Tunisia's discriminatory new constitution

The approval of a "mini-constitution" by Tunisia's newly-elected constituent assembly has been largely overlooked by western media, along with the controversy inside Tunisia about its discriminatory content.

The 26-clause document, intended to pave the way for appointing a president and government, was approved on Saturday with 141 votes in favour, 37 against and 39 abstentions. There have been predictable arguments about the respective powers of the presidency and parliament but the most alarming part is a section spelling out the qualifications for presidential candidates.

It says they must be "exclusively Tunisian, of the Muslim religion", the child of Tunisian parents and at least 35 years old. Women are not specifically excluded, but nor are they specifically included.

Of course, many Arab constitutions impose similar restrictions and Tunisia's new "mini-constitution" is less restrictive in this respect than the old Ben Ali constitution. Even so, it's a regrettable step – especially at a time when the Islamist Ennahda party, which won the largest block of seats in the assembly, is trying to convince the world of its commitment to freedom and tolerance.

In a real democracy, running for the presidency should be open to any adult citizen. Using the constitution to impose other requirements is wrong in principle. It limits voters' choice (sometimes with specific "undesirable" candidates in mind) and implies that the electorate is not to be trusted – that if given half a chance voters would choose someone who is unsuitable for the job. 

It is also wrong in principle to stipulate that presidential candidates must belong to any particular religion. 

Nejib Gharbi, a member of Ennahda, attempts to justify this on the grounds that Tunisia is overwhelmingly Muslim in character: "Islam is the religion of the majority of Tunisians, and the official religion of Tunisia is Islam. It is normal for the president of the country to be Muslim."

This is true – about 98% of Tunisians are thought to be (at least nominally) Muslim – but there is a big difference between saying that on the balance of probabilities any Tunisian president is likely to be a Muslim and saying that the president must be a Muslim. The latter is discriminatory, plain and simple.

The Financial Times (one of the few western newspapers to report on this issue) quotes an earlier statement from Ennahda saying that members of Tunisia's (tiny) Jewish community "are citizens enjoying all their rights and duties." In the light of the new constitutional document, that is clearly not the case.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 December 2011.