The final draft of Tunisia’s constitution was to have been submitted before the national constituent assembly, assembly president Mustapha Ben Jaafer stated a fortnight ago. Instead, the assembly’s vote was deferred. Different parties have decided to take more time to debate critical articles of the newly-drafted constitution. This was a sound decision.
The articles at stake now in the constitutional debates are too significant to wrap up in a matter of weeks. In recent months the lack of consensus over the constitution has been noticeable, stirring political instability with Islamist-oriented and secular parties pulling in opposite directions. The timing of the upcoming elections is another volatile subject. In the meantime, the country’s economy is still struggling with 2.7% growth in the first quarter of 2013 compared to that of 2012, and more recently, international credit ranking agency, Moody, has downgraded Tunisia’s creditworthiness to Ba2.
The three main constitutional principles at stake are: guarantees of freedom of belief, the absolute right to strike and another article added to preserve civil and human rights in the constitution. The Ennahda Islamist party initially backed off from these agreements, however, gradual consensus was reached last Friday. More articles remain highly contested by different blocs in the assembly including the independence of the judiciary, the expected constitutional court and articles pertaining to eligible criteria for the presidential candidacy.
The article to guarantee Tunisians’ full rights to practice different religions or to forsake Islam will reverse the religious intolerance invoked by numerous very vocal Islamic preachers. This article will be Tunisia’s first active defence of the secular state. Tolerance and coexistence are what Tunisia most needs at the moment. Since the uprisings in 2011, Tunisians are divided along the lines of their ideological beliefs. Stability and religious tolerance will also help boost the tourism sector in Tunisia which has suffered from these squabbles. Investments will pour in faster, too.
Going back to the constitution, the right to strike is obviously a tricky one. Successive governments, since the fall of ousted president Ben Ali, have argued that repeated strikes have cost the economy millions of dollars. Strikes create societal instability and push stock prices down on the Tunisian stock market. However, Tunisia is going through a transition right now. Anytime, the right to strike could always be balanced with a new Act to reduce this burden on the economy. But meanwhile, human resources practices in different companies are outrageous and workers’ rights are demeaned everywhere in the republic. So strikes at least give Tunisians some kind of leverage to reform their employment laws along with their civil and political rights too.
Tunisian MP’s still cannot agree on many other articles in the constitution beginning with the preamble! And the assembly is still torn between parliamentary or presidential systems for the new republic. Parliament members are still debating the cons and pros of each. But one more week or month or so will not make much difference in the years to come. Tunisians need time to reposition themselves on the right democratic path.