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Ramadan and a new constitution in Tunisia

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Ramadan this year has been sugar-coated, a cover for various bills that are supposed to make the lives of Tunisians better, but which are not doing so.

Ahmed Medien
5 August 2012

Ramadan has kicked off in Tunisia like the rest of the Muslim world for some 10 days now. Ramadan is beautiful in Tunisia, often stiflingly warm too. Many cultural events are organized in the various Tunisian cities. Music, arts, plays, good food, good company, good atmosphere, you name it. This has been the tradition since before Ben Ali’s times. Ramadan connects in many of our minds with more active charitable activity, good cheer and happy times for Tunisians. Yet, Ramadan this year has also been sugar-coated since its beginning, a cover for various bills that are supposed to make the lives of Tunisians better, but which are not doing so.

Shortly after landing back in Tunis from wonderful Beirut, I rushed onto the internet, social media, etc. to check on the political and social situation in Tunisia. I thought nothing major would have happened. How wrong could I be?

In the three weeks while I was away having a good time, the Tunisian Constituent Assembly has been discussing a first draft of the new constitution. While protesters in Sidi Bouzid were threatening to shut down the city after long months of waiting for better economic conditions, it seems to have preoccupied itself with criminalizing any ties with Israel. Sub-committees of the Assembly were meanwhile more interested in gender equality. And the Ennahda party has been arguing for a new bill to criminalize blasphemy, while spreading paranoia about anybody who dares to criticize the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly.

It doesn’t take much knowledge of law, or much political nous, to realize that these three bills won’t change the lives of Tunisians to any significant degree. They are stupid and demagogic, and they do not reflect the imperatives behind the revolution. Tunisians now want to start up businesses and can’t find any funding. Many more can’t cope with the stagflation in Tunisia anymore, and thos whose anger helped fuel the uprisings, still might not have enough food to feed their families. Nor can Tunisia provide them with sufficient water in 40-degrees of heat.

With some Lebanese mockery still ringing in my ears about how a youth-made revolution brought old exiled Islamists to power, I couldn’t help thinking that while it might be popular, criminalizing ties with Israel is unlikely to serve the cause of Tunisians themselves. The ‘Palestinian cause’ has long been used by Arab dictators to garner support and more legitimacy from their people, and apparently the practice isn’t about to stop soon. The preamble of the new constitution now cites the Palestinian cause as a strategic determinant in Tunisia’s foreign policy. This makes Tunisia the first country ever to mention another country in its constitution.

Tunisia has no role in this conflict but mediating peacefully between the two sides. Criminalizing ties with Israel sounds almost idiotic since there have been no relations between the two since the Second Intifada. This article within the constitution will make some thousand Tunisian nationals with Israeli citizenship uncomfortable, while it will also limit people’s personal freedoms to choose whether or not to do business with Israelis. The state is once again interfering in commerce and people’s choice. Apparently the Tunisian revolution hasn’t taught the new MP’s anything. Or maybe it was the people who didn’t give them the right signals.

The subcommittee for liberties and rights passed a new article that will protect women’s rights in the new constitution. They had an alternative option, which read, “the state guarantees the protection of women’s rights and gains in all domains; it is forbidden to legislate any future law that might undermine these rights in any eventuality”. Instead, the article they have chosen, which was voted in by 12 votes for versus 8 votes against (9 of these votes being Ennahda’s) cites women as men’s ‘associates’, but not equals. Again, this falls short of the revolutionary aspirations of Tunisian women who suffered from many kinds of discrimination albeit less than their sisters in the Arab world. So one again, religion seems to have taken precedence over people’s rights in Tunisia.

To top it all, the Ennahda party intends to propose a new bill criminalizing blasphemy with up to two years in prison and something like a $1,500 fine. The criminal law will include any offence given to religious feeling in Islam, Christianity and Judaism, including, "insults, profanity, derision and the representation of Allah and Mohammed," which is forbidden in Islam.

Islam will always be an obstacle to full equality between the genders and a freedom of expression that may want to challenge religious texts or teachings. The Ennahda party doesn’t have to take the blame for framing such laws. The secular political stance of a Ben Ali or a Bourguiba would never have aimed to abolish such laws with Islamic references, and I doubt that any secular party now would try in the future.

But the people are going to have to make a choice again; do they want secularism and guaranteed equal rights for everybody, or do they still want religious dogma to interfere with people’s lives and impose its convictions on all those who choose to observe or not? One has got to make a choice.  

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