Tunisian premier-designate Mehdi Jomaa attends, seen at the Constituent Assembly in Tunis on December 25, 2013
Tunisian premier-designate Mehdi Jomaa attends, seen at the Constituent Assembly in Tunis on December 25, 2013 © Fethi Belaid - AFP/File
Tunisian premier-designate Mehdi Jomaa attends, seen at the Constituent Assembly in Tunis on December 25, 2013
Last updated: January 24, 2014

Tunisia constitution to be put to vote Saturday

Tunisian lawmakers are to vote Sunday on adopting a long-delayed new constitution, seen as crucial to getting the democratic transition back on track more than three years after the revolution.

Lawmakers completed their line-by-line scrutiny of the text late on Thursday after three weeks of heated debate and disagreement on a range of subjects, including the role of Islam, women's rights, the independence of the judiciary and the president's powers.

The charter now needs the approval of two-thirds of the 217 assembly members to be adopted.

This would pave the way for the appointment of a caretaker cabinet of independents headed by premier designate Mehdi Jomaa and tasked with leading the country to parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled to take place later this year

Karima Souid, information officer at the constituent assembly, said the plenary session was set for 9:00 am (1000 GMT) on Sunday, after earlier indicating that the vote would take place on Saturday.

Instead, MPs will meet on Saturday afternoon to reform the rules of the censorship motion, making it harder to dismiss the new government, to which the ruling Islamist party Ennahda agreed to hand power, under a deal to end months of political deadlock.

Jomaa will also present his cabinet line-up to President Moncef Mazouki on Saturday, at 18:00 pm (1700 GMT), with a vote of confidence in the technocrat government due to take place on Tuesday, according to Ennahda, which holds the largest share of seats in the assembly.

Ennahda's veteran leader Rachid Ghannouchi hailed the draft charter as a "historic achievement" which he said would enable the establishment of the first democracy in the Arab world.

"We are at an advanced stage of the (democratic) transition, all that remains is to officially adopt this historic document and fix the date of the next elections," Ghannouchi said in a statement.

"We should be proud of what has been achieved, and translate that into ending the interim period and making Tunisia the first Arab democracy."

'Foundations of a modern state'

Under the new constitution, executive power is divided between the prime minister, who will have the dominant role, and the president, who retains important prerogatives notably in defence and foreign affairs.

Islam is not mentioned as a source of legislation, although it is recognised as the nation's religion and the state is committed to "prohibiting any attacks on the sacred," while freedom of conscience is guaranteed.

Hundreds of hardline Islamists gathered in Tunis on Friday to denounce what they branded a "secular" constitution.

"We are announcing our rejection of this constitution which serves foreign intelligence services... We have one master, our Prophet Mohammed," one of the speakers shouted to the crowd, which waved black and white Islamist flag and shouted slogans demanding sharia Islamic law.

Human rights are broadly enshrined in the text, although some rights groups have expressed concern that the relevant provisions are often vague.

The charter also upholds gender equality and the rights of women "without discrimination", and commits the state to promoting equal representation in elected bodies, something unprecedented in the Arab world.

"It is a progressive constitution, responding to the hopes of the revolution... and laying the foundations of a modern state," said assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar, while recognising that "there could be improvements".

If the constitution is approved on Sunday it would then be formally promulgated by President Marzouki, outgoing Islamist premier Ali Larayedh and Ben Jaafar, with the signing ceremony planned for Monday.

But if it fails to achieve the necessary majority on either its first or second reading, the charter must be put to a referendum.

The political parties have sought to avoid that outcome so they can maintain the elections timetable and end the crisis gripping Tunisia since the assassination of two opposition MPs by suspected jihadists last year.

The national assembly was elected in October 2011, nine months after the popular uprising that toppled strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and touched off the Arab Spring.

But its mission to adopt a new constitution within one year was disrupted by bitter divisions between Ennahda and the secular opposition, coupled with jihadist violence and persistent social unrest.

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