On National Women’s Day in 2017, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi established the Committee on Individual Freedoms and Equality (COLIBE). Its aim was to modernize Tunisian laws so they aligned with the country’s 2014 constitution and international human rights standards.
Following a year of debate, on June 12 the nine-member COLIBE commission, directed by Bochra Bel Haj Hamida, a member of parliament and veteran feminist and human rights activist, delivered to Essebsi a 300-page report. The document calls for parliament to take on several highly sensitive issues such as the equality of inheritance rights, decriminalization of homosexuality, abolition of the death penalty, cancellation of the dowry, and the right of women to pass on citizenship to a foreign husband. The report has brought thousands of Tunisians into the streets, protesting against the report or advocating for it.
Opponents of the report’s recommendations argue that these run against the country’s Arab-Muslim identity and its religious and social values. When the report was released, protesters rejected its proposals and a street prayer was held on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, a focal point of the 2011 uprising. Supporters of COLIBE, who organized counter-demonstrations on August 13, argue that the report aligns with Tunisia’s modern, secular identity, which has characterized the country since the Bourguiba era.
These protests have also reinvigorated the debate between Islamists and anti-Islamists, as some pro-COLIBE protesters directed their slogans against the Islamist Ennahda Party in particular. Interestingly, both groups of protesters were largely middle-aged, with a different profile from the typical youth- and civil society-led protests that occur frequently in Tunis.
Several reasons explain the COLIBE report’s polarizing tendencies. The place of individual rights and religion in society has always been divisive in Tunisia. But, more importantly, the report commissioned by Essebsi must be viewed within the current political context. The report was released as the major political actors were beginning to jockey for the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, raising the political stakes for the president and parliamentarians. It also came out in the midst of a political crisis, with all-out war between the leader of the ruling Nida’ Tounes Party, Hafez Caid Essebsi, and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, leaving Essebsi’s Nida’ Tounes weak and internally divided ahead of the elections.
The fight over the report is not simply a battle between progressive and conservative forces. The reality is more complex. Not all of those campaigning against the COLIBE report did so for religious or cultural reasons. Many of them took to the streets in order to resist top-down cultural domination eerily similar to the secularization practices of the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes.
Secularization was achieved in Tunisia via an aggressive state-imposed political project associated with the marginalization of Tunisia’s history and Islamic traditions. This hard model of secularism, inspired by the French concept of laïcité, has often proven to be particularly illiberal. Thus, even some progressive voices are hesitant today to accept top-down secularization, which they see embodied in the COLIBE report. To get around this and increase the legitimacy of the report’s recommendations, Essebsi has put forth the possibility of institutionalizing social reforms through parliament. Enacting the recommendations will therefore require legislation, which is likely to spur even further polarization.
Thus, the future of COLIBE’s recommendations—whether they remain ink on paper or are institutionalized into law—remains to be seen. So far, the only effort to formalize them has been through the matter of inheritance rights. The president recently announced that he would submit a draft law to parliament granting women equal inheritance rights with men. The decision to prioritize a less controversial, gender-related social policy over issues such as homosexuality or the death penalty was a brilliant political maneuver. While Essebsi does seem to genuinely support women’s rights, his backing a change to the inheritance law also allows him to bolster his party’s sway ahead of the 2019 elections. In doing so, the president seems to be trying to reunify the country’s secular forces, improve Nida’ Tounes’ electoral prospects, and castigate Ennahda for pursuing a “retrograde” agenda.
Should Ennahda’s leaders oppose the equal inheritance law, the party’s “Muslim Democrat” strategy of normalization, accommodation, and political integration to gain legitimacy on the national and international levels will collapse. On the other hand, should Ennahda support Essebsi’s law, it is likely to alienate its traditional support base ahead of the elections.
However, this move could also potentially be dangerous for Essebsi’s party, as it could easily alienate its supporters who are not all necessarily in favor of the COLIBE recommendations. An International Republican Institute survey conducted right after Essebsi first expressed his desire to reform the inheritance law found that 63 percent of those surveyed “strongly opposed” a change in the law. Furthermore, the protests and counter-protests regarding COLIBE have been largely restricted to the capital and did not gain support in Tunisia’s traditionally marginalized interior and southern regions, where voters are likely to choose elected officials based more on economic issues than social ones.
Nevertheless, while the COLIBE report’s recommendations may never make it off the page and into the legal canon, the report is highly influential in that it reawakened a dividing line that had been largely dormant during the past four years of consensus between elites from religious and secular parties. Therefore, the big question is whether the already fragile and controversial Nida’ Tounes and Ennahda coalition will survive or whether this resurgent split announces the end of the consensus with all that this entails for Tunisia’s political landscape in 2019.