Journalists asked Sami Layouni, a Tunisian male citizen, why he participated in a street protest in Tunis on Monday 13 August. “We are here to support women and to say that women must support women’s rights (…) And we are not going to let Islamists transform our spring in winter” were his words to the cameras.
Like 6,000 Tunisian citizens, male and female, Layouni walked down Avenues Mohammed V and Habib Bourguiba. Through the demonstration, the protestors sought to show their outrage at their elected members of parliament, whose current mandate is to draft a constitution for Tunisia. They condemned an article that was adopted by the Right and Liberty Commission of the Constituent Assembly on 1 August.
The protests were a means for Tunisians to express their attachment to their newly acquired rights. In December 2010, after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in the city of Sidi Bouzid, thousands, if not millions, of Tunisian protested against the rule of strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. He was ousted on 14 January 2011. Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine Revolution’ sparked democratic aspirations across countries in the Maghreb, the Middle East and amongst Gulf countries. During the ‘Arab Spring’, Egypt, then Libya successfully ousted long-time ruling dictators, King Mohammed VI of Morocco lifted grip on power in favor of members of the government accountable to the Parliament, and Bahraini and Syrian activists began a fight against authoritarian rule.
A Facebook post sparked this wave of Tunisian protests. On 2 August Selma Mabrouk, an Ettakatol member of the Right and Liberty Commission, published a French translation of article 28 of the draft constitution on her Facebook account - she has been quite active on broadcasting the work of her commission over the last few months. According to her translation from Arabic to French (the only public version of the article), the article statutes that “The State guaranties the protection of women rights and the promotion of their gains, as a real partner of men in the mission of the homeland building, and the roles of both should complement each other within the household.” The Tunisian members of parliament and the Tunisians demonstrating in Tunis vividly opposed ‘complementarity’ and the principle that women existed only ‘within the household’.
Coincidentally, last Monday’s rallies coincided with Tunisia’s National Women Day and an important anniversary - Tunisia’s Personal Statute Code, adopted 56 years ago. Under the impulse of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president, who ruled the country until 1987, the Code granted women an equal status to men. The text allowed for increased rights for women, permitting them abortion and divorce. On Monday, many of the protesters held banners probing the government and the country’s parliamentarians of their intentions towards these provisions.
In accordance with the chants sung in Arabic and French during the protests, “Equality all the way - no complementarity in the constitution,” investigative journalist and Nawaat blogger Lilia Weslaty, whose articles documented the revolution and the progress of the current regime, told The Global Journal that “treating women as an exception was already a problem.” Instead, she promoted the rights of undifferentiated “citizens” as what was already in the constitutional text. To validate her point, she further questioned: “if I am a woman and do not want to get married, do I fit in this article?” Unlike the Preamble of the Constitution, which does not make the distinction between male and female Tunisian citizens, Weslaty explained, a specific chapter on women was the result of Ennhada members’ request.
Ennahda is a relatively new (legal) party on the Tunisian political scene. It was formed in the 1980s by Rachid Ghannouchi, exiled in London. While Ben Ali was in power it remained an underground movement promoting moderate Islamism. It was legalized in March 2011 and won the October 2011 elections with 41% of the votes. Since then, a troika government formed by Ennahda and two junior coalition partners, the Congress for the Republic Party (CPR) and Ettakatol, have formed a government headed by Hamadi Jebali. The three parties have also been working on the draft constitution.
Tunisia's Constituent Assembly
In an interview with the Tunisian Press Agency, one of the National Assembly members from Ennahda, Farida Abidi, regretted the controversy only based on the word ‘complementarity.’ She explained that "The use of the term of complementarity should be construed in a positive way," with consideration to Article 22 that states "All citizens have equal rights and duties before the law notwithstanding any kind of discrimination whatsoever."
Nevertheless, recent arrests and two articles voted in the new constitution, in addition to Article 28, have led some Tunisians to doubt Ennahda’s initial statements, differentiating itself from other Islamic parties. Instead, despite the reelection of moderate Ghannounchi – Ennahad’s founder – at the head of the party in July, they have denounced an increased influence of radical ideas since Ennahda’s election.
