In just over three months, on October 23, 2012, Tunisia’s constitutional assembly is slated to deliver a new constitution. While the constitution’s preamble has been finalized and released to the public, there is still concern over whether the assembly will be able to finish its task on time.
Tunisia was the first country in North Africa and the Arab world to write a constitution, which came into effect in 1861, and has now become the first to write one through democratic procedures. This very useful graphic produced by Tunisia Live describes the process that the assembly will go through to draft the constitution.
According to these procedures, the assembly will have two opportunities to ratify the draft, with the option of sending it back to the coordinating committee for edits after the first vote. If during second round voting the draft fails to garner the support of two-thirds of the assembly, the constitution will go to a popular referendum where it must be approved by over 50 percent of voters. There appears to be no contingency plan should the draft constitution fail to be ratified through the referendum process.
In drafting the constitution, the major issues the assembly must grapple with are clear and include the balance of power between branches of government, the role of religion in law and in the government more broadly, freedom of speech, and the status of former regime members. There are some initial indications of how the assembly will handle these issues. For instance, the assembly has indicated that the constitution will likely place limits on free speech. Additionally, on July 12, 2012, Farida Labibdi, a member of the constitutional assembly and chair of the Rights and Liberties Committee, said that the committee is debating whether to criminalize offenses to religion or to demand that “respect  be given to that which is sacred.”
It is yet to be seen how the Tunisian state will reconcile popular sensitivities to perceived insults against Islam with the right to self-expression. In well-publicized incidents over the past year, conflict has already emerged at the intersection of these two currents. Most recently, in early June, riots broke out across the country in apparent reaction to an art exhibit in a suburb of Tunis, which featured the works of Tunisian artists and which many Tunisians felt was disrespectful to Islam. If the constitutional assembly criminalizes blasphemy, the question will become what constitutes an insult to the sacred?
Three artists who participated in the art exhibition share their thoughts on this issue in this video. One artist, Esmat Ben Moussa, makes clear that it is not his aim to insult Islam, but rather to reject the hard-core Salafists who claim to have exclusive right to judge what is and what is not correct for Muslims. His words reveal an important dimension in this debate, namely that there is a plurality of opinions within Islam about correct practices. While such sentiments have almost become platitudes, it seems worth repeating in this context. If the constitutional assembly does criminalize offenses to Islam, the Tunisian judiciary will have the unenviable task of defining what that means in practice.