The International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) organized a panel on “Constitutionalism and Democratic Transition in Tunisia” at its headquarters in Herndon, Virginia on Saturday, May 5th, 2012. Senior members from the Tunisian Constituent National Assembly participated in the panel, including: Merherzia Laabidi, Vice-President of the National Constituent Assembly; Zied Daoulatli, member of the National Constituent Assembly and member of the Executive Committee of al-Nadha Party; Mouldi Riahi, member and leader, Attakattol Bloc at the National Constituent Assembly; and Badreddine Abdelkafi, member and Deputy President, National Constituent Assembly, in charge of relations with civil society organizations.
The event was facilitated by Dr. Radwan Masmoudi, Founder and President of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), who introduced the members of the delegation and thanked IIIT for organizing the panel.
Dr. Jamal Barzinji, Vice President of IIIT welcomed the distinguished guests from Tunisia and pointed to the pioneering role and the great burden of responsibility that the makers of the new Tunisian constitution bear, particularly in view of the sweeping changes towards democracy in the Arab world. He emphasized the connection between political reforms in Tunisia and the region and the greater need for reform of Islamic Thought at all levels, a mission that IIIT has dedicated itself to since its inception in 1981.
Ms. Meherzia Laabidi, Vice President of the National Constituent Assembly, explained the primary roles of the National Constituent Assembly, namely: 1) writing the constitution, 2) legislative function or writing the laws that would facilitate the transition to democracy, and 3) supervision or oversight over the executive branch of government. Ms. Laabidi reminded the audience that writing charters and founding documents is a legacy in the Tunisian and Muslim history. She pointed to the important principles in the constitution of 1956 such as equality between all citizens. Unfortunately, the 1956 was not implemented; otherwise it would have changed Tunisia into a modern state.
Ms. Laabidi emphasized that the constitution derives its legitimacy from the will of the people and lays the foundation for building institutions of the modern state in Tunisia. This is why, she added, all the people of Tunisia should contribute to the writing of the constitution. The final document will be a reflection and a product of the national consensus of all peoples of Tunisia.
Mr. Mouldi Riahi, leader of Attakattol Block at the National Constituent Assembly, reminded the audience of the history of the Democratic Socialist Movement in Tunisia and its role in defending freedom and democracy during Ben Ali’s era, and particularly its defense of members of the Islamic Trend – later al Nahda Party.
Mr. Mouldi stated that the renaissance that his party wants for Tunisia is a creative integration of the values of religion with the best heritage of human civilization. He pointed out that the primary reason for the downfall of Ben Ali’s regime was the growing unemployment. He emphasized the importance of fundamental freedoms to their movement and the sacrifices they made in the defense of those freedoms. He said he is confident that revolutionary Tunisia will be able to integrate the values of Islam with those of democracy, and this is why, he added, they did not hesitate to participate in the current government coalition when the opportunity was presented to them.
Mr. Riahi called for the strengthening of the institutions of a civic state where sovereignty is for the people. This is so essential, he added, so that tyranny and dictatorship will not return to Tunisia from the window after it has been chased out through the door. To ensure this, he called for the reform of education in Tunisia and for building curricula and academic institutions that will plant and consolidate Islamic and human values with a focus on languages and creation of a new citizen loyal to his country but open to the rest of humanity.
Mr. Badreddin Abdlekafi, who is deputy President of the National Constituent Assembly, in charge of relations with civil society organizations, opened his remarks with a reminder of the relationship between politics and thought and that the approach of al Nahda movement, which established a political thought grounded in the values of religion, has started to bear fruit. The challenge today, he said, is in the sphere of action, as the Qur’an has promised the believers. He said that the revolution must be equipped with openness and an ability to communicate with others and reach common grounds for action with them. This does not mean compromise of fundamental principles enshrined in our primary sources and traditions. It is an openness that is guided by the high objectives on one hand, and an in-depth understanding of realities of our society and the human condition, on the other.
Regarding the question of the relationship between politics and religion, Mr. Abdlkafi indicated that this question has been answered and the relationship determined within our Constituent Assembly. An agreement has been reached that the constitution will declare that Arabic is the language of Tunisia and Islam is its frame of reference.
Dr. Ziad Daoulatli, member of the National Constituent Assembly and member of the Executive Committee of al-Nadha Party, praised the role of the International Institute of Islamic Thought in the reform and renewal of Islamic Thought. He attributed the current achievements, in part, to the role IIIT played in reforming Islamic political thought.
