Conflict & Justice

Why Tunisia's Constitution is Groundbreaking in the Arab World

The country where the Arab Spring began, Tunisia, is reaching a milestone. For the past 18 months legislators have been hammering out a constitution. Now they're in the thick of a final debate over the document. It's groundbreaking, supposedly the first constitution in the Arab world to not mention Islamic law. And the first to be written by elected representatives. They've had some help.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Riddhi Dasgupta, an international law expert at Cambridge University, assisted in the drafting of Tunisia's constitution. He says the Tunisians, after decades of authoritarian rule, wanted to establish the rule of law.

"More than anything else, they wanted effective self governance, and they wanted freedom away from corruption," Dr. Dagupta told The World's Marco Werman. "They wanted a different way of looking at human rights."

Dasgupta notes that the Tunisian constitution, now being debated, brings together the aspirations of many different parts of Tunisian society.

"The Tunisian political state really wanted to be an important part of the community of nations," he said. "There's also a tremendous yearning for modernization, and to wonderfully commingle the Islamic nature of their society with being part of the international law community."

The Tunisian draft constitution, as it currently reads, does not quote Sharia law. But, adds Dasgupta, that may suit the Tunisians. "I think that there need not really be language about religious law in the constitution for there to be a spirit that is suffused with the good things that religion brings to the table."

Dr. Dasgupta underscores that finalizing then constitution is just one step in Tunisia's transformation from dictatorship to democracy, but it's a crucial one.

"We're talking about checks and balances, we're talking about separation of powers, and basically a culture of the rule of law. You know, none of it's worth a hill of beans if people don't respect the rule of law," he said.

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