Constitutionalism and Human Rights in Tunisia: The Islamist-led Democratic Transition Post-Arab Spring


In coordination with The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, and The Maghreb Center, ICMES hosted a one-day conference, “Constitutionalism and Human Rights in Tunisia: The Islamist-led Democratic Transition Post-Arab Spring,” on Tuesday, 5 March 2013 from 9:00AM-4:00PM at Johns Hopkins’ Kenney Auditorium. The conference was organized by ICMES Secretary Issam M. Saliba (see Opening Remarks below), Dr. Mohamed Mattar, Executive Director of The Protection Project at SAIS, and Dr. Nejib Ayachi, President, The Maghreb Center. It included sessions on post-revolution political and constitutional transitions; the future of women rights, minority rights and freedom of expression in Tunisia; and the relationship between Islamists in power and democratic transition in the context of the Arab Spring. Participants included Dr. Alaya Allani, Professor of History, Manouba University, Tunis; Dr. Ghazi Gherairi, Law Professor, University of Tunis and Secretary General, The International Academy for Constitutional Law, Tunis; and Ms. Naziha Réjiba, journalist, human rights activist, and 2009 Recipient of the International Press Freedom Award of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Tunis.


Opening Remarks by Issam M. Saliba
On behalf of the International Council for Middle East Studies (ICMES), I would like to welcome you to this conference and thank its co-sponsors, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, the Maghreb Center, and especially Dr. Mattar, his staff, and the Johns Hopkins University for hosting us.

The recent uprising in several Arab states in North Africa and the Middle East is unprecedented in many respects.

It is commonly agreed that this uprising began in December 2010 when Mohammed al-Bouazizi, a 26 year old fruit vendor peddling the streets of Sidi Bouzeid in Tunisia, set himself on fire in a desperate act of protest against the abuse of a corrupt political establishment.

The grass roots popular protest that followed the immolation of al-Bouazizi was self-initiated by regular people of all walks of life.

Demonstrations and civil unrest engulfed the country nationwide, spilled over to other Arab states, and led, in a relative short period of time, to the overthrow of four entrenched and perennial dictators: Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt, Qaddafi of Libya, and Saleh of Yemen.

The people in all four states spoke firmly and loud. They claimed their dignity and wanted to put an end to many years of oppression and tyranny.

The challenge facing those who caused this seismic change to occur is of being able to establish a new political order capable of ensuring freedom, implementing justice, and fostering the creation of real economic growth and opportunities.

The task is a difficult one and the road to accomplish it is strewn with a myriad of reactionary obstacles and impediments.

The two most important hurdles to overcome in this respect are related to economy and religion

On the economic side the income disparities among states and among the polities of each state are serious problems that cannot be ignored.

According to the data collected by the World Bank for 2011 the gross national income (GNI) per capita was:

in Egypt $2600

in Tunisia $4070

in Yemen $1070

Compared to:

$80,440 in Qatar

$40,760 in UAE

$48,900 in Kuwait in 2010

But what is worse is the distribution of the national income among the people of each state. For example, the share of the highest and lowest 10% of household income according to data collected by the CIA is:

27.6 to 3.9% in Egypt for 2005

31.5 to 2.3% in Tunisia for 2000

30.8 to 2.9% in Yemen for 2005

35.9 to 1.3% in Qatar for 2007

On the political side the issue most important to address is the Islamicity of the state; the question is not whether the state is Islamic or not; the vast majority of the polities in all Arab states are Muslims and do not subscribe to the western principle of separation of church and state. The question is rather, what is an Islamic State of which, according to the Munir report, everybody talks but nobody thinks?

The Munir report is a report issued by the Pakistani Commission appointed to investigate the bloody disturbances perpetrated in the 1950s against the Ahmadi community by those who claimed acting in the name of Islam.

When the Commission asked the most knowledgeable Muslim scholars of Pakistan to “cite some precedent of an Islamic state in Muslim history” they were divided in their opinions and unable to agree on how to establish an Islamic state.

Ibn Taymiah, the 13th century Muslim scholar of repute, commenting on government in Islam says: God would support the just government of unbelievers and would not support the unjust government of believers.

Today we have a good group of speakers who will help us understand the various aspects of the situation in Tunisia and the enormous challenges facing its transition into a modern and progressive state.

Tunisia was the leader in initiating the uprising against tyranny in the Arab world; we hope it will be the leader in showing others how to create a modern state.

Thank you.