On Third Anniversary, Tunisians May Get A Constitution

Celebrations in Tunisia on Tuesday are marking the third anniversary of the revolution that led to the ouster of its dictator and set in motion the regional uprisings of the Arab Spring. As huge crowds gather in the streets of the capital, members of the National Assembly are voting on a new constitution that has the approval of both secular groups, which are popular in the capital, and Islamists, whose strongholds are in the countryside. New parliamentary elections are expected later this year.

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The Arab Spring that brought those changes to Egypt began in Tunisia, exactly three years ago today. Tunisians overthrew their dictator, prompting a wave of uprisings across the region. But three years on, lawmakers are still struggling to ratify a new constitution and lay the foundations of their country's future. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is in Tunis and sent this report.

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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Today is Tunisia's equivalent of July 4th and Tunis' Habib Bourguiba Avenue was crowded with people out to enjoy the festive atmosphere. On exactly this spot, three years ago, Tunisians were chanting for dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali to go.

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BEARDSLEY: National holiday or not, across town, 200 or so members of the constituent assembly were still hard at work ratifying the country's constitution. It was supposed to be ready today as a present to the nation, but it's no simple matter to rebuild a country after 24 years of dictatorship.

Marion Volkmann with the Carter Center in Tunis is observing the process. She says even though the document is delayed, ratifying it by this, the first elected assembly, is key for Tunisia.

MARION VOLKMANN: The idea of what's behind all that is that the constitution would be written by the same people who did the revolution. And so that constitution should really reflect the spirit of that revolution and create a solid democracy that would, you know, last for the generation to come.

BEARDSLEY: Volkmann says one of the key points in any democratic constitution is having an independent judiciary. That was jeopardized yesterday when the assembly's Islamist majority voted to have judges appointed by the minister of justice. That's ironic, says Volkmann, because the dictator persecuted the Islamists using the judiciary.

VOLKMANN: It's a political inclination to, when one is in power, to try to control the other powers, but it's a bad game, because in a democracy, you're not always in power.

BEARDSLEY: The constitutional article on the judiciary has not yet been ratified and is still being debated.

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BEARDSLEY: There was plenty of sharp debate, even screaming, at today's assembly session. Secular assembly member Abdelaziz Kotti says it's all normal.

ABDELAZIZ KOTTI: (Through translator) We have good relations with the opposition Islamists as human beings. But if they push something we don't agree with, we have to fight back. But we're trying to work through the process with them.

BEARDSLEY: Vokmann says Tunisia's constitution, with regard to freedom of expression, the press and the rights of women is strong and in harmony with international standards. Analysts say it's light years ahead of the rest of the Arab world.

The issue of women's equality in particular is dear to Tunisians. After independence from France in 1956, founding father Habib Bourguiba placed great importance on gender equality. Most secular Tunisians feared the Islamist-led government, in power until last weekend, was trying to chip away at those rights. It did appear to be the case at one point as the Islamists tried to substitute the word equality with complementary. Marion Volkmann.

VOLKMANN: It's also for many Tunisians something that they're really proud of, that they have been the avant-garde on women's rights for decades now.

BEARDSLEY: Volkmann says Westerners like to cast the political fight in Tunisia as secular versus Islamist, but she says it's a lot more complicated than that. Still, Volkmann and other observers here predict Tunisia will have completed the framework for its new democracy within two weeks. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Tunis.

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