Painful birth of Tunisia new constitution

‘Distressing scenes’ disappoint Tunisians

TUNIS - Tunisia's assembly adopted Article 1 of the new constitution Saturday, establishing the republic and Islam as its religion but rejecting amendments that the Koran be the "main" source of law.
"Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state. Islam is its religion, Arabic is its language, and it is a republic. It is not possible to amend this article," the article reads.
The approved article, a compromise between the Islamist Ennahda party and the secular opposition, was adopted by 146 votes out of the 149 ballots cast in the National Constituent Assembly.
Lawmakers rejected two amendments, one proposing Islam and the second proposing the Koran as "the principal source of legislation."
Mohamed Hamdi of the small "Current of Love" party defended Islamic law, saying it would give "spiritual backing to all rights and liberties."
But a secular assembly member, Mahmoud Baroudi of the Democratic Alliance, said the proposed amendments were "against modernity."
Assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar then adjourned the session after leftist Popular Front coalition member Mongi Rahoui started shouting, demanding that he be allowed to speak.
Tunisian newspapers were decidedly downbeat Saturday in their assessment of the first full day of voting by the National Constituent Assembly on a new constitution.
The assembly began going through the charter on Friday in a process expected to end on January 14, the third anniversary of the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the revolution that sparked the Arab Spring.
Leading Francophone daily La Presse said disputes among MPs, interruptions and procedural problems made for "distressing scenes," suggesting the deadline may not be met.
"Tunisians who expected to see scenes of solemnity as the constitution was being discussed" were disappointed, it said, comparing scenes in the assembly to "a wild arena in which every cheap shot is permitted."
Parliament began voting Friday on the long-delayed new constitution whose adoption is intended to mark a crucial democratic milestone in the North African nation.
The tight deadline set for its adoption could end months of political crisis and further distance Tunisia from the chronic instability plaguing other countries in the region rocked by regime change.
But Arabic-language daily Attounisia said the assembly had already "wasted a lot of time writing the new constitution."
"Other obstacles will certainly appear, making the birth of the new constitution painful," it predicted.
The Maghreb daily retained some optimism, but noted that the January 14 deadline would probably not be met.
"All members of the assembly appear willing to complete ratification of the constitution in a timely manner, but political will alone may not be enough," it said.
Friday's first session resulted in lawmakers approving the title of the charter, by 175 votes out of the 184 MPs present, and the first three paragraphs of the preamble only.
They are also due to scrutinise the 146 articles finalised in June and some 30 key amendments drafted during the recent negotiations.
Another 200 amendments have also been proposed, including an attempt to make Islamic sharia law a main source of legislation, but these are thought to have little chance of passing.
The assembly reconvened on Saturday to continue the process.