Three years after the Arab Spring first erupted, the results are far from a clear-cut victory for pluralist democracy. Egypt has reverted to military rule after the unpopular administration of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. Libya remains unstable. Syria is locked in civil war. But Tunisia, where the upheavals began with the suicide of a deeply frustrated vegetable cart vendor, last month adopted one of the more liberal constitutions in the Middle East. The country’s National Constituent Assembly supported the document by a strong majority of 200 to 12, with four abstentions.
Tunisia’s post-revolution social fabric has been strained by tensions between Islamists and secularists, liberals and leftists. In the past year, these rifts have been particularly severe, and sometimes deadly. Last February, secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid was assassinated by a motorcycle-riding gunman suspected to be a hardline Islamist. An estimated one million people took to the streets of Tunis in protest. The July murder of a second politician, socialist Mohamed Brahmi, intensified a growing political crisis.
Many Tunisians, including members of Brahmi’s family, blamed the then-ruling Islamist Ennahda party for complicity in Brahmi’s death. The party, originally inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, is conservative, but accepts electoral democracy and describes itself as moderate. Its Tunisian critics, however, contend it turns a blind eye to Islamist extremists, including among its own followers. Following Brahmi’s murder, anti-Islamist demonstrators besieged the Interior Ministry and attacked Ennahda regional offices.
Against such a backdrop, reconciliation of any sort seemed unlikely. But, last month, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh of the Ennahda party, having reached an agreement with opposition parties, stepped down and was replaced by Mehdi Jomaa, an independent technocrat who will lead a non-partisan caretaker government until new elections are held later this year.
The deal eased Tunisia’s political deadlock and prepared the ground for a more co-operative Constituent Assembly. Ennahda, which has the most seats in the assembly, made several concessions, including dropping references to Islamic law. The constitution’s text does forbid “attacks on the sacred,” which is sufficiently vague to cause some worry that it may be used to curtail free speech. But it also protects freedom of worship and forbids declaring Muslims as apostates—a tactic frequently used by radical Islamists to justify harm to those they deem insufficiently pious. The constitution guarantees the equality of men and women. A clause requires the government to create gender parity in all legislative assemblies.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird praised the new constitution as a step in Tunisia’s democratic transition. Speaking after the vote, Tunisian assembly speaker Ben Jaafar described the document as imperfect, but born of consensus. “We had today a new rendezvous with history to build a democracy founded on rights and equality.”