Tunisian constitution will make no place for faith

TUNIS Fri Nov 4, 2011 9:53pm IST

People fill up their ballot papers at a polling station during general elections in Marsa, north Tunisia October 23, 2011. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi/Files

People fill up their ballot papers at a polling station during general elections in Marsa, north Tunisia October 23, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Jamal Saidi/Files

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's Islamist-led government will focus on democracy, human rights and a free-market economy in planned changes to the constitution, effectively leaving religion out of the text it will draw up, party leaders said.

The government, due to be announced next week, will not introduce sharia or other Islamic concepts to alter the secular nature of the constitution in force when Tunisia's Arab Spring revolution ousted autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January.

"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.

Tunisian and foreign critics of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that won 41.7 percent of Tunisia's first free election on Oct. 23, have voiced fears it would try to impose religious principles on this relatively secular Muslim country.

Interviews with politicians and analysts revealed a consensus that the new assembly, the first to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings, will focus on reassuring Tunisian voters, and the foreign tourists and investors vital to its economy.

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," said the Islamist leader, who will not take any official role in the new government. The new constitution is due in about a year.

NO LAW TO PROMOTE FAITH

Ghannouchi's reformist Islamist writings in the 1980s and 1990s helped influence Turkey's current mix of Islam and democracy, and he said his 22 years of exile in London helped him see the importance of civil society in influencing politics.

Like Turkey, Tunisia had decades of secularist dictatorship before evolving into a democracy where moderate Islamists -- dubbed "Muslim Democrats" in a take-off of Europe's Christian Democrats -- have emerged as a strong political force.

"Law by itself doesn't change reality," Ghannouchi said at Ennahda's headquarters, a six-story building abuzz with the excitement of open politics after decades of dictatorship.

"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.

"Egypt says sharia is the main source of its law, but that didn't prevent (deposed President Hosni) Mubarak from being a dictator," he said, noting the explicit reference to sharia in Cairo's constitution.

POTENTIAL SECULARIST ALLIES AGREE

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.

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.

The main area of disagreement seems to be whether Tunisia should opt for a parliamentary system, which Ghannouchi said he preferred after seeing British politics at first hand, or the French-style mix of a directly elected president and parliament preferred by the other parties.

"The parliamentary system can lead to political instability and, coming out of a dictatorship, we don't think we can risk that," Ben Amor said.

Radwan Masmoudi, Tunisian-born director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) in Washington, said last month's elections showed the country had opted for an "evolutionary revolution" that avoided radical changes.

"Tunisians agree on almost everything," he said in the CSID office here. "They want to keep their identity as Arab and Muslim but not live in a theocracy.

"I think Tunisia can pave the way for other Arab countries to build a true democracy that is fully compatible with Islam."

Masmoudi said the realities of coalition parties and the probable need for a two-thirds majority to approve the constitution would force all parties to seek a broad consensus.

(Editing by Robert Woodward)

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