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Don’t be fooled by Tunisia’s constitution

    Tunisia’s constituent assembly this week approved a new constitution. It promises an independent judiciary, the separation of religion and state, equality between men and women and the protection of religious belief.

    Tunisia’s small Jewish community, thought to number about 2,000, will certainly welcome the clause protecting religious minorities. In the immediate aftermath of the country’s uprising three years ago, they suffered a wave of violent antisemitic attacks.

    As if to trumpet a new era of tolerance and plurality, this month it was also announced that a Tunisian Jew, Rene Trabelsi, had been appointed the next tourism minister — something inconceivable anywhere else in the Arab world.

    All well and good.

    But the problem with constitutions is that they are often not worth the paper they are written on.

    After all, North’s Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression, economic well-being, representative democracy, political rights, religious freedom and judicial independence.

    Egypt’s new constitution, too, boldly enshrines all the personal and political rights that are daily trampled underfoot by that country’s thuggish regime.

    Unlike Egypt, before the uprising that topped Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia was the most secular and socially liberal Muslim country in the history of the Arab world.

    So it has taken three years of turmoil merely to recreate a semblance of the secular order that previously existed.

    Human rights were never high on the agenda of the pre-revolutionary regime, but such abuses are now even more extreme. Amnesty International’s most recent report on the country reads like a horror story of cultural repression and state brutality.

    During the past three years, the country has been Islamised so radically from the bottom up that, whatever the constitution says and however Islamists fare in forthcoming parliamentary elections, the latter can justly claim victory on their own terms.

    Socially, Tunisia has become Egypt.

    The article on religious rights in the new Tunisian constitution was amended at the last minute to pacify the Islamist bloc, and now obliges the state to protect “the sacred” from insult.

    Insulting religious extremism was the one kind of freedom of expression Mr Ben Ali did vigorously defend. Now it used as the main vehicle to stifle dissent.

    As the new constitution was being voted through, jailed Tunisian blogger Jabeur Mejri — a critic of radical Islam serving a seven-year-prison sentence for “publishing works likely to disturb public order” — was granted asylum in Sweden.

    Lina Ben Mhenni, a Tunis-based activist as critical of the new Islamist-dominated regime as she was of Ben Ali’s secular order, knows too that the new constitution is likely to prove stronger in word than in deed.

    “As an activist, I certainly experienced intimidation under the regime of Ben Ali,” she wrote in a recent column for CNN.

    But she had “never received death threats”, she added, and “didn’t have to be under the close protection of the police, as it is the case today.”

    John R Bradley is the author of four books on the Middle East

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