tunisia’s first constitution explicitly states that Tunisia is a free, sovereign, and independent state, whose “religion is Islam, language is Arabic, and regime is republic.”
Ennahda holds 89 – or over 40% – of the 217 seats in the National Constituent Assembly, elected on October 23, 2011. Since its election, the Constituent Assembly has been working on drafting a new constitution from scratch. On December 10, 2011, the law organizing public powers was passed, granting a provisional working constitution until the new constitution is passed and ratified.
The debate surrounding the role of religion is becoming increasingly divisive, and is seen as stalling the drafting of the new constitution.
Zoubair Chhoudi, spokesperson of Ennahda, confirmed that his party’s political bureau undertook the decision as a response to the increasing division the issue is causing. “We felt it incumbent upon us to undertake an action that will unite Tunisians – not further divide them. The recognition of Tunisia as an Arab-Muslim state is more than enough to reinforce the country’s identity.”
Chhoudi also recalled that, “This is a campaign promise that Ennahda made. There is no need to politicize identity issues – it is dangerous.”
When questioned on the possible ramifications of this decision on the party’s level of cohesion within the Constituent Assembly, Chhoudi asserted that, “The highest legislative body within Ennahda has made this decision, but there will always be different opinions. The movement to include Shariaa in the constitution is a national, cultural one that is bound to impact the internal workings of any party.”
Abderraouf Ayadi, secretary general of the center-left Congress for the Republic (CPR) party and a member of the Constituent Assembly, said that Ennahda’s decision converged well with the CPR’s platform. “We are in agreement with the decision. A constitution bypasses any transitional phase and is here to stay. As long as the identity of the country is Arab-Muslim, the article remains accurate and relevant.”
Ayadi also hailed the decision as one that could potentially prevent the abuse of religion for political gains. “Prophet Mohammed used politics for religion. Now we are afraid that some will use religion for politics – especially when the goals aren’t always clear,” he said.
This decision came in a very delicate political context, as an ongoing debate over the place of religion in post-revolutionary Tunisian society and government continues to evolve.
The past two weeks alone have seen several demonstrations, some calling for the implementation of Shariaa, law based on the Koran and other Muslim holy writings, in the constitution, and others calling for a civil state. On March 16, over 4,000 demonstrators descended on the National Constituent Assembly calling for Shariaa. On March 20, Independence Day, Avenue Bourguiba was a sea of red and white with up to 15,000 protesters calling for a civil state. On Avenue Bourguiba yesterday, March 25, Salafist protesters again gathered to call for Shariaa law as the principal and sole source of judicial inspiration that is recognized in the constitution.
It is arguable though whether maintaining the current structure of Article 1 will necessarily exclude the mention of Shariaa in other parts of the constitution.
Article co-written by Wafa Ben Hassine.