Tunisia: Final Draft of New Constitution Preamble Causes Controversy

This post is part of our special coverage Tunisia Revolution 2011/12.

Tunisians are fuming over the final draft of the preamble (prelude) of the new constitution, drafted by their first elected parliament after the fall of the Ben Ali regime. Many netizens did not agree with the assembly members’ vision of post-revolution Tunisia.

The preamble of the new Tunisian constitution

The preamble of the new Tunisian constitution. Photo courtesy to Tunisia Live

Tunisian Journalist Farah Samti at the local news website, Tunisia Live, translates the text of the preamble (click link provided).

The preamble, which thus far, is still poorly spoken of in the media and discussion panels received objection form different bloggers.

Netizens have a problem with the wording, the confusing amalgamation of ideas presented in the text and its length.

These are some different, yet important, points discussed on the blogosphere. The authors are: long Tunis-resident and political blogger, Erik Churchill, and the blogs NadiaformTunis, Debatunisie.com and MasrwaTouness.

Lengthiness and amalgamation of ideas

Erick Churchill: The Tunisian preamble, [on the other hand], runs 433 words (in English) and 8 paragraphs. It includes references to Tunisian history, Arab history, Muslim culture, the Palestinians, and the environment. The fact that the preamble took six months to draft, and the fact that it is a kitchen sink of ideas does not necessarily bode well for the timeline set out by the Constituent Assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jafaar, who has promised that the document will be complete by October 2012.

NadiaFromTunis: Ce texte est extrêmement lourd. Alors qu’un préambule est censé inspirer respect et amour de la patrie et des valeurs communes au peuple tunisien, nous voilà en présence d’un morceau médiocre de littérature sans queue ni tête, où l’effort – trop visible – des élus d’y introduire tout et n’importe quoi a résulté en une chose qui manque d’homogénéité, tant au niveau de la langue que du contenu. On y voit pêle-mêle des références historico-culturelles du pays et des postures géopolitiques dont on ne sait si le peuple les approuve ni quel sens elles ont dans un contexte par définition mouvant alors qu’il s’agit là d’un texte fondateur censé. durer

The text is extremely unreadable. While a preamble is supposed to inspire respect and love of one's country and common values ​​to the Tunisian people, we are in the presence of a poor piece of literature without a beginning or an end, where the effort – too visible – of the deputies to include everything and nothing has resulted in something that is not homogeneous, both in language and content. It shows a jumble of historical and cultural references of the country and geopolitical positions, we do not know if the people approve of or what meaning they have, especially that this is this text is the pillar of the constitution.

Too much emphasis on the Arab-Muslim identity, Islam and less mention of universal rights

Erick Churchill: 3) The document is careful to avoid references to universal values or rights. While the document does endorse human and equal rights among Tunisians, it does not take the bold step of endorsing universal rights, such as the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many Muslim countries have refused to sign on to this document as some consider it to subjugate Islamic sharia to man-made rights. Liberals in Tunisia had hoped that the assembly would have taken this bold step which would have set precedents for the country’s judges to use as a basis for adjudicating rights claims. The document as is remains so vague that the constitution itself or the country’s civil code will have to set out exactly what rights will be considered fundamental.

NadiaFromTunis: Ici le mot Islam (et ses dérivés) est cité 3 fois[…]. Voyons voir si ces 3 références sont bien nécessaires. La première fait peur : comment ça « se baser sur les constantes de l’islam » ? quelles constantes et selon qui d’abord ? et que veut dire le fait de se baser dessus et dans quel but ? bref, le summum de l’interprétabilité sur un sujet aussi sensible est un crime contre les générations futures (ou une chose totalement inutile, ça dépend). La deuxième pourrait être exprimée autrement, même si à mon humble avis, il s’agit là de la seule référence à peu près acceptable dans le sens où elle fait partie d’un passage sur les composantes historico-culturelles du peuple. La troisième fait partie d’un magma d’idées qui ne me semblent pas avoir leur place dans une constitution censée représenter tout le peuple et ne pas préjuger de ses choix diplomatiques et géopolitiques présents et futurs.

Here (in the preamble) the word Islam (and its derivatives) is cited three times[…]. Let's see if these three references are necessary. The first is fear: how is it “to be based on the constants of Islam”? Which constants and according to who first? And what does it mean to be based upon such constants and for which purpose? Simply put, the ultimate interpretation of such a sensitive subject is a crime against future generations (or something totally useless, it depends). The second may be expressed differently, although in my humble opinion, this is the only reference to almost acceptable in the sense that it is part of a passage on the historical-cultural components of the people. The third part is of ideas that do not seem to have a place in a constitution intended to represent all the people and not to prejudge its diplomatic and geopolitical choices present and future.

Debatunisie.com: Il est évident qu'en donnant à notre consitution un socle religieux, nous intégrons une part d'irrationnel dans nos textes de lois, ouvrant ainsi la porte aux multiples interprétations. Nous mettrons sous tutelle notre citoyenneté au profit d'experts de la religion qui nous expliqueront d'après leurs sciences occultes les arcanes de nos codes de conduite et de nos lois. Ils useront de sourates ou de hadiths hermétiques -à nous autres pauvres mortels- pour légiférer à notre place, censurer et atteindre à notre liberté.

