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Tunisian police officers and security personnel demonstrate in Tunis on Jan. 31, 2013. (ZOUBEIR SOUISSI/REUTERS)
Tunisian police officers and security personnel demonstrate in Tunis on Jan. 31, 2013. (ZOUBEIR SOUISSI/REUTERS)

In Tunisia, cradle of the Arab Spring, reformers’ hopes are thwarted by strident Islam Add to ...

Two years after Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, stuffed their private jet with treasure and fled to Saudi Arabia, lawyer Mahfoudh Amin is wondering what happened to the brave revolution that started the Arab Spring.

The 47-year-old expert in constitutional law is, like almost all educated Tunisians, fluent in French and Arabic and speaks a smattering of English. For his entire life, he yearned for the freedom and democracy enjoyed in the countries just across the Mediterranean; on a clear day, a Sicilian island can be seen from Tunisia’s northeast coast.

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“Tunisians saw how democracy functioned in Europe but they were not able to enjoy it themselves,” Mr. Amin says. “Then came Jan. 14, 2011 [the day Mr. Ben Ali fled]. It was a beautiful surprise for us.”

The beautiful surprise quickly turned sour. There is no doubt Tunisia is a democracy – the free elections of 2011 produced a Islamist-led coalition government and the media, unrestrained, is flourishing. Equally, there is no doubt that the most conservative Islamists, notably the ultra-puritanical Salafists, are making life miserable for some parts of moderate and secular society. The media has been full of stories of attacks on artists, journalists, prostitutes, abortion clinics, peaceful assemblies, secular politicians and female athletes.

But what worries Mr. Amin most is the drafting of the constitution, or lack thereof. When Ennahda, the ruling Islamist party that is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, won the 2011 election, it promised a new constitution within a year. That deadline passed four months ago. April has been set for the new finish date, but that could easily slip. Until the constitution is approved by the National Assembly, fresh elections cannot be held. In other words, the Tunisian revolution is stalled.

The drafting of the constitution is a broad process involving elected lawmakers and civil society, through a vast program of public meetings. Still, the non-Islamist parties and secular groups are accusing the Islamists of trying to hijack the constitution in subtle ways.

Secular Tunisians are understandably worried about their constitution. They do not want a repeat of Egypt, where President Mohammed Morsi issued a decree in November granting him broad powers that the judicial system could not challenge, then rammed through a new constitution that so enraged the opposition forces that most of their members resigned in protest. The new draft won 64 per cent approval in a referendum, but only 33 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots.

Tunisia’s experiment in constitution writing got off to an inglorious start too.

To wit: The draft constitution has outraged Tunisia’s women’s-rights movement, which notes that the wording implies women would not have equal rights with men. The Ennahda party wants the constitution to read that a woman is a “complement to the man in the family and an associate to the man in the development of the country.”

Mr. Amin cites Article 148 as “the most dangerous article” in the draft constitution – it says that Islam “is the religion of the state.” He notes that a civil state should have no religion and that if the article makes it into the constitution, all laws might have to respect sharia law, the religious law of Islam.

Abdelfattah Mourou, a lawyer who spent much of his career under house arrest during the Ben Ali regime, and who is a co-founder of Ennahda, says the opposition is fretting unnecessarily. The constitution, he says, “will respect individual freedom. … We are not including sharia law.”

The opposition parties and secular society, of course, are unconvinced.

Kamel Labidi, president of Tunisia’s independent media-reform commission, also has grave concerns about the draft constitution. He notes that it calls for the creation of a media supervisor, but one whose members would be elected by the national assembly, potentially robbing it of any independence. “It would be political,” he says. “This is a terrible thing.”

As the constitution grinds its way through public hearings, secular Tunisians are fighting hard to ensure it guarantees an all-inclusive society. “Democracy is our dream,” says Mr. Amin. “But we are still looking for our Spring.”

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