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Tunisia’s Colibe Report: ‘Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste’

Specials- Tunisia Women's Day
Tunisians chant slogans during a demonstration to mark Tunisia’s Women’s Day and to demand equal inheritance rights between men and women on August 13, 2018, in the capital Tunis. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ FETHI BELAID

The initial response of Tunisian political parties, civil society and media to the long-awaited recommendations of the Presidential Committee on Individual Freedom and Equality (Commission des libertés individuelles et de l’égalité – Colibe), released on 8 June 2018, has been muted.

Colibe was established on 13 August 2017 – Tunisia’s National Women’s Day – and tasked with harmonizing the country’s laws with the new constitution, which was finally adopted in 2014 following the overthrow of long-time President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

The publication of the 300-page report coincides with a profound economic and political crisis. The government’s inability to overcome distrust and continued power conflicts and conflicts of interests, have culminated in political paralysis, making attempts to push through necessary economic or political reforms impossible. Simultaneously, a large number of Tunisians have suffered a severe decline in income, due to rising inflation, a falling dinar and a high unemployment rate. Old social divisions are blurring and being replaced by new dividing lines and increased socioeconomic inequality.

President Beji Caid Essebsi eventually responded to Colibe’s calls for reforms, announcing plans to submit a draft bill to parliament equalizing inheritance rights for men and women – one of the report’s recommendations. “I propose to make equal inheritance a law,” he said in his annual televised speech, adding that those who wanted to abide by established Islamic inheritance doctrine should be allowed to do so: a compromise, based on the ‘light version’ of the recommendation concerning the inheritance law proposed by the presidential committee.

Essebsi’s response, described by some activists on Facebook as too little too late, raises the question of whether longevity of the Colibe report is assured. The political silence does not bode well. To date, only a few political parties such as the left-wing al-Massar have taken an official position on the commission’s recommendations.

Gender Strategy

The intention to reform the inheritance law, which is currently based on Islamic law and grants men twice as much as women, is of important strategic and symbolic value for both Tunisian society and the political establishment. It is no accident that Essebsi extensively referred to the country’s history on women’s rights during his speech. Women are key to protecting Tunisia’s reputation as the most progressive country in the Arab world. So far, the inheritance law has remained resistant to successive reforms to promote women’s rights, sometimes criticized as instrumentalized for other political purposes by Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba and later Ben Ali, to cover severe human rights violations. Many Tunisians also cherish the Islamic inheritance rules as a last remnant of the country’s religious identity.

Proposals to change are therefore politically sensitive, easily leading to divisions and conflicts within political parties. In Essebsi’s case, the move, a year before presidential elections, does not seem fortuitous. In effect, it could help secure the votes for his Nidaa Tounes party from women who worry that Islamist politicians could try to roll back reforms. Their support helped Essebsi to win four years ago. At the moment, Essebsi’s position is extremely weak due to continuing clashes inside the party between the prime minister and the president’s son. Critics from both within and outside the Nidaa Tounes electorate see Essebsi’s decision to side with his son as reminiscent of the nepotism of the old regime.

Proposals to Strengthen the Rule of Law

Specials- Inheritance Tunisia
Thousands of Tunisians shout slogans during a protest against proposed reforms opposed by conservative Muslims that include equal inheritance rights for women and decriminalising homosexuality, on August 11, 2018 in Tunis. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ FETHI BELAID

The scope of the Colibe report is much wider than gender-related issues; it also contains various proposals to strengthen the rule of law, i.e. broadening the legal definition of torture, ensuring the right to a fair trial, protecting personal data and removing restrictions on the freedom of thought, expression and religion. The proposals respond to pivotal issues still obstructing legitimacy and trust in Tunisia’s institutions, such as police brutality and corruption, and are therefore vital for bolstering the public perception of the rule of law and trust in institutions as pillars of the rule of law.

However, as a consequence of the high priority of gender issues as a means for Nidaa Tounes to profile itself as a modernist reformer and to position the second biggest Islamist party Ennahda as outdated and ‘bad for women’, the attention of political parties and civil society for other proposals in the Colibe report has been completely obliterated or conveniently overlooked.

Towards a New Discourse?

The Colibe report seems to have reawakened an outmoded, rearguard battle on the right to define the nation’s identity, a throwback to the debate on the 2014 constitution during the first years after the revolution. While drafting the constitution, a fierce conflict emerged between Islamic political groups, represented by Ennahda, and secular movements, offering two radically different visions of society.

A serious dialogue on proposals that could contribute to more legitimacy and institutional trust seems to be out of reach as long as gender and sexuality remain central to the debate and the experience of identity, reinforced by media and foreign (formal) colonial powers, who still tend to consider those issues as critically important indicators for progress and democracy. Given the current economic and political crisis, the Colibe recommendations could serve as an excellent opportunity to reinvigorate the identity discourse and develop a more practical approach to establishing a sustainable and democratic rule of law.

As Winston Churchill once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” It could be the ideal time to put his famous words into action.

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