By Mona Yahia
Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party decided against enshrining Sharia in the country’s new democratic constitution, opting instead to preserve Article 1 of the 1959 constitution.
Article 1 stipulates that Tunisia is a free, sovereign and independent republic, where Islam is the official faith and Arabic the official language.
“Ennahda believes that the wording of the article is agreed upon by the general consensus of all components of Tunisian society,” party leader Rachid Ghannouchi announced on March 26th.
“It preserves the Arab Islamic identity of the state,” he added.
The party’s constituent committee voted to maintain the constitutional article by 52 votes to 12.
“Ennahda believes that religion is all about freedom of choice. The law cannot be relied on to impose Islam or virtue,” Ghannouchi said.
Fadhel Moussa, a law professor and member of the Constituent Assembly, told Magharebia that Article 1 was clear.
“We do not need to impose the Sharia because it carries many interpretations. We stress, however, that all laws in Tunisia are in harmony with the spirit of Islam and that there are no laws in Tunisia that are contrary to Islam, except with regard to adoption, which has triggered numerous interpretations and opinions in Islam,” the MP told Magharebia.
Mustapha Ben Jaafar, president of the Constituent Assembly, and President Moncef Marzouki, have repeatedly expressed their rejection of enshrining the Sharia in the new Constitution, calling for a civil state.
The issue has polarised Tunisian society, with Salafists demanding Sharia while more moderate voices called for preserving the secular state. On March 20th, marking the occasion of the Tunisian Independence Day, massive demonstrations took to the streets in Tunis, Sousse and Sfax, calling for a civil state and keeping the first article of the Constitution of 1959.
Addressing Tunisians on March 19th, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said, “As we are about to embark on building a new Tunisia and formulating a new Constitution, we should remember to pay back partners in the legitimacy of the revolution and give them a share in the arising state, without lapsing in the former state of affairs, and allowing one party to monopolise power, through imposing articles of the Constitution that do not enjoy broad consensus or that may arouse one sect against another.”
On March 16th, hundreds of Tunisians staged a demonstration in front of the Constituent Assembly calling for the adoption of the Sharia in the new Constitution and holding up banners rejecting democracy.
Ennahda’s decision to keep Article 1 of the Constitution was not warmly welcomed by all. Habib al-Lawz, one of the party leaders, issued a statement saying he would fight to amend the resolution.
In turn, Ennahda Facebook pages were divided among opponents and proponents of the decision.
The Tunisian Front of Islamic Associations raised the slogan “Yes to Sharia” and called for a protest in front of Ennahda offices to demand a reversal.
The move towards the middle also drew the ire of London-based Hechmi Hamdi, head of al-Aridha Chaabia in the Constituent Assembly. He slammed the Ennahda decision as a “betrayal”.
“Ennahda is trading religion in return for power. This time, they are giving it up so as to hold on to power,” he asserted.