In grinding face-off with Islamists, Caid Essebsi hit two birds with one stone

Caid Essebsi knows that “equality in inheritance” has no chance of passing the religious filter so he diverted debate in the public sphere to a debate about Islam and the civil state.
Sunday 19/08/2018
With an eye on the future. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi delivers a speech after a meeting with members of the Individual Freedoms and Equality Commission  (COLIBE), on August 13.   (Tunisian Presidency)
With an eye on the future. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi delivers a speech after a meeting with members of the Individual Freedoms and Equality Commission (COLIBE), on August 13. (Tunisian Presidency)

TUNIS - Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi plans to submit a bill to parliament regarding personal freedoms and equality, especially gender equality in inheritance. By so doing, Caid Essebsi wants to end the social and political controversy created by the report on personal freedoms and equality.

Caid Essebsi chose to transmit the report to parliament without changes or amendments either to the text or to the overall judicial philosophy.

In a speech August 13, on Tunisia’s National Women’s Day and in the presence of a select group of female members of the government, the administration and civil society, Caid Essebsi gave his understanding of equality in inheritance between men and women as a constitutional right, beyond the reach of cultural particularities or the first act of the Tunisian Constitution.

He was also clear that it was up to the Ennahda Movement to clarify its position on the issue because it constitutes the decisive bloc in parliament.

If Caid Essebsi devoted a good portion of his speech trying to convince Ennahda of the wisdom of moderating its position and discourse towards the report in general and towards the issue of gender equality in inheritance in particular, it is because he knew Ennahda could kill the bill and its legislative and social intentions.

The president did not forget that Ennahda had twice before aborted his personal initiatives, the first regarding economic reconciliation and the other was his efforts to remove the government of Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

Caid Essebsi realises that Ennahda today is in much better health than it was in 2013. The movement has weathered rather well the fearful prospects of an Egyptian scenario in 2013. Taking advantage of frequent splits among its adversaries and allies, Ennahda caught up with its losses in the 2014 general elections and even gained in self-confidence after scoring a slight advantage in recent municipal elections.

The Ennahda Movement has many times claimed it believes in “separating religion and politics” but it is far from accepting this principle, especially in cases related to the Quranic text or to jurisprudence or to determining the ideational intent of the religious text or what Tunisian reformist and author Tahar Haddad called “the why of Islam rather than the what of religion.”

So, when Caid Essebsi provoked a reaction from Ennahda, his intention was to have history record it rather than score momentary political gain. Through their reactions, other parties are betting on momentary victories. Most opposing parties remained frustratingly vague concerning the report and the reformist spirit therein.

Caid Essebsi is pursuing a moment in history by pushing the report. He is obsessed with leaving his mark on the country’s history and with finishing Habib Bourguiba’s reformist project.

Bourguiba’s audacious modernist project stumbled on two issues: convincing people to abandon fasting the month of Ramadan when work conditions required it and changing the rules of inheritance because they discriminate against women. Caid Essebsi is keen on setting historic precedents in the Arab and Muslim worlds through the second issue while leaving the first as part of personal freedoms.

There have been many reformist thinkers in the history of the Arab and Muslim worlds. Reformist modernist presidents, however, are less than a handful. Knowing this, Caid Essebsi wants to have the benefits of both “thinking” and “implementing” revolutionary reforms.

Unfortunately for the Tunisian president, Tunisia does not seem ready to go along with his reformist projects. It is not just because many political, legislative, judicial and civil voices have spoken against the project, which they consider opposed to the concept of family and the social construction of a family, but because the intentional approach to reform adopted by the Zeitouna religious school does not allow room for interpreting the clear religious text and make it fit intended reforms.

When Caid Essebsi insisted on the civil character of the Tunisian state and that it was not bound by religious reference or source of jurisprudence, he was manoeuvring the current debate from the intentions of the religious text and how to approach religious reforms to a more fundamental debate that will lead to the total acceptance of the civil character of the state of Tunisia.

When that happens, it will mean that Tunisia has rejected the religious nomenclature, at least in its laws and legislation.

This is exactly what the grounding section of the report on personal freedoms and equality sought to do. The document clearly indicated that the proposal to legalise equality between men and women in inheritance was not rooted in the religious text but drew legitimacy from the “civil nature of the state” rather than from the religious background of the state.

Caid Essebsi knows that “equality in inheritance” has no chance of passing the religious filter so he diverted debate in the public sphere to a debate about Islam and the civil state. That debate had already taken place and the political elite buried it after the adoption of the constitution in 2014.

Assuming that Caid Essebsi could succeed in having this particular reform adopted, he would be the first president to introduce a major societal reform from outside the religious nomenclature in a state that considers itself the guardian of religion.

It’s true that Caid Essebsi wants to complete Bourguiba’s project and it’s true that he shares with the late president many political and social orientations but the men differ in two aspects. Bourguiba tried to push his reformist programme within the limits of the religious framework and he had the advantage of manoeuvring within the context of a strong presidential regime backed by a strong popular support. This is not the case for Caid Essebsi.

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