Al-Nahda (also known as Ennahda), the moderate Islamist party that won 41.7 percent of the vote and a leading role in government in last month’s free elections, promises that it will not introduce shari’a or change the secular character of the constitution:
“We are against trying to impose a particular way of life,” Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, 70, a lifelong Islamist activist jailed and exiled under previous regimes, told Reuters. …
All parties agreed to keep the first article of the current constitution which says Tunisia’s language is Arabic and its religion is Islam. “This is just a description of reality,” Ghannouchi said. “It doesn’t have any legal implications. There will be no other references to religion in the constitution. We want to provide freedom for the whole country” …
Samir Ben Amor, a leader of the secularist Congress for the Republic party due to join a coalition with Ennahda and another non-religious party, agreed there was no dispute about maintaining the brief reference to Islam in the first article.
He said there was wide agreement among political parties to strengthen democracy in the constitution by referring to international human rights conventions. “We want a liberal regime,” he said.
Similarly, Al-Nahda promises it will not introduce laws new laws to regulate personal behavior:
“There shouldn’t be any law to try to make people more religious,” said Ghannouchi, whose party has pledged to continue to allow alcohol and Western dress here and pursue economic policies favouring tourism, foreign investment and employment.
The Islamist leader said he interprets sharia, the ill-defined and often confusing complex of Islamic teachings and laws, as a set of moral values for individuals and societies rather than a strict code to be applied to a country’s legal system.
Coalition partners committed to preserving Tunisia’s progressive laws on women’s rights and the family, without including those provisions in the Constitution:
Although all parties agreed to defend Tunisian women’s rights, some of the most advanced in the Arab world, Ben Amor said they could not agree to some feminists’ demands to have the country’s liberal Personal Status Code written into the constitution. “No constitution in the world has that,” he explained. These rights would be protected through legislation, he added.
About a third of the representatives in the newly elected assembly will be women — more than anywhere else in the Arab world, and twice the percentage in the US Congress.
Observers of events in Tunis have reported that radical factions have harassed women to dress more traditionally. About 500 women gathered in the capital to protest these developments, and were granted a meeting with Prime Minster Beji Caid Essebi to raise their demands.
The campaign created the conditions for aggressive and intimidating public shows of zealotry. Anecdotally, I’ve heard two stories of lesbians and gay men being harassed on the streets or in taxis during and after the election. In an alarming incident two weeks before the poll, the offices of a TV station that showed Marjane Satrapi’s film Persepolis — about religious oppression of women in Iran — were attacked and defaced by a crowd of Islamist men and women, some armed.
Nonetheless, there’s no reason now to doubt the apparent broad support in Tunisia for preserving the frame of the secular state, or to suppose that it will change in coming years. I tend to agree with Marwan Muasher, who wrote last week in the New York Times that
The best way to deal with Islamist parties … is to include them in government and hold them accountable. … Ennahda understands that it can’t ignore the secular part of the electorate. If the party wants to be as successful in Tunisia’s next election after a new constitution has been written, it knows it needs to present moderate views.
Over the next few years, other parties will have a chance to develop in Tunisia and Islamists are likely to get a lower percentage of the vote next time around. … While they may be part of leading coalitions in various countries, they are unlikely to gain power outright in any country.