It is obvious that by giving our constitution a religious foundation, we incorporate an element of irrationality in our texts of laws, opening the door to multiple interpretations. We will trust our citizenship in favor of religion experts who will dictate to us, according to their sciences, the codes of conduct and laws. They will use the verses of the Quran and “sealed” hadiths (sayings of Prophet Muhammed) – upon us – poor mortals, to legislate for us, and to censor our freedoms.

Liberty, Dignity, Justice, surrounded by a pedestal of the Islamic oath. Photo courtesy to Debatunisie.com

An overstated political agenda

Umma, integration with Muslim people, Maghreb unity, Arab Unity and Palestine's liberalization movement are perhaps that keywords that stirred the most controversy in the preamble. While, these terms do not relate to the rights or duties of the Tunisian people, these messages were deemed hiding a political agenda.

NadiaFromTunis: C’est là qu’on en arrive plus largement à cette histoire d’union (maghrébine, arabe). Mais qui vous dit que tous les tunisiens sont d’accord pour s’unir avec les pays voisins ? Ou alors les 217 élus sont en charge d’en décider pour eux ? Et si je ne veux pas moi de cette union, serais-je hors la loi ou carrément excommuniée, mon passeport brûlé et vouée au statut d’apatride ? Bref, j’aimerai dire à ces gens que non, ces affaires là on peut en discuter dans d’autres circonstances quand il s’agira de définir notre politique internationale, et qu’il faudra nous demander notre avis sur la question avant de conclure un quelconque accord de ce genre. Et ne venez pas me dire « mais moi je suis d’accord pour qu’on s’unisse » … je m’en fous, la question n’est pas là, la question est que ce préambule n’est pas fait que pour vous, et surtout que c’est le préambule d’une constitution, pas le programme du Ministère des Affaires Etrangères du gouvernement Machin.

That's where (in the preamble) we come far more to the story of Union (North African, Arab). But who says that all Tunisians want to unite with neighboring countries? Or the 217 elected officials (217 deputies of the assemblies) are responsible to decide for them? And what if I do not want this union, would I be outlawed, out-righted or excommunicated? Will they burn my passport and revoke my citizenship? In short, I'd tell those people that no, those cases where we can discuss in other circumstances when it comes to define our international policy, and they will have to ask us our opinion on the matter before concluding any such agreement. And do not tell me “but I agree that unite” … I do not care, this isn't the right question. The matter is that this preamble is only made for you, and especially because it is the preamble of a constitution, not the program of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Government (whatever).


MasrwaTouness: As much as I care for Palestinian cause, I can’t accept the fact that because it’s an “Arab” cause it is above any other. It would simply mean that support goes with ethnicity not with justice. In many places in the world people experience situations at least as horrible as Palestinians, and sometimes much worse. Dying of hunger in Somalia or killed by a Taliban in Afghanistan or a Jenjaweed in Darfour is nor less important nor less painful. By favoring Palestinian cause, Tunisia would send the message that not all victims are equal.

Erik Churchill: The question of Palestine makes a not-so-subtle, and somewhat problematic, appearance. The document states that “individuals have the right to self determination, and for movements of justified liberation, at the forefront of which is the liberation of Palestine.” It’s a curious construction, obviously based first and foremost by the motivation to include the populist sentiment to support the Palestinian cause. What’s interesting is the reference to self-determination, which is the legal basis for Palestinian statehood, in the absence of warfare. However, self-determination is also the basis for independence movements across the world, notably among Western Saharans in their dispute with the Moroccan government and in Berbers in Kabylie in Algeria. It will be interesting to see whether this clause will cause diplomatic problems for the government at the same time that it is looking to restart the cause of pan-Maghreb unity.


MasrwaTouness: As a half-Tunisian Amazigh (Berber), I felt personnally kicked out of my country by this preamble. Tunisia is said to be Arab-Islamic, thus ignoring the Amazigh roots of our identity/culture (am not even speaking about the Berber-speaking minority, but about the majority that, although dont speak Berber share all cultural features of Berber civilization, like all other countries of Maghreb). The Berber language has no status in the preamble: nor official language, nor national, nor even minority language. As if Berber language simply doesnt exist at all.

I felt also that as a Tunisian I was less important to the rulers than Palestinians. As an African, I felt my Africanity is not respected (so much emphasis about Arab in this preamble, nothing for Africa?) and as a human I feel I am pushed to favor one cause (Palestinian) not because of the human beings involved but because of the ideology involved (I dont think a Palestinian suffers more than a Darfurian or a Somalian, for example).

The constituent assembly will have to vote on this preamble next October, supposedly, when the assembly will finish drafting the constitution as announced by the head of the assembly.

This post is part of our special coverage Tunisia Revolution 2011/12.


  • The preamble of Tunisian constitution is disgraceful in many aspects. A constitution is the “genetic code” of a nation. If the “DNA” of the Tunisian Republic doesnt grant freedom of opinion and ignores ethnic&linguistic minorities, what future for Tunisian population?

    I’m a Tunisian Berber and according to the preamble it is anticonstitutional for me to be a Tunisian Berber because Tunisia is set to be Arab once and for all. Arab is an ethnicity: can you imagine if an European country puts in its constitution an ethnic origin what scandal it would be? Like if French people wrote in their constitution “France is a white-christian country”, what would it mean for French black people (not even talking of the Blacks coming from immigraton but from those living in Martinique/Guadeloupe/etc)?

  • […] Shahada in the shape of cement walls. Via this caricature published on June, 10 _Z_ criticizes final draft of the new constitution preamble which he says “stinks with an identity […]

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