After a months-long political stalemate between secularists and Islamists, Tunisian lawmakers finished approving all the articles of the country’s new constitution on Thursday. Deputies marked the event by singing the country’s national anthem, and undoubtedly, heaving a collective sigh of relief as Tunisia edged closer to a stable democracy — and away from political Islam.
Yet some friction was still in evidence Thursday, notably among the body’s supposed liberals, when National Assembly member Rabii Abdi of the center-left Wafa party used the controversial “quenelle” gesture, invented by French comic M’Bala M’Bala Dieudonné. The move, which resembles an upside-down Nazi salute, has been at the heart of a heated debate in France in recent weeks, notably about the reach of the state and the modern French interpretation of free speech. (After obtaining a national ban of the comedian’s one-man show, and with Dieudonné facing assault charges after an altercation with police, it looks like the Elysée is ahead on both counts.)
Now, the salute is making its first high-profile appearance in Tunisia, where the interim government has been scrambling to convince Western observers — and potential investors — that stability is more than a hypothetical. Abdi, not a radical element in the assembly, used the quenelle to protest alleged foreign influence on the body, and specifically the omission of a clause banning normalization of ties with Israel from the constitution. (In a show of solidarity with Dieudonné, embroiled in a different political fight, the MP added, “I want to salute an artist that is the victim of racism.)
True, the omitted law in question likely arose out of lawmakers’ desire to reassure foreign states (and thereby restore Tunisia’s international standing). As did the more surprising omission of an article enshrining Islamic law within the document that should help Tunisia earn back its former reputation as a moderate presence in the region. (The text, once adopted, will stand as one of the most liberal constitutions in the Arab world.) Indeed, much of Tunisia’s recovery hinges on its ability to yes, calm domestic strife, but also to woo back worried international backers to bolster its lagging economy.
This has meant veering away from the overtly Islamist constitution proposed by the country’s recently resigned Ennahda leaders, as well as making moves like rejecting visa requests from members of Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamist Jihad, both considered terrorist groups by much of the West, which Tunisian officials did in early January — a departure from the open-arms welcome granted Hamas leaders in 2012. As Tunisia’s interim government continues its crawl towards secular democracy — next up is selecting a date for national elections — look for this self-conscious approach to continue. As for Abdi, his peers found a simple way to quiet him: they cut his microphone mid-rant. If only Dieudonné was so easily silenced. . .