The Strategy of Legality and Moderation
That Has Saved the Tunisian Spring
Yadh Ben Achour, interviewed by Romain Faure and Manuela Lenzen 23 January 2015

The Arab Spring has more or less become a Tunisian Spring. What was different about events in Tunisia?

There are two aspects one needs to underline. The first seems a paradox as Tunisia remained “legalist” during its revolution. After the fall of Ben Ali, the then constitution was respected in appointing the Speaker of the House, Fouad Mebazza, therefore a man who belonged to the regime just like the president. Of course, this man was discredited and all he could do was sign the documents presented to him. However, the power void was both filled and empty for a time, in order for the revolution’s different tendencies to become organised and work together. Things would have been different if one of the revolution’s leaders had directly succeeded Ben Ali. He would necessarily have been opposed by all parties and the country would have no doubt descended into chaos.

The second aspect concerns the country’s history. Tunisians are enjoying the results of Bourguibism and the modernity introduced by Bourguiba just after independence. Firstly, the freedom given to women and equality between men and women. He was the father and the initiator of mass education in Tunisia. He created the national health system. He set up the Tunisian administration that has worked well for a very long time, at least at a national level. Hence he was at the origin of this modern civil society. This allowed Tunisian society to counterbalance the theocratic attempts made by Ennahda.

You played a very important role in drafting the new constitution. Which subjects were the most debated?

The first point was that of the nature of the state. I personally did a great deal to ensure that the constitution stated that the nation is a civil state, which is now mentioned now in Article 2. “Tunisia is a civil state founded on citizenship, the will of the people, and the supremacy of law.” This was democracy’s first victory. The second victory, and this too required a great effort, was to add freedom of conscience to the Tunisian constitution and it was very hard to get the approval of the Constituent Assembly, since freedom of conscience means one is allowed to recant one’s religion, which is forbidden by the traditional Islamic juridical system. The third point involved women’s rights. Article 46 of the constitution now acknowledges the equality of men and women and states this equality as an institutional principle. Once again, Tunisia is the only Arab country that has done this. The fourth point of conflict concerned a belonging to modernity as well as to the Arab-Islamic community. At a certain point, proposed articles insisted greatly on society’s Arab-Islamic characteristics, and we reiterated that that was not enough. It was necessary to also mention a belonging to global civilisation, to a human rights culture, to a democratic culture, and that was added. As far as all these points are concerned, victory was not that of those governing or who were in power, the troika, but of civil society and the opposition parties. I must say that the Tunisian constitution was not only the work of the National Constituent Assembly, but really an achievement shared by the whole of society.

What was, in spite of everything, the contribution made to the constitution by Ennahda, a majority party in the Assembly? They cannot have been totally passive.

Not at all. There is, for example, in the introduction, a reference to the Arab-Islamic community, a reference to the teachings of Islam. The constitution also establishes that the president must be a Muslim. There it is, and there are also other traces of Ennahda’s influence. However, the concept that Islam is the state religion has been abolished. Article 1 states that Tunisia’s religion is Islam. This was the object of consensus since the article already existed in the 1959 constitution in the days of Bourguiba.

Was there a contribution to the constitution made by Islamic theology?

Indirectly. Tunisia does not have a revolutionary tradition, but the country has been marked by great reformist movements, specifically religious ones. This reforms was initiated by Islamic theologians in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century. For example, they called for a reform of the Islamic pedagogic system and a renewal of the juridical system, as well as for religion to be interpreted through its objectives and not its texts. These are people who accepted the beliefs as constituting society, but their theory is that religion must be something private for each individual. Religion must not become a founding element of the law. As far as politics is concerned, it must be horizontal with a public debate between the institutions and society. Thanks to reformism, there has been internal reform of the religious system. Furthermore, nowadays there are new Islamic philosophers who are very open to Western culture, but remain believers and also renovate classic Islamic thinking. They were not educated within the traditional framework of Islamic universities, but instead received a modern education in western faculties or modern national ones.

Is radical Islamism a reaction to this reformism?

Absolutely. Radical Islamism is the kind that does not want to evolve, wanting to always look to an unchanging past. According to radical Islamism, Islam was founded by the Prophet and must continue in that manner with no change to the very end. They have representatives everywhere, in all media and television networks. When I saw for the first time the speech made by the leader of Islamic State, the “caliph” Baghdadi, he made me laugh, because he recited the verses of the Prophet’s Koran and the hadiths learned by heart. He said nothing new. Not one single word, not an idea, no imagination. The Islamic radicalism of jihadism, Salafism, is a reaction to Islam’s monumental change. It is a phenomenon of desperation and within a few decades there will be no more talk of this.

What do you think of the Arab Spring? Many states are experiencing serious problems at the moment.

Current history is now showing the widespread establishment of a renewed Islam, against which this radical Islam refuses to evolve, reacting in an equally widespread and substantial manner. I believe that the future is on the side of a renewed Islam. There is never renovation that does not cause a reaction. There are also certain states that are at fault. Islamic State leaders did not fall from the heavens, they are mostly former soldiers from Saddam Hussein’s army; professionals, old officers, left to their own devices at a certain point with no jobs and no future.

How do you see Tunisia’s future?

I remain optimistic about Tunisia. I believe that Tunisia will solve its problems. If we succeed, it is because we have a strong social structure and a strong civil society. We have intellectual elites in the country and they help oppose the radical, traditionalist and conformist elements. It is true that the Islamists won the 2011 elections, but they did not win social power; they have never been able to impose their perspective on the constitution and on Tunisian society. The day after Ennahda presented the paragraph on the complementarity of men and women in the National Constituent Assembly, tens of thousands of women took to the streets to protest against something that was only a project. They were obliged to withdraw this proposal, and the real winners in Tunisia, I believe, are those on the streets; hence society.

This interview was held during a conference held by Yadh Ben Achour at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research at Bielefeld University (Germany). The original version of this article was published in German by the Swiss Neue Züricher Zeitung, Feuilletton, January 6th, 2015, pages 3-4.

Translated into English by Francesca Simmons