Showdown over women’s rights presents Caid Essebsi with legacy challenge

Secularists have exhorted Caid Essebsi to make good on promises to maintain Tunisia as the pioneer of women’s rights in the region.
Sunday 12/08/2018
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (C) meets with a delegation from the Individual Freedoms and Equality Commission, headed by feminist lawyer and parliament member Bochra Belhaj Hmida (L), at the Presidential Palace in Carthage. (Tunisian Presidency)
Heated debate. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (C) meets with a delegation from the Individual Freedoms and Equality Commission, headed by feminist lawyer and parliament member Bochra Belhaj Hmida (L), at the Presidential Palace in Carthage. (Tunisia

TUNIS - Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi is facing one of the most challenging tasks in his 60-year political career in a showdown that pits progressive elites against Islamists and their non-Islamist conservative allies — a battle that could reverberate throughout the Middle East.

Caid Essebsi, 91, prompted widespread anger among Islamist leaders and conservative segments of the population and invited threats from jihadist groups last year when he proposed changes to inheritance laws to expand human rights and bring laws concerning women’s rights and individual freedoms in conformity with Tunisia’s constitution.

His other concern was not to be considered insensitive to the wishes of a Muslim majority in many ways bound by strong conservative leanings.

The proposals were made by a special commission Caid Essebsi tasked to develop reforms to advance women’s rights. The commission, headed by feminist lawyer and parliament member Bochra Belhaj Hmida, issued a 200-page report in June.

Its key points were met with unprecedented attacks from Islamists as well as objections from mainstream traditionalists. Belhaj Hmida was the target of fiery mosque sermons, disparaging campaigns on social media and name-calling in street protests.

Tunisia had similarly heated battles over rights issues, including women’s rights, in 1956, when the newly independent country was jolted by the showdown between the nation’s modern founder Habib Bourguiba against Islamic scholars of the powerful Zitouna establishment, the country’s revered institution of Islamic teaching, which was backed by dominant traditionalist forces in a society plagued with illiteracy and economic and social backwardness.

The new battle has wider implications regarding the future of the de facto alliance between Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the main Islamist Ennahda Movement, and Caid Essebsi. Their ties had been aimed at maintaining the country’s precarious stability amid its fragile transition to democracy.

Contrary to publicity efforts, Ennahda has shed its veneer of “Muslim democracy” to effectively lead the opposition to the presidential commission’s conclusions.

Ennahda, the political party with the most seats in the parliament, has threatened to kill any presidential legislative initiative on gender equality in terms of inheritance.

Caid Essebsi is in a bind. Were he to fail in his initiatives or back down on his promises, he risks being considered a lame duck for the remainder of his 5-year term, which ends next year.

His credibility is sorely needed to ease infighting among rivals in his secularist camp, conflicts that could paralyse the government and compound the country’s economic and social crises ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

However, if he goes along with the commission’s proposals, Caid Essebsi could alienate conservative constituencies in the secularist camp.

A 2017 International Republic Institute survey indicated that 67% of Tunisians, including 52% of women, polled said they opposed the equal inheritance proposal. Nearly three-quarters of respondents, including 65% of women, said they opposed lifting the ban on women marrying non-Muslim men.

The ban has effectively been lifted through an administrative decision although some public notaries are said to refuse to comply with the provision.

Wider resistance to the proposals across Tunisian society motivates Islamist groups to press ahead even further with their campaign against the proposals. Ennahda is likely to see electoral dividends for opposing the reforms. Progressive secularists seem less concerned about the electoral implications of the reforms.

A leading Ennahda figure, Abdelhamid Jelassi, said the party was in “a very easy situation with 80% of the people thought to be against the commission’s proposals.” He did not say where he got his data, however.

The commission recommended changing all laws that do not protect citizens equally, regardless of religion, social status, gender or sexual orientation. Among the proposed reforms are equal inheritance rights for women, decriminalising homosexuality and abolishing the death penalty.

The commission’s proposals are predicated on the belief that individual rights and freedoms should be “absolutely unfettered. “The individual freedom is a right of the individual per se,” said the commission’s report. “That means the right enjoyed by the individual to express his singularity without resorting to another person.”

The report focused on segments of the constitution, including Article 2, which states: “Tunisia is a state of a civil character based on citizenship, the will of the people and the rule of law.” However, the commission appeared to shy away from an article that affirms the state is the guardian of the faith.

The report’s release was followed by a heated campaign in mosques and other venues by imams, other religious figures and Islamist and conservative politicians alleging that the commission seeks to “change the Islamic religion” in Tunisia.

Ghannouchi submitted his party’s response in a document to Caid Essebsi without revealing what the reaction was. Other Islamists, however, vowed to stop any legislative initiative based on the commission’s proposals.

Mohamed Ben Salem, a senior Ennahda official, said: “The president has provoked a false problem because it is not what the people demand at a time when the country suffers from economic problems. It is not the time for such issues.”

Ben Salem put the issue in a broader context of the antagonisms between Islamists and their allies in the traditionalist camp against the once-powerful secularists.

“The mindset of the secularists who believe that they are above all other persons who do not share their views are at the root cause of all this chaos in which the country is suffering now,” he argued.

Secularists and proponents of the expansion of women and individual rights argue Bourguiba was challenged by even tougher resistance and he succeeded by using his intellectual and leadership skills. They want Caid Essebsi to do the same.

“What would be the state of the nation today if Bourguiba had listened to the views of conservative scholars of the Zitouna and waited for the Tunisian people to be more mature to accept the changes?” asked secularist parliament member Sahbi Ben Fredj.

Secularists have exhorted Caid Essebsi to demonstrate his loyalty to Bourguiba — his spiritual father — and make good on promises to maintain Tunisia’s stature as the pioneer of women’s rights in the region.

“Go for it Mr President and have the drive to enter in the history books,” Abdelaziz Kacem, a state television senior manager at the time of Bourguiba, urged Caid Essebsi.

Bourguiba, however, was backed by progressive elites and a loyal government in contrast to the current context in which almost all known secularist and leftist progressive figures and parties are on the sidelines while the Islamists and their allies work to derail the new rights blueprint.

Secularists do not want to gratify Islamists with a win in what seems like a drive to settle old scores with Bourguiba’s secularist legacy but they are advancing in divided ranks, if at all.

“The leftists are on holiday and rights activists are also silent because they seem not to have received the right calls to act from the rights groups in Europe and the United States,” said writer Synda Tajine.