Tunisia's newly elected assembly gets to work

AP News
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Posted: Nov 22, 2011 1:58 PM
Tunisia's newly elected assembly gets to work

Tunisia's newly elected assembly held its inaugural meeting Tuesday, and begin the yearlong process of shaping the constitution and the democratic future of the country that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings.

And it didn't take long for the legislators to feel one result of free speech: hundreds of people protested outside Parliament, demanding everything from women's rights and a crackdown on security forces to limits on Qatar's influence over Tunisia's affairs.

There were also spats within the body as the new opposition attempted to flex its wings and challenge the majority coalition.

A moderate Islamist party, Ennahda (Renaissance), won the most seats in Tunisia's Constituent Assembly, and has announced a coalition with a liberal and a left-of-center party, but groups representing the country's secular traditions picketed the assembly's first meeting expressing their fears of an Islamist takeover.

Lawmakers were elected last month in Tunisia's first free vote _ the first one resulting from the Arab Spring protests. Tunisian protesters drove out their longtime president in January, setting off revolts in other Arab countries.

Tunisia's new assembly is being watched as an example amid the violence in Egypt ahead of its elections and the escalating tensions in Syria.

"Tunisia now has a shining image in the international arena thanks to the maturity shown by the Tunisian people, political parties and civil society," said outgoing interim President Fouad Mebazaa in his address to the chamber.

He urged the members to respond to the people's desires and "build a state where the values of dignity, justice and freedom flourish."

He also paid tribute to the government of outgoing Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, saying it brought Tunisia from revolution to elections "in exceptional circumstances, despite the difficulties and obstacles."

Khalil Zaouia, a member of the political bureau of the Ettakatol, or Forum party, which is a junior coalition member said that a number of ministers from the transitional government would keep their jobs, including the Minister of Defense Abdelkrim Zbidi, Minister of Finance Jaloul Ayed, and Central Bank governor Mustapha Kamel Nabli.

The assembly elected Ettakatol president Mustapha Ben Jaafar as its speaker and in future sessions he will nominate a president who will appoint a prime minister to form a new government.

Maya Jribi, leader of the left of center Progressive Democratic Party, ran against him, but was beaten 145 votes to 67.

There were some heated exchanges between coalition deputies and the opposition Tuesday, but Moncef Marzouki, leader of the liberal Congress for the Republic and a coalition member, urged members to bury their differences "because the people are all watching us."

The coalition of Ennahda, CPR and Ettakatol, which holds 139 of the 217 seats, signed an agreement to present Marzouki as the country's new president who will in turn nominate Hammadi Jebali of Ennahda for prime minister.

Outside the assembly building in a suburb of Tunis, 1,000 people demonstrated from dozens of different associations, many representing women calling for their rights to be guaranteed in the new constitution.

"We have come to demand the inclusion of the rights of women and universal rights in the future constitution," said Amel Abdennebi as she protested outside the parliament. "We do not want Tunisian society to regress."

Under dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia had some of the most progressive laws for women in the Arab world, something its secