Occupy World: Tunisia’s Arab Spring Bears a Progressive Constitutional Fruit 3 Years Later*
By Hayes Brown
After what had at times been a slow and frustrating process, the Tunisian National Assembly on Sunday evening voted to approve what is one of the most progressive constitutions in the region, with only 12 members of the 216-member legislative body voting against. Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki and outgoing Assembly chief Mustapha Ben Jaafar signed the document on Monday morning, bringing it into effect.
With its new constitution, Tunisia, the starting place of the massive protests that swept Western Asia and North Africa in 2011, manages in some ways to surpass even the United States in terms of enshrining progressive ideals. According to the most recent unofficial draft available in English, the government takes on responsibilities that the U.S. government has had to struggle to provide. Most of these principles are laid out in a Chapter 2 of the constitution, a section titled “Rights and Liberties” in the translation, which lays out 29 areas that the Tunisian state must provide for the betterment of the people — both now and in the future. Here are three highlights that showcase some of the most progressive of these guarantees:
1. Climate change Given the conservative attempts to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency and deny the very existence of climate change, it would seem improbable at best that the U.S. will mention conservation efforts in the Constitution anytime soon. But Tunisia has done just that. “Contribution to a sound climate and the right to a sound and balanced environment shall be guaranteed,” the constitution promises. “The state shall provide the necessary means to eliminate environmental pollution.” Given Tunisia’s location in the Maghreb, with portions of the country within the Sahara Desert, the state also is given custody over ensuring the “conservation and rational use of water” as one of its duties.
2. Health care Health care policy-making in Tunisia’s capital of Tunis has also managed to leapfrog that in Washington as of Monday. “Health is a right for every person,” the document announces, declaring that Tunisia shall “guarantee preventative health care and treatment for every citizen and provide the means necessary to ensure the safety and good quality of health services.” Even as the U.S. begins to implement the Affordable Care Act, and Republican governors block the implementation of the portions that expand Medicaid, the new Tunisian constitution promises “free health care for those without support and those with limited income.”
3. Women’s rights The new constitution also goes further than the American version in explicitly promoting women’s rights, a goal of the now-dormant push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. “The State shall commit to protecting women’s achieved rights and seek to support and develop them,” the constitution reads. “The State shall guarantee equal opportunities between men and women in the bearing of all the various responsibilities in all fields.”
The draft version also committed the government to try to balance the number of men and women serving in elected councils, which would far outstrip the current 82-17 split between the two in the U.S. Congress last year. Given the struggle to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act in the United States last year, it would seem that Tunisia has American beat there as well. “The state shall the necessary measures to eliminate violence against women,” the constitution guarantees.
4. Workers’ rights Tunisia’s laborers get a huge boost under the new constitution, particularly in comparison to their American counterparts. Under the terms of the document, the right to form trade unions in guaranteed along with all of the powers that grants laborers — including the ability to strike. Members of the army and security services are the one exception to this rule, while unions and all other political parties and associations are required to reject violence and abide by all areas of the law.
The constitution also promises that all citizens, male and female alike, shall “have the right to adequate working conditions and to a fair wage.” As the debate over raising the minimum wage kicks off anew in the U.S. — and women are still paid far less than their male counterparts for similar jobs — the Tunisian guarantees look almost idyllic.
Monday’s approval came after a final reading of the draft, with all of the articles having been separately approved over recent weeks in a slew of compromise between the ruling Enhadda party and the opposition within the Assembly. As part of the deals made, the Government will step down in favor of a technocratic caretaker government which will be in place until elections can be held later this year. Islamist parties were also forced to agree to have Islam be the listed religion of the country, but to not promote sharia as the basis for future laws.
“This constitution was the dream of Tunisians, this constitution is proof of the revival of the revolution, this constitution creates a democratic civil nation,” Assembly chief Mustapha Ben Jaafar said after the votes were tallied.
The approval of the constitution marks the latest step towards the vision that revolutionaries set out following the toppling of longtime rule Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali three years ago. Since then, other countries have followed Tunisia’s lead with less success to date. While Tunisia was celebrating its new legal framework, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces in Egypt endorsed the recently promoted military leader Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi as a candidate to run for president, after the army removed Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohammed Morsi last yer. Libya and Yemen are still struggling to provide security after the ouster of their long-time leaders, while Syria’s opposition and government are still in open armed conflict with each other even as peace talks take place in Geneva.