Habib Sayah

Habib Sayah
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Constitutions, Elections, Featured, Islamist Politics, Parliaments, Political Parties, Tunisia



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To many observers, this week solidified Tunisia’s position as the “shining light” of the Arab Spring, maybe even as its last and only hope. To be sure, Tunisia has been spared from the ravages of civil war and sectarian conflict. And Tunisia is not ruled by lawless militias, nor has it undergone a coup à la Egypt’s al-Sisi. Instead, the parliament elected in the first elections following Ben Ali’s ouster in October 2011 has finally delivered the country’s long-awaited constitution, while a caretaker cabinet was appointed in accordance with a transitional road map reached through political consensus.

Met by an overwhelming wave of congratulations, the new constitution is certainly a decisive milestone in Tunisia’s democratic transition, as it put an end to the period of uncertainty that crippled the country’s economic recovery and hindered the confidence of international donors and investors. Examining the constitution’s substance, an American commentator went so far as to say that, in some respects, Tunisia’s constitution is more progressive than that of the United States. Other observers in the West have claimed that the adoption of this text is tantamount to an outright rejection of sharia law. In the words of President Marzouki: “From now on, violence and terrorism are behind us.” However, Western laudations and cries of victory stand in contrast with the fears and grievances of many Tunisians who still wonder whether this euphoria is premised on wishful thinking.

Hollow Victories for the Secular Opposition, and Ennahdha’s Backdoor to Sharia Law

The most striking outcome of this post-crisis period has been the ability of Tunisia’s political parties to initiate and sustain a productive dialogue. The double trauma caused by the emergence of political violence in a polarized Tunisia and the brutal failures witnessed in other Arab Spring countries surely hastened Tunisia’s quest for a peaceful political consensus. Both the Islamist bloc and the secular opposition have resorted to several compromises. However, with mere consensus being the priority over the substance of concessions, the opposition may have failed in its attempt to safeguard the secular character of the Tunisian Republic.

While the highly contentious amendment that would have made sharia the main source of legislation was discarded, and Article 2 confirms the civil -- rather than theocratic -- nature of the Tunisian Republic, Ennahdha and its conservative allies have nonetheless planted contradictions that can be viewed as potential backdoors to sharia code.

First, Article 1 of the constitution states that the religion of Tunisia is Islam. Surprisingly, this article is the object of an asymmetry of perception. Because the provision already existed during Bourguiba’s secular rule, some liberals see it as a symbolic concession with no significant legal impact. At the other end of the political spectrum, Ennahdha’s perception was clarified by a leaked conversation between the party’s leader Rached Ghannouchi and a Salafi imam. Ghannouchi told the imam that Article 1 can justify the application of Sharia law and the alteration of Tunisia’s progressive Code of Personal Status insofar as “the law is interpreted according to the will of the powerful.”

Another controversial article guarantees freedom of conscience. At the same time, however, it stipulates that the state is the guarantor of Islam and is therefore responsible for the protection of sanctity, a concept upon which Ennahdha has based several attempts of censorship directed at secular artists and liberal critics of Islamist orthodoxy. This amendment has the potential of strictly limiting both freedom of conscience and of expression.

The third backdoor consists in an article providing that Tunisian schools shall “embed youth in the Arabic-Islamic identity.” It opens the door to a ferocious competition for control of the Ministry of Education as a weapon of indoctrination in a county where perceptions of Islam vary and set the dividing political lines between proponents of a secular Islam rooted in Tunisia’s liberal theological tradition and conservatives influenced by Wahhabi thought.

The future impact of all these provisions will depend on the views held by the soon-to-be appointed members of the Constitutional Court and on the style of governance that the winners of the next elections will adopt.

The Rickety Bridge to Democracy

“We have left the government, but we haven’t left power.” This statement by Rached Ghannouchi sheds light on the main obstacle faced by Prime Minister Jomaa’s caretaker cabinet in the year ahead. Jomaa may indeed have what it takes to stabilize the country and carry out the necessary efforts in order to improve security before the organization of the next round of elections, but Jomaa will govern under Ennahdha's control. Despite efforts to establish political consensus, Ennahdha and its satellite parties may use their majority in parliament to prevent Jomaa from carrying out his missions as stated by the National Dialogue road map, notably: evicting the thousands of Islamist civil servants appointed or hired by Ennahdha as part of its plan to seize permanent control of the administration; cracking down on the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia, which is supported by several Ennahdha leaders; banning the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, the pro-government Islamist group which initiated the wave of political violence that shook up Tunisia, but who still enjoy the support of Ennahdha as well as President Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic party .

Meanwhile, Ennahdha's popularity has decreased dramatically, as has the popularity of the opposition. Abstention is likely to be the great winner of the coming elections; therefore, with the Islamist bloc’s lasting density combined with the fragmentation of the secular political sphere, Ennahdha will likely be victorious in spite of the party's unpopularity. This will be the likely outcome as long as the Islamist force manages to keep the secular opposition parties divided. As such, Ennahdha will retain substantial political power, as the rules have been designed to give the premiership to the party that has obtained the greatest number of seats in parliament.

Overall, Ennahdha seems to have outwitted the secular opposition and secured a certain degree of control over the political institutions for the coming years. A disruption of this status quo, either by the new caretaker government led by Jomaa or through the ballot box, seems very unlikely. Aware of this reality, opposition parties are already starting to pave their way toward competing for seat in a future Ennahdha-led coalition instead of balancing the Islamist political hegemon whose power may remain largely unchecked. In the coming years, the hardliners, who are a majority within the party, may push their leaders to use this window of opportunity in order to bring about sharia-inspired reforms, which may inhibit individual freedoms and result in further polarization. Meanwhile, in the absence of a credible alternative, Ennahdha’s continued political power -- notwithstanding its unpopularity -- may translate into popular disaffection for politics. Further, the resulting social unrest is likely to be fuelled by the economic reforms recommended by the IMF and the World Bank, which are necessary for Tunisia’s recovery, but will certainly prove unpopular.

Habib M. Sayah is a Tunisian lawyer and the director of the Kheireddine Institute, a think-tank dedicated to promoting individual liberty and free-market ideas in Tunisia. He is currently a Chevening Scholar at King's College London, War Studies department.