Trouble Ahead in Divided Tunisia
On January 2, deputies in Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly (NCA) returned to the negotiating table to finalize the country’s new constitution. Political rancor has plagued the drafting process since its beginning in late 2011; ideological and cultural divisions between Ennahda, the Islamist party that holds a plurality of seats in the NCA, and the largely ...
On January 2, deputies in Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly (NCA) returned to the negotiating table to finalize the country’s new constitution. Political rancor has plagued the drafting process since its beginning in late 2011; ideological and cultural divisions between Ennahda, the Islamist party that holds a plurality of seats in the NCA, and the largely secular opposition have reverberated through Tunisia’s evolving political landscape. As the constitution nears completion, deep polarization continues to wrack the political scene. Feuds within the NCA reflect long-standing social tension in Tunisia that will likely outlast the drafting process and limit partisan diversity in years to come. Heated debate over Islam’s role in the country’s constitution has distracted leaders from Tunisia’s underlying socioeconomic problems, leaving the uprising’s key grievances unaddressed.
After producing three draft constitutions since 2012, NCA members are debating proposed amendments to each article in order to finalize the text in January. The opposition has emerged victorious over Ennahda on several contentious articles in current debates — notably those pertaining to religion’s social and political role — earning praise from what the international media considers a resolution to persistent disputes. French daily Le Monde declared that the government had finally "turned its back on sharia" and Libération congratulated the NCA, immediately characterizing a reference to male and female citizens’ equal rights as a leap forward in gender equality. While these statements highlight areas of progress, they overstate the degree of consensus among political actors moving forward.
Although tensions punctuate the text, which remains fraught with ambiguity despite the removal of provocative language, many observers consider the new constitution to soundly guarantee human rights and transcend contentious views that hindered progress thus far. But the constitution itself is not the sole barometer of ideological polarization; attitudes amongst deputies shed light on a far more hostile and complex process than voting trends explain. During interviews I conducted in August 2013, Selim Ben Abdessalem, a deputy from the Nida Tounes party, insisted on Ennahda’s "obsession with protecting the sacred at the expense of free speech," and opposition member and activist Salma Baccar told me that she regarded the party’s conciliatory public posture suspiciously, convinced that Ennahda would continue to pursue sharia as a national legal framework.
These members’ attitudes recalled the political atmosphere during the summer of 2013, when opposition deputy Mohamed Brahmi’s assassination prompted over 60 opposition members to withdraw from the NCA, triggering its subsequent suspension in early August. But Ennahda deputy Habib Ellouze’s January 5 outburst, during which he accused the Popular Front’s Mongi Rahoui of being an "enemy to Islam," shows that the personal enmity between Ennahda members and secular deputies is deep-seated and present even at moments where opposing parties are seemingly willing to negotiate. Rahoui reacted by vigorously defending his Muslim heritage and affirming each member of his family’s Islamic faith. Unsurprisingly, the altercation did not go unnoticed; Ellouze’s accusations of heresy were a hair-raising reminder of the rhetoric that preceded the assassinations of Brahmi and opposition member Chokri Belaid. Rumors of death threats to numerous opposition members circulated, causing the Interior Ministry to adopt precautionary security measures. The episode illustrates that the new constitution’s exclusion of sharia resulted from compromise, not consensus, among discordant parties whose mutual mistrust and suspicion could destabilize the transition’s next steps.
The feud also exposed divisions within Ennahda itself, challenging the notion of the party’s monolithic character. Immediately decrying the incident, Ennahda Party spokesperson and NCA deputy Zied Ladhari described Ellouze’s intervention as an aberration from the party’s desire to engage in dialogue with the opposition. Ladhari’s announcement is one of many instances where high-ranking Ennahda members have felt compelled to clarify or downplay party members’ controversial statements.
If interactions on the assembly floor alone do not attest to the process’s ongoing instability, the proposed amendments to the constitution offer written documentation of the persistent rifts over Islam’s role in Tunisian society. Article 38, which guarantees public education "grounded in Arab-Muslim identity," came under fire from Tunisian secularists after its approval in early January. And although Ennahda, attempting to present itself as moderate during the 2011 electoral campaign, assured Tunisians that it would not impose sharia, the term appeared in the party’s January 2012 draft proposal. Party leader Rachid Ghannouchi eventually ceded to international pressure and public protest, officially renouncing the potential inclusion of sharia in the new constitution shortly thereafter. His clarification provided early evidence of the party’s internal schisms, but also seemingly put the question of sharia law to rest.
The issue’s reemergence in current debates attests to the fragile consensus binding Tunisia’s transition, exposing a dynamic political environment too often portrayed as static and homogeneous. The lack of confidence within the assembly and on the street further weakens the country’s social fabric, as citizens are frustrated that their initial demands for jobs and security remain unaddressed. "We’re fed up," Mouheb Garoui, the director of a youth organization, told me in an interview last summer. "Politicians said they couldn’t handle the economy because of the constitution, but so far there’s no constitution. So what are we supposed to expect, when we’re unemployed and deputies keep discussing Islam, an outdated topic?" Frustrated Tunisians see a functional and legitimate democratic system, grounded in free elections, that has failed to consecrate the uprising’s objectives.
As the country moves forward, its volatile political reality will continue to weigh on political processes, and heated disagreements will likely recur, confounding outside interpretations of a settled transition. Dynamics within the NCA reflect a political landscape evolving during a period of democratic apprenticeship, as divisive ideologies fill the post-revolutionary scene. Paradoxically, this chaotic period of political self-discovery has not necessarily widened opportunities for political affiliation, but has instead forced Tunisians to choose between religion and secularism. Stark demarcation between Ennahda and the rest could hamper democratic consolidation, creating a contrived system of dueling ideologies that will continue to distract from the country’s core challenges.
Karina Piser is a Master’s student in International Security at the L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris, France. She recently returned from Tunis, where she spent three months conducting research for her thesis on the constitution-drafting process.
Karina Piser is a journalist currently living in New York. Until 2019, she was based in Paris, reporting on religion, national identity, and immigration. Twitter: @karinadanielle6
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