On January 14, Tunisians will celebrate their revolution,
which ignited a wave of protest that swept most of the Arab world. For this
third anniversary, the Salvation Front, representing key leaders from political
parties and civil society, gave the Tunisian people and the Arab masses a set
of rare gifts: another peaceful transfer of power, a new constitution that
protects the life and dignity of all Tunisians, and roadmap to a stable future.

Ennahda, the party that won the first post-revolution
elections in Tunisia, handed over power to a non-partisan government last week so
that it would remain relevant. This decision was the only path that could allow
Ennahda to maintain its edge in the coming elections and avert disastrous
outcomes similar to those experienced by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and
the likely diminished power of AKP in Turkey. Importantly, the resignation
fosters a promising culture of peaceful transfer of power–a first in the Arab
world. Before stepping down, however, Ennahda’s leaders–working with leaders
from two secular-leaning political parties, al-Mu’tamar and al-Takattul–managed
to reduce the level of violence in the country, stabilize the economy, draft a
new constitution, and set the course for a
transition to a permanent government though the ballet, not the bullet.

It should be noted, however, that Ennahda did not
voluntarily cede power. It took several political crises, many strikes and low-level
uprisings, two assassinations of key opposition figures, and active
participation of key civil society institutions (notably labor unions and NGOs)
for Ennahda and its allies to give in to public pressure. Additionally, the troika
(Ennahda, al-Mu’tamar, and al-Takattul) spent too much time drafting the constitution,
which is crucial for holding elections that would move the country past the
transition phase.

Nonetheless, Ennahda should be given credit for its
willingness to be inclusive, for compromising to preserve the dignity of all
Tunisians, and for enshrining social justice norms in the new constitution. For
instance, while leaders of the movement insisted that Islam be privileged, they
nonetheless accepted the codification of the civil state, the supremacy of the rule
of law, and the proscription on takfir (branding dissenters infidels or
non-believers). The new constitution, drafted under their watch, explicitly
protects women as equal citizens, codifies women’s equal participation in
public and political life, and highlights the abhorrence of violence against

Senior Ennahda leaders have always favored a parliamentarian
system of governance, but they signed off on a constitution that defines
Tunisia as being a republic: where the president is the top executive, where
the people (not some interpretation of religious texts) has the ultimate
authority, and where representatives of the people share governing
responsibilities with the president. The new constitution emphasizes the principle
of separation of powers, sets an absolute term limit for holding the presidency,
and establishes a judicial system that is both independent and reflective of
the will of the people (the composition of the constitutional court is determined
by both the executive and the legislature branches).

In short, the new constitution lays the foundation for a
pluralistic system that could empower all Tunisians and end the era of
authoritarianism. Ennahda’s relative flexibility and willingness to step away
from power at this juncture might be the only and best opportunity for the
movement to avoid the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood and preserve public
support, which it will need in the critically important elections ahead.

Of course, like any other constitution, Tunisia’s new
constitution is not perfect. For instance, the language associated with the
first two articles, the most important and most controversial in entire
document, seems to confuse two critical concepts: nation and state. That
problem could be avoided if the first and second articles are interpreted like
so: (1) Tunisia is a free nation (watan/ummah; not dawlah),
independent, sovereign, Islam is its national religion, Arabic is its national
language, and republicanism is its form of governance; (2) the Tunisian state
is civil, founded on citizenship, the will of the people, and the supremacy of
the law.

The distinction between state and nation would rectify some
of the misconceptions about the place of religion in society and in state
institutions. Many Western interpreters of Arab constitutions contend that
Islam is codified as the “state” religion. The language and use of the term
“dawlah” perpetuates that misunderstanding, which if taken to be true, would
make Article 1 and Article 2 contradictory: how can an Islamic state also be a
civil state and treat all citizens—Muslims and non-Muslims—equally?

Distinguishing between state and nation means that there is
no contradiction in holding that Islam is the religion of the country/nation
(given that the majority are indeed Muslim), but the state with all its governing
institutions is civil and treats all citizens equally regardless of religious
affiliation. This interpretation would soften any harmful interpretations of
Article 6, which states that “the state looks after (ra`yah) religion,
fosters freedom of belief and conscience and the practice of religious rites,
protects the sacred, and guarantees the status of mosques and places of worship
as neutral space–free from partisan politics.” It would also make sure that
the state does not define orthodoxy or discriminate on sectarian or religious
grounds. However, failure to distinguish between making Islam the national
religion and making Islam the state religion could empower the government to
determine orthodoxy and use that authority to suppress freedom of thought and
expression. The state can conceivably privilege a particular religion as part
of collective national identity without harm, but that privilege must be
balanced by strong safeguards for freedom of thought and expression.

The amendment clauses, too, are ambiguous and leave room for
an interpretation that could create two separate paths for amending the
constitution. Specifically, it seems that amendments could either pass through
the parliament or occur by popular referendum. If the latter, the president
could put an amendment directly to the voters and then ask the parliament to
approve it by a simple majority, whereas an amendment originating in parliament
would require a two-thirds majority. It is not clear whether these different
thresholds are the intended result, or whether these clauses represent a
poorly-considered balance of power that could result in careless amendments to
this foundational document.

These are decisive times for Tunisia. Once again, the people
and their representatives have a chance to prove that the Arab Spring was not a
fluke, that non-violence is the only constructive path for social change, that
Islam is compatible with representative governance, and that authoritarianism
is not the only guarantor of security and stability. Tunisians can provide a
hopeful model for Arab societies that is worthy of the Arab peoples’ past
sacrifices and honors those who struggled for social justice and suffered
torture, exile, imprisonment, and death.

* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His
most recent book,
Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical
treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions
are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the
university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.
https://i1.wp.com/majalla.org/press/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Tunisia_map.png?fit=847%2C611https://i1.wp.com/majalla.org/press/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Tunisia_map.png?resize=150%2C150EditorsSelected ContentAfrica,Arab Spring,Events,North Africa,Religion and Politics,Souaiaia,Tunisiaby Ahmed E. Souaiaia* On January 14, Tunisians will celebrate their revolution, which ignited a wave of protest that swept most of the Arab world. For this third anniversary, the Salvation Front, representing key leaders from political parties and civil society, gave the Tunisian people and the Arab masses a set of rare gifts:...