Upon the party’s election, its spokesperson, Soumaya Ghannoushi – the daughter of Ennahda’s founder– wished to reassure those observers who feared Tunisia was walking away from the prospects of democracy. “We are the most progressive Islamic party in the region.” She added that the party would accept pluralism and diversity, while all movements “[tried] to work together.”
As the conversation continued on post-revolutionary Tunisia, Weslaty was prompt to direct the conversation from article 28 to other issues she deemed equally significant and which have received less attention in international media. For her, the root causes of the recent threats to the young Tunisian democracy were linked to the government’s manipulation of the judicial system. In any democracy, the stakes of justice independence are high, Weslaty explained: “the issue of justice has repercussions on all other domains.”
Weslaty documented the lack of independence of Tunisia’s judicial system in some of her articles. For The Global Journal, she put forward the most striking example of authorities’ overlooking the principle of justice’s independence: “Ennahda refuse[d] the instance to be independent.” She was referring to a judge body intended to oversee the judicial structure, which members of parliament refused to allow to contain the adjective ‘independent’ in its denomination. “It is so huge it is incredible!”
Fearing Tunisia was going “toward an Iranian model”, she warned freedom of expression was also being threatened, evoking the arrest of blogger Sofiane Chourabi. On 5 August, he was arrested for “being drunk in a public place, disturbance of the peace and unacceptable behavior.” However, Weslaty hinted that the motivations could have been Chourabi’s activism: while other “huge security problems” threatened the well-being of Tunisians were ignored, his arrest on an isolated beach at 4 in the morning was deemed a high priority by the police.
The arrest marked a spreading feeling of double-standard by the majority party.
Accusations of government’s leniency towards ultra-conservative Salafists responsible for damaging art exhibits and raiding bars selling alcohol, forcing them to close, contrast with multiplied arrests and fines against bloggers and journalists. For instance, in May 2012, using the old Ben Ali laws on public order, deplored Reporter Without Borders, authorities condemned Nabil Karoui. The owner of the television station Nessma TV had to pay a 2,400-dinar fine for broadcasting the animated film “Persepolis,” denounced as blasphemous.
Supporting Weslaty’s suspicions that Chourabi’s activism played a role in his arrest, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy Middle East and North Africa program at Amnesty International, underlined Tunisia was sliding away from democracy. He also notified “There is growing evidence in Tunisia that the new government is increasing restrictions on basic freedoms.” The statement echoed Human Rights Watch’s concerns in a 3 August press release condemning a bill filed in Parliament by Ennahda. Human Rights Watch deputy regional director Eric Goldstein had explained that “if passed, this draft law would introduce a new form of censorship in a country that suffered from so much censorship under the ousted president.”
This, all the more as Tunisians are increasingly frustrated because their main priorities – employment and security - remain unanswered, concluded Weslaty. With a huge youth bulk of the population unemployed and after a year of recession induced by post-revolutionary restructuration, Tunisia remains a fertile ground for instability if the population concerns are not addressed. In a report from July 2012, the African Development Bank highlighted the urgency for the government to address good governance and social measures favoring equality for Tunisia to recover economically, socially and politically.
In many ways, it seems that article 28 is just another representation of the tensions that exist between religious and secular elements on all issues. It is to the current government to overcome the risk of further division and authoritarian trap as the draft constitution was publicly read today (22 August). Else the country that started the Arab Spring could once again be the stage of revolt.
 “l'Etat assure la protection des droits de la femme, de ses acquis, sous le principe de complémentarité avec l'homme au sein de la famille et en tant qu'associée de l'homme dans le développement de la patrie".
 Nawaat, then a forum for activists to share information on Ben Ali’s dictatorship, has now transformed in a participative information site. It notably investigates abuses by the new government and acts as a watchdog for fundamental human rights to be fully inscribed in the Tunisian constitution.