He acknowledged that the Tunisian revolution had become a source of inspiration and has empowered those who have been weakened for too long. This is why, he indicated, the elections were based on empowering the weak candidates. The result is a Constituent Assembly where all political groups are represented. In addition, most decisions in the Assembly are reached by consensus. These achievements are the result of a political thought that accepts the other in inclusive political, economic and social institutions.
The discussion focused on welcoming the approach of Attakattol Bloc and the general approach of reconciliation and inclusion adopted by al Nahda movement. Questions about the electoral commission, the commission to investigate corruption and other crimes committed by the previous regime, the economic challenge, and the political rights of dual citizens were raised and discussed. Tunisians in the audience called for more inclusion and participation of the Tunisian community in the US.
Members of the Delegation from the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly
1- Meherzia Laabidi - Vice-President of the National Constituent Assembly
Meherzia Labidi is a teacher and interpreter. She studied at the High School of Grombalia, then at the Ecole Normale Superieure of Sousse (1986). Then, she studied languages at the Ecole Superieure d’Interpretes et de Traducteurs at the Sorbonnes (specializing in economic and legal translations). She holds a Master’s degree in Economic translations and a diploma in English literature and theater (in 1992). She taught translations at the European Institute of Human Sciences in Saint Denis, France.
She has lectured on “ducation in multicultural societies”, and “women, religion, and society”. Since 2006, she is the president of “Believing Women for Peace”, a UN-accredited NGO. In 2009, she became a member of the European Council of Civil and Religious Peoples for Peace”. On Oct. 23, 2011, she was elected to the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) in Tunisia, tasked with drafting a new democratic constitution for Tunisia, representing al-Nahda Party in France, and on Nov. 22, 2011, she was elected first Vice President of the Constituent Assembly.
2- Zied Daoulatli - Member of the National Constituent Assembly and Member of the Executive Committee of al-Nadha Party
Dr. Daoulatli is a Founding Member of al-Nadha (formerly the Movement of Islamic Tendency, MIT) and holds a Ph.D in Pharmacology from the University of Reims, France in 1984. When he returned to Tunis in 1984, he joined the Executive Committee of MIT. only to be sentenced in 1987 for twenty years in jail. He was released one year later, in July 1988, and then re-arrested in 1990 and sentenced to 15 years in jail (including 10 of them in solitary confinement) under the Ben Ali regime. He was released in 2004, and he participated as a founding member in the October 18th Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which includes most of the major political parties and human rights organizations. After the Jan. 14th, 2011 revolution which overthrew Ben Ali, Dr. Daoulatli became a member of the Founding Council of the new al-Nahda Party, and a member of the Executive Committee, in charge of relations with investors and the business community. On Oct. 23, 2011, he was elected as a member of the National Constituent Assembly.
3- Mouldi Riahi - Member and leader of the Attakattol Bloc at the National Constituent Assembly
Mr. Mouldi Riahi currently serves as the Chairman of the Ettakatol bloc in the second Tunisian Constituent Assembly. He is the Head of External Relations and Communication of the Democratic Forum for Labour and Freedoms (attakattol).
Mouldi Riahi is a member of Ettakatol. He was previously a member of the Political Bureau of the Movement of Democratic Socialists. On October 23rd 2011 he was elected as a member of the Constituent Assembly. He was also elected president of the parliamentary group of Ettakatol on February 1st 2012. He is a member of the constitutional review committee working on the Preamble and fundamental principles of the new constitution, and the Committee of general legislation.
4- Badreddine Abdelkafi - Member and Deputy President of the National Constituent Assembly, in charge of relations with civil society organizations
Badreddine Abdelkafi is a father of 3 children. He obtained a degree in science from the Faculty of Science (University of Sfax) in 1982. He taught mathematics in two institutes in the city of Gabes for 7 years. He represented southern students in the summit of the Islamic Tendency Movement on April 1981 at which the announcement of a new political party was decided on (which was a first in the history of Islamic movements in the region). He was arrested in 1981 and later imprisoned without trial in 1987 for a period of 8 months.
In 1991, he was sentenced to 11 years in jail (for forming an illegal organization) and was released from jail in 2002. He also served as a union leader representing secondary school teachers for three years. After the revolution, he was elected as Secretary General for the Nahda Party in the region of South of Sfax, before he was elected as a member of the National Constituent Assembly. He now serves as deputy President of the Assembly, in charge of relations with civil society organizations and Tunisians who live abroad.