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Middle East and Africa

The Tunisian pride, between freedom of expression and protection of the holy

In a conversation with Yadh Ben Achour expert in public law.

 

 

The Tunisian constituent assembly is writing the country’s new constitution. At what stage is the work? When is the approval of the new charter foreseen?

 

 

The constituent assembly has been working on the constitution since the beginning of 2012. It is divided into six constitutional committees which are proceeding asymmetrically with their work. The committee in charge of the Preamble has completed its work and has presented a draft of the text. It will then be debated in the plenary assembly, following a passage to the drafting committee. I do not think that the new constitution will be approved before October 2012, but it will be ready by the end of this year or the beginning of next year.

 

 

With regard to the draft of the Preamble, it does not make any specific reference to the sharî‘a but rather calls to account the primacy of civil law (qânûn) and insists on the objectives of the revolution. We know that it has not been simple to reach an agreement on the sharî‘a issue, above all among the members of the Islamic party an-Nahda. What has been the reaction to the draft in general?

 

 

Actually there has been some amount of reticence. Many Islamists do not agree with this point and there are still people asking for the application of the sharî‘a. Nevertheless the preamble was received very well by the non-governmental organisations, the opposition parties, civil society, intellectuals and artists. If the reference to sharî‘a had been included in the constitution endless conflicts would have been sparked off. For this reason it is a good thing that the party in power renounced this provision.

 

 

Last June an art exhibition accused by the Salafites of being blasphemous was at the origin of violent protests all over the country. How would you assess the reaction to this by the Islamist party an-Nahda, the first political party in the Tunisian government?

 

 

I think that an-Nahda reacted very badly, as it put the violence carried out by the Salafites and the holy value of the freedom of artistic expression on the same level. Everything cannot be put on the same level. An-Nahda sided with holy values rather than with the freedom of creation and expression. Instead it is necessary to stress freedom of expression, conscience, etc, which is moreover what the President of the Republic Marzouki did in his speech a few days ago.

 

 

Nonetheless, in a press conference televised by al-Jazeera, Rashid al-Ghannouschi, leader of an-Nahda, strongly condemned what the Salafites did. It is perhaps the first time that an Islamist representative condemns recourse to violence and more in general the Salafite interpretation of Islam without mincing words...

 

 

It is true that it was condemned by the party’s chief, the Interior Minister and by the President of the Republic. I believe that a certain consensus has been created around freedom of expression, especially artistic expression. But the idea of the respect for sacred things is dangerous as it could become an alibi to suffocate thought and freedom of conscience. It is therefore necessary to monitor this and to make sure that civil society defends the freedom of artistic creation and intellectual freedom in general.

 

 

In your opinion, to what extent will the other Arab countries, in turn involved in a transition phase, be able to draw inspiration from what happened in Tunisia?

 

 

We do not have the same level of political development nor above all cultural development. Tunisia, like Turkey, benefits from a modernising experience, which in the other Arab countries has not taken place, not even in Egypt, which although having experienced the reformist movement before the Second World War, has returned to backward ways of thinking, conviction and religion owing to social reasons. I believe that Tunisia will remain an exceptional case in the evolution of the Arab world.

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