The first article of the current Constitution adopted with great fanfare in 2014, three years after the fall of the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine ben Ali, stipulates, like the 1959 Charter, that Tunisia “is a free, independent and sovereign State , Islam is its religion, Arabic its language and the Republic its regime”.
Sadok Belaïd’s remarks are likely to provoke a lively debate in a country with a strong secular tradition but where several Islamist-inspired parties have played a leading role since the 2011 revolt that brought down the Ben Ali regime.
Appointed on May 20 to head the “National Consultative Commission for a New Republic”, responsible for drafting a new draft Constitution, Mr. Belaïd indicated that he would submit the draft for validation to President Kais Saied by May 15 at the latest. June before it is submitted to a referendum, a consultation announced for July 25.
“80% of Tunisians are against extremism and against the use of religion for political purposes. This is precisely what we are going to do simply by erasing article 1 in its current form”, said the lawyer an interview with AFP.
Asked if this meant that the new Constitution would contain no reference to Islam, he replied: “there will not be”.
“There is a possibility that we will erase Article 1 in its current version. We can do without mentioning any religion.”
– “Dirty hands” –
According to Mr. Belaïd, the suppression of any reference to Islam is intended to fight the parties of Islamist inspiration, especially Ennahdha, the main force in the Parliament dissolved by Mr. Saied.
“If you use religion to do political extremism, well we will ban it,” continued the 83-year-old academic who claims to have “a very big and a very deep friendship and closeness” with Mr. Saied that he had had as a student.
“We have political parties with dirty hands and whether you like it or not, French or European democrats, we will not accept dirty people in our democracy,” he said.
According to him, “Ennahdha and other parties are the henchmen of several foreign forces or powers or states or mini-states which have a lot of money which they want to spend as they want and which they use to intervene in the affairs of the country”. “That’s treason.”
After months of political blockage, Mr. Saied, democratically elected at the end of 2019, assumed full powers on July 25, 2021 by dismissing the Prime Minister and suspending the Parliament dominated by Ennahdha, his pet peeve, before dissolving it in march.
– “Temptations of dictatorship” –
In a roadmap supposed to end the crisis, Mr. Saied announced a referendum on a new Constitution on July 25, 2022, before legislative elections on December 17.
The commission headed by Mr. Belaïd is working to develop the new Constitution through a “national dialogue” launched on Saturday but from which the main parties have been excluded.
Invited to this dialogue, the powerful Tunisian trade union center UGTT, a key player on the political scene, refused to participate.
“We invite you, the door is open. If you do not want the train will leave on time,” said Mr. Belaïd to the address of the UGTT.
Mr. Saied calls for a “more presidential” regime instead of the hybrid system put in place in 2014 and source of recurring conflicts between the executive and legislative branches.
“The president may have greater powers, or perhaps more useful powers. He only had blocking power and that is very bad. The president is the captain. He is the Admiral. So he must not only have the power to brake but the power to train… with moderation,” said the lawyer.
Nevertheless, the new regime must be designed in such a way that the president is not “driven or attracted by the temptations of dictatorship, tyranny or abuse of power”.