New Constitution Heralds Tunisian Spring

TUNIS, Tunisia -- A cynic might have been forgiven for concluding that Tunisia would never achieve a new constitution. In the three years since the popular uprising that felled a dictator and unleashed the broader Arab Spring, Tunisia has been rife with violent disagreement over its future.

As political factions jockeyed for power, Tunisian society was shaken by the assassinations of two leftist political figures, the apparent handiwork of Islamist groups. A nation that had initially seemed bound for democracy appeared to lurch toward religious extremism. In the National Constituent Assembly tasked with writing a new constitution, debates were blocked and suspended before finally resuming.

To the east in Egypt, where the Arab Spring had spread, the brief flicker of democracy had succumbed to the resumption of military control and a broad crackdown on sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood -- a group now officially branded a terrorist organization.

And yet despite the strains and the ferment, Tunisia has once again turned itself into a crucible of hope. A government dominated by Islamists resigned quietly, soon replaced by a cabinet of technocrats. Earlier this week, the assembly adopted a new constitution.

"Another historic milestone," declared United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

What is happening in Tunisia is not the consecration of the Arab Spring. Rather, it is the slow emergence of the Tunisian Spring. Three years after the revolution, Tunisia is inaugurating its Second Republic, wavering between doubt and hope, but seemingly fixed on a future that breaks with a repressive past.

One lawmaker, Nadia Shaaban, praised the assembly for including an article in the constitution promoting gender equality -- a measure that gained support even from some Islamist members.

Identity issues dominated the constitutional debates. The resulting language recognized Tunisia's status as a considerable melting pot -- a land of Arabs as well as Berbers and Turks; of Muslims as well as Christians, Jews and atheists. The people's representatives preferred to put in too many provisions rather than not enough.

The state is civil, but Islam will be its religion. Education will consecrate both the Arab-Muslim heritage and the culture of human rights. Prosecution of atheism will be banned.

And while Islam remains dominant -- the president of the republic must be Muslim under the constitution -- it will not be the source of the law.

With all its inconsistencies and imperfections, the new constitution amounts to the image of Tunisia.

At the same time Tunisia received a new constitution, it also inherited a new government. After tough negotiations between the Islamist Ennahda Party and the other factions, the Islamist Prime Minister Ali Larayedh promised to resign in November. He is now handing over power to technocrat Mehdi Jomaa. His last signature as head of government was the constitution.

And yet, even as the new constitution marks an important milestone, it does not mask the many challenges facing Tunisia.

In August, eight National Guardsmen were killed in clashes with "terrorist" groups still present in western Tunisia. Two failed suicide bombings occurred in the past month. As for the political assassinations, they are not yet officially resolved.

Scandals involving moral issues regularly make headlines. The case of young Jabeur Mejri is one of the most illustrative. In 2012, he was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for having published cartoons of the prophet on his Facebook page.

The constitution is not sufficient to solve the economic crisis, with an official unemployment rate reaching 15 percent. Tourism is picking up again, but slowly. In the country's interior, particularly affected by the crisis, strikes have proliferated in recent weeks.

And the government hailed as a step away from extremism carries the "transitional" label. Elections loom, likely this fall.

At the signing ceremony of the constitution, two members of the assembly were absent. Mohamed Brahmi, murdered in July, and Mohamed Allouche, who suffered a heart attack a few days before its adoption. Large photographs commemorated them. Their young daughters filled their seats, conspicuously small. The future is taking hold, but slowly.