Tunisia’s newly elected assembly gets to work

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Tunisia’s newly elected assembly gets to work

Tunisia’s newly elected assembly held its inaugural meeting Tuesday, ready to start shaping the constitution and the democratic future of the country

By (AP)

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Published: Tue 22 Nov 2011, 10:06 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 12:22 AM

TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisia’s newly elected assembly held its inaugural meeting Tuesday, ready to start shaping the constitution and the democratic future of the country that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings.

And it didn’t take long for the legislators to feel one result of free speech: hundreds of people protested outside Parliament, demanding everything from women’s rights and a crackdown on security forces to limits on Qatar’s influence over Tunisia’s affairs.

Interim Tunisian President Fouad Mbazaa addresses the opening of the first session of the constituent elected assembly in Tunis on November 22, 2011. AFP

A moderate Islamist party, Ennahda (Renaissance), won the most seats in Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly, and has announced a coalition with a liberal and a left-of-center party, but groups representing the country’s secular traditions picketed the assembly’s first meeting expressing their fears of an Islamist takeover.

Lawmakers were elected last month in Tunisia’s first free vote — the first one resulting from the Arab Spring protests. Tunisian protesters drove out their longtime president in January, setting off revolts in other Arab countries.

Tunisia’s new assembly is being watched as an example amid the violence in Egypt ahead of its elections and escalating tensions in Syria.

Tunisia has been spared the violent clashes of its North African and Arab neighbors, but there has been some continued unrest. Outside the assembly building in a suburb of Tunis, 1,000 people demonstrated from dozens of different associations, many representing women calling for their rights to be guaranteed in the new constitution.

“We have come to demand the inclusion of the rights of women and universal rights in the future constitution,” said Amel Abdennebi as she protested outside the parliament. “We do not want Tunisian society to regress.”

Under dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia had some of the most progressive laws for women in the Arab world, something its secular elite fear might be lost under an Islamist party.

Ennahda, as well as its coalition members, has promised to maintain women’s rights.

Newly elected Ennahda candidate Souad Abderrahim, an outspoken professional who does not wear the traditional Islamic headscarf, was heckled Tuesday by demonstrators demanding that she resign and was only able to enter the assembly grounds with the help of security forces.

Abderrahim raised a firestorm of criticism earlier by calling single mothers a “disgrace.” She later retracted her comments and described them as victims.

Also protesting were relatives of those killed and wounded in the monthlong uprising that began in December, calling for justice against the security forces.

“We will seek to ensure that the national constituent assembly will complete its tasks, write a new constitution for the country and call for new elections within a period that should not exceed one year,” said the statement signed late Monday by the new coalition.

The coalition, which holds 139 of the 217 seats, will present the assembly its candidate for interim president, veteran rights activist Moncef Marzouki who heads the liberal Congress for the Republic Party. He will then appoint a prime minister, Ennahda’s No. 2, Hammadi Jebali, and Mustapha Ben Jaafar of the Ettakatol Party as the leader of assembly.

The North African country of 10 million people has been essentially a one-party state since it won its independence from France in 1956, yet it was able to organize a successful election accepted by all participants in just four months.

A number of the protesters outside the parliament building focused on Qatar’s alleged role in the success of Ennahda, charging that the party had been funded by the wealthy emirate.

“No to foreign interference in Tunisia’s affairs,” said one banner near a giant effigy of Qatar Emir Hamad Ben Khalifa. “No Jazeera, No Qatar, the Tunisian people are free.”

Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi made his first international visit after the elections to Qatar.

Qatar paid a highly visible role supporting Libya’s rebels and is accused by some in Tunisia of trying to influence the Arab Spring, especially through the influential Jazeera news network, based in Doha and partly funded by Qatar.

A Jazeera camera crew was attacked by protesters, who called them “mercenaries” and “agents.”

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