Salute Tunisia and Emulate It

Tunisia was the first Arab country ever to draft its own constitution, which came into force in 1861, and fittingly it is now the first Arab country to draw up a really meaningful and legitimate constitution after a popular revolution that removed a long-serving autocratic government.

Many significant things are taking place around the Arab world these days, some violent, some peaceful, some within one country, and some across several different countries. History will look back on these days and record a variety of noteworthy episodes, whether about Syrian war and negotiations, Salafist-takfiri networks across the Levant, Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, continued military dominance in Egypt, and slow transitions in Libya and Yemen. The most important and truly historic recent event, though, must be the passage of the new constitution some two weeks ago by Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly.

This marks a moment of profound significance for the entire Arab world, because it is the first time in modern or ancient history that the ordinary citizens of an Arab society agree on the substance of their constitution through a consultative process that achieves a credible national consensus after significant debate and compromise. Tunisia was the first Arab country ever to draft its own constitution—the qanoon al-dawla al-tunisiyya, or “law of the Tunisian state”—which came into force in 1861, and fittingly it is now the first Arab country to draw up a really meaningful and legitimate constitution after a popular revolution that removed a long-serving autocratic government.

I have always felt that if the Arab world experienced just one country with a credible, homegrown pluralistic democracy, then other Arab societies would seek to emulate this historic leap forward. Well, thanks to Tunisia and its heroic people, we now have that one Arab constitutional democracy that is being born, after a messy and erratic process. The elected representatives of Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly needed two years and three months to complete their work. Three drafts were needed to reach this culminating moment of consensus, and the road was marked by intense arguments and compromises on almost every conceivable issue of public or private concern.

Precisely because the assembly members and many interested Tunisians debated every draft word by word, the final approved version enjoys popular legitimacy, which is unprecedented in the Arab world. Beyond this, the document is historic also because it encapsulates a national consensus on the most important and contentious issues that define the identity and spirit of Arab societies – Arabism, Islam, gender, civil-military roles, individual rights, minorities, separation of powers, and other such big sticker items that had never before been seriously and credibly debated by Arab publics.

The letter and spirit of the constitution will continue to be discussed for many years, as should be the case with any such document that plays at least four critical and foundational roles in any society:

  • It reflects the core values of the citizenry;
  • It affirms their collective identity;
  • It lays out the framework of governance that includes both the exercise and the limits of public power; and,
  • It affirms the equal rights of all individual citizens while providing mechanisms to guarantee that those rights are enjoyed and protected.

No other constitution in Western democracies, even pioneers like the United States, France and Switzerland, was as ambitious as this Tunisian constitution in insisting to agree from the start on the equal rights and common values and identities of all citizens—rather than waiting a century or more to give women and minorities equal voting and other civil rights. The Tunisian constitution calls for parity for women in elected public bodies, for example, while also affirming universal freedoms and rights for all citizens, which no Western democracy did at a similar stage of its constitutionalism.

Some blurred areas allow several articles of the constitution to respond to issues of profound concern to different groups of Tunisians. So the document notes that, “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state, Islam is her religion, Arabic her language and republic her regime,” but also that, “Tunisia is a state of civil character, based on citizenship, the will of the people and the primacy of law.”

The document carefully leaves space in the national tent for Tunisians who are neither Arab nor Muslim, such as its Amazigh or Jewish citizens, while also affirming the majority Arab-Islamic identity of society, and blurring the relationship between religion and the rule of law. Such wording matters because it emerged from years of intense debate that finally achieved a consensus of all parties. Much remains to be done in Tunisia, to put this document and its principles into practice, and also to get on with improving the socio-economic conditions of citizens whose material lives have stagnated in the last three years.

For now, though, we in the Arab world should salute and thank Tunis and its citizens for their great achievement. We must follow in their path, and muster the common sense and courage to follow them into that alluring yet—for most Arabs—still elusive world of sensible statehood that is anchored in the rule of law, citizenship, good governance and the glue of credible constitutionalism that binds them together.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global