Tunisia to vote on new charter 3 years after uprising

TUNIS: Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly is to begin voting on the future constitution Friday, three years after the country’s popular uprising and after five months of deadlock between the ruling Islamists and opposition.
The adoption of Tunisia’s constitution would represent a crucial milestone in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, where hopes of a successful democratic transition contrast starkly with other countries in the region rocked by regime change.
But with revisions added after intense last-minute negotiations, a final draft had yet to be circulated two days before the scheduled scrutiny of the long-delayed charter, which is to be voted on article by article.
Ennahda, the ruling Islamist party, said the text that was completed in June but rejected by the opposition will be submitted to MPs and will have an index detailing the revisions it thrashed out with the opposition in December.
“The compromises reached have not been integrated into the draft and separate articles can still be added... So we are not safe from last-minute surprises, on a religious amendment for example,” warned Nadia Chaabane, an opposition MP with the Massar party.
“I remain suspicious,” she told AFP.
Ennahda has repeatedly highlighted its decision in 2012 to renounce its demand that Islamic sharia law should be mentioned as a main source of legislation.
In exchange, the party has been allowed several references to Islam in the text.
Chaabane said the sudden rush to adopt the constitution would result in “a very tight schedule, and therefore something which is not great from the point of view of its form”.
“It’s a shame that what will be a foundational text for several generations is not very carefully drafted,” she added.
The deadline for adopting the new constitution, which has been a work in progress for more than two years, has been set for January 14, the third anniversary of the revolution that ousted former autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Lawmakers must examine a text that includes about 150 articles and 225 proposed amendments, with each requiring endorsement by a majority of MPs. The constitution itself must then be approved by two thirds of the assembly’s 217 elected members or put to a referendum.
‘A level of democracy guaranteed’
One of the key outstanding issues is the power retained by the national assembly up until the next parliamentary elections, whose date has yet to be determined, with the Islamists, who hold the largest number of seats, insisting they should be able to legislate.
Other contentious topics, notably the prerogatives of the head of state in a country that recently emerged from five decades of dictatorship, appear to have been resolved.
The Islamists, who were persecuted under Ben Ali, had argued for maximum limitations, but many wanted to see power divided between the prime minister and the president.
The final version will give the head of state responsibility for “determining general policies in the areas of defence, external relations and national security,” according to the official TAP news agency.
The president will also be able to propose a vote of no confidence in the premier and have limited rights to dissolve parliament.
Constitutional expert Yadh Ben Achour, who was consulted on the drafting of the text, said he was largely optimistic, noting it guarantees civil liberties “in conformity with international norms”.
“In general, the negotiations have resulted in a decent constitutional text which guarantees a level of democracy... There have been a lot of improvements to the content and the form, even if some things are still needed.
“What I fear most is that certain MPs will not respect the commitments of their parties (to compromise).”
Parliamentary speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar, a secular ally of the ruling Islamists, expressed confidence.
“The debates on certain thorny issues were difficult, but the compromises reached in recent weeks have restored trust among MPs after the crisis triggered by the murder of the MP Mohamed Brahmi on July 25.”
The killing of Brahmi, by suspected Islamist militants, has paralysed political life in Tunisia, with opposition parties demanding the Ennahda-led government’s resignation.
The adoption of the constitution should also coincide with the appointment as prime minister of Mehdi Jomaa, an independent nominated for the post in December under a deal that followed months of crisis talks.

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