Arab Winter? Proposed Tunisian Constitution Would Cripple Islamist Opposition

Arab Winter? Proposed Tunisian Constitution Would Cripple Islamist Opposition

Tunisian president Kais Saied has long pushed for a stronger presidency.

Ten months after Tunisian president Kais Saied’s chaotic and controversial seizure of power—described by many in the West as a coup—the legal expert tasked with rewriting the country’s constitution indicated on Monday that the next iteration would expunge any references to Islam, making Tunisia officially secular.

The move, proposed by Tunisian legal scholar Sadeq Belaid, has been characterized as an attempt to curtail the influence of Tunisian Islamist parties, including the Ennahda movement, the Tunisian wing of the international Muslim Brotherhood. Ennahda was the largest political party in Tunisia’s parliament prior to its dissolution in July 2021, and Saied has characterized it as the most significant threat to the country’s political stability. Conversely, Ennahda has described Saied as a dictator and insisted that his dissolution of parliament had no legal basis.

Prior to the overhaul, Tunisia’s 2011 constitution, ratified in the aftermath of the Arab Spring protests that overthrew longtime Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, defined Tunisia as a “free, independent and sovereign state” and made Islam its official religion and Arabic its official language.

Belaid has removed this language altogether from the new constitution, according to AFP. He justified the decision by noting that 80 percent of Tunisians were “against extremism and against the use of religion for political ends.” He later confirmed that the finalized constitution would not make any reference to Islam, emphasizing Tunisia’s secular character instead—even though roughly 99 percent of Tunisia’s population is Muslim.

“If you use religion to engage in political extremism, we will not allow that,” Belaid said—explicitly referring to Ennahda, which he accused of accepting foreign backing and engaging in treason against the presidency. “We have political parties with dirty hands.”

“Whether you like it or not, French or European democrats, we won’t accept these dirty people in our democracy,” he added.

Now in his eighties, Belaid is the director of Saied’s National Consultative Commission, a body ostensibly created to restore parliamentary government to Tunisia. Several of the country’s opposition movements, including the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), have refused to participate in the dialogue, arguing that it was illegitimate because its proposals had already been decided behind closed doors and excluded opposition groups such as Ennahda.

Belaid suggested that he regretted the UGTT’s absence, but added that it would not change the commission’s decision-making process: “Whether you [UGTT] come or not, the train will leave on time.”

Saied’s actions have divided Tunisians, many of whom regarded the country’s previous parliamentary deadlock as unsustainable. However, others have objected to Saied’s measures, which eliminated the popularly elected parliament and conferred near-dictatorial powers on the Tunisian presidency.

Saied, a former student of Belaid’s, has long pushed for a stronger presidency and is expected to maintain expanded powers in the new constitution. Following the consultative commission’s agreement on a draft, Saied has agreed to put it to a referendum; if it succeeds, he has indicated he will undo the state of emergency and oversee new parliamentary elections.

Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters.