Disorder and accusations have reigned this week as the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) debates the draft constitution, with the role of religion in Tunisian political society surfacing as a major point of contention.
Monday’s session was chaired by NCA Speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar and Habib Khedher, a member of the ruling Ennahdha party and secretary-general of the committee responsible for preparing the final draft of the constitution.
During the session, opposition members frequently yelled and clapped while Khedher was reciting the draft of the constitution before the chamber, registering their disapproval of the document.
Since then, the NCA sessions have been devoted to individual members reciting their opinions on the current draft.
Much of the opposition’s displeasure stems from an article in the draft addressing Tunisia’s identity as an Arab and Muslim country.
Article 141 of the draft constitution specifically states that “Islam is the religion of the state.” This language contrasts with Article 1 of the draft, which states that Tunisia is a “free sovereign, whose religion is Islam, language is Arabic, and regime is republic.” This article was copied directly from the 1959 constitution.
Article 141 is also the only article in the draft constitution that, according to its language, cannot be amended at any point.
Critics believe the language in Article 141 creates too-close an association between religion and the state and suggests that the government must be Islamic.
Ennahdha party members dismissed these concerns, saying that the committee that submitted this final draft, headed by Khedher, proceeded properly.
“More than twenty deputies were involved in the discussion, expressing their opinions and working hard to deliver a consensual constitution that could satisfy all parties” Khedher told Tunisia Live. “The session went really well and all opinions were considered.”
However, Samia Abou, formerly a member of President Moncef Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic (CPR) party, considers Khedher’s committee to be an illegitimate substitute for the actual constitutional committees she says are responsible for forming and presenting the draft constitution.
“We worked hard for over a year and a half to provide Tunisians with a decent and unifying constitution. What Habib Khedher is trying to do is outrageous and illegitimate,” Abbou said to Tunisia Live. “Habib Khedher and especially his political party Ennahdha try to deliver a religious message by taking advantage of their current power.”
“The exceptional session for the revision of the constitution was meant to send a warning to Tunisians that their rights and freedoms are endangered and that theocracy is looming ahead,” Abbou asserted.
Amine Mahfoudh, a constitutional expert at the University of Sousse, told Tunisia Live that the language in Article 141 that forbids its own amendment is technically meaningless and nonsensical.
His concerns went beyond this point, however.
“Article 141 clearly states that Islam is the religion of the state. This is utterly anti-democratic since it identifies no separation between the religion and the judicial system,” Mahfoudh said. “This article allows the ruling government to impose a certain interpretation of religion. We are not afraid of Islam, but we are afraid of imposing one singular doctrine to a diverse community.”