Islamic Constitutionalism and Constitutional politics in post-revolutionary Tunisia

Pietro Longo 

Ph.D. Candidate in Middle-Eastern Studies at University of Naples l’Orientale

The so-called "Arab springs", the spontaneous revolutions that toppled the dictators in some countries of the MENA region, seem to have turned into an "Islamic Awakening". Scholars have noticed the absence of the islamists from the squares, during the revolutionary momentum, stressing how they easily gained the majority once democratic elections have been convened. Even if this assumption could be disputed, the fact that islamists became the main actors of the Constitutional politics, even in Tunisia, conceived as the most secular of the Arab countries, awakened old debates about the relationship between Islamism, democracy and civil liberties. 

Islamic-led Constitution making in Tunisia is supposed to be based on religious understandings of political debates, as the rights and duties of the citizens, public freedoms and the role of the State as a whole. In short, Islamic-oriented deputies are supposed to implement their personal theories of the Islamic Constitutionalism, clashing with the positions expressed by secularists. 

Taking into account these assumptions, this research is divided into two sections: the first one, based on a theoretical approach, aims to define the meaning of the Islamic Constitutionalism that is a legal doctrine rooted on the Islamic sources of law (Qur‘ān and sunna). The work will be carried on treatises written by Muslim scholars and, above all, by the leader of the Tunisian al-Nahḍa party, Rāšid al-Ġannūšī. This section will define Islamic legal attitudes towards the State: how does it work? Which are its main organs? How the head of the State is elected and how his powers could be limited? Which are his duties? Which civil freedoms are guaranteed to the citizens? 

The second part is devoted to analyze the Constitutional politics enforced in Tunisia after the Arab spring. The Constituent Assembly, the main body of the transitional process, will be described in its legal framework and also in its composition, as the moderate islamic party al-Nahḍa gained the relative majority of its seats. This section will also focus on specific issues as the debates that occurred among the deputies on the inclusion of the repugnancy clause, that allows the sources of the Islamic law to be made as general sources for the whole legal system, in the new Constitution. The 1959 Tunisian Charter lacked this clause, such as probably the new Constitution. The debate on this topic provoked the opposition of some secular parties but it influenced also the interaction between different factions of the al-Nahḍa party and the salafī nebula. 

Analyzing the work of the deputies may show the conflicting influences that are shaping the new Republic. Nevertheless the inclusion of the islamists, even the more radicals, in the public debate represents the necessary way to implement freedom of opinion and democratic pluralism, the gap between Islamic Constitutional theory and its practical realization demonstrates that the national political environment shapes Islamism more than the contrary.