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Supporting democracy

Interview by Chamselassil Ayari / db
September 6, 2012

Yadh Ben Achour is the winner of the 2012 International Democracy Award Bonn. The Tunisian lawyer and expert on constitutional law told Deutsche Welle how Islamist forces are gaining strength in his country.


Deutsche Welle: Following the revolution against former dictator Ben Ali, you as an expert on public law were given the difficult task of setting the course for a democratic transition in Tunisia. What have you achieved?

Yadh Ben Achour: A lot. For instance, we worked out a party law based on pluralism and the equality of sexes. We founded an independent election commission to ensure free and fair elections. We passed laws for the protection of the freedom of the press, based on principles of democratic pluralism.

It's now been two years since the revolution. Did the "Jasmin revolution" also achieve its political goals?

The revolution is a long-drawn out process, it takes a lot of time and patience. But I believe we have achieved some important goals: pluralism, a constitutional state, democratic principles and free and fair elections - and an open dialogue among political parties and politicians. Of course, that's only a fraction of a major reform agenda. Implementing it will take decades.

Your job ended in October 2011 when the Islamist Ennahda party won the Tunisian Constituent Assembly Election. The party has a different political agenda, but you and other lawyers presented the assembly with a draft constitution. How did the Assembly react?

Unfortunately, reaction to our draft constitution was very guarded. It was a very progressive draft, more advanced than the ideas harbored by most of the deputies in an assembly dominated by conservative members. For instance, we proposed abolishing the death sentence, adding an explanation along the lines of universal human rights principles. But the Constituent Assembly pursues what is known as 'blank page policies': delegates do not consider proposals by external experts, they only heed their own experts. In my mind, that is a faulty approach.

Tunisia has seen some heated debate about the significance of Islam in the political system. This issue isn't even mentioned in your draft constitution.

That is true, our blueprint focuses on liberal principles and the protection of human rights - those were the demands made by the revolution. The Tunisian revolution never called for the introduction of sharia, the religious law of Islam, as a basis of state legislation. The Tunisian revolution was never of a religious nature.

Your grandfather was a well-known Tunisian Islamic scholar - but you are opposed to a constitution based on sharia. Isn't that a contradiction?

No, not at all! There is great disagreement concerning the definition and contents of sharia. From a political point of view, the introduction of certain sharia rules such as the death sentence and stoning is completely unjustifiable. It contradicts the modern concept of humanity. But I wouldn't find consulting sharia law as a moral reference problematic.

What do you mean by "moral reference"?

What I mean is that Islam is a religion of tolerance and liberty. It guarantees religious minorities freedom of religion and it guarantees people personal freedom. Unfortunately, some people hold on to rigid, archaic rules.

Critics accuse you of "laicism" - not a flattering term in the Arab World; some even accuse you of an anti-Islamic attitude.

I do not support laicism (secular control of political and social institutions in a society - the ed.). I never urged introducing laicism as a foundation for Tunisia's political system. I also do not propagate the separation of state and religion. But I am vehemently opposed to a political party pursuing policies in the name of Islam. The worst dictatorship can arise when borders between politics and religion become vague and the distribution of powers is cancelled in the name of religion.

There was a stealthy re-Islamisation of Tunisian society even under Ben Ali's rule. In the framework of the revolution, we're seeing radical movements such as the Salafists grow stronger. Is that an alarming development?

Yes it is, particularly when it is accompanied by violence. In principle, everyone is free to have their own political and religious convictions - that includes the Salafists. The freedom of opinion is a prized democratic achievement! In the meantime, the Salafists have founded their own party. Unfortunately, some Salafist groups do not shy away from violence. To me, it is very alarming that the government isn't consistently taking drastic measures against them. If we allow violence in the name of God, we endanger our democracy and undo our revolution's accomplishments.

That doesn't sound like a positive scenario for the future.

No one can predict the future. Tunisia is in a difficult phase full of contradictions, mistakes and deviations from the revolution's original demands. We must protect ourselves from these threats and continue our battle for a free country that remains true to the goals of its revolution.

Yadh Ben Achour, born in 1945, is a Tunisian lawyer and expert on constitutional law. From March to October 2011, Achour headed the "High Commission for the realisation of the goals of the revolution, political reform and a democratic transition." This interview is a slightly shortened version of an interview conducted by Deutsche Welle in Arabic. On September 6, 2012, Yad Ben Achour was awarded the International Democracy Award Bonn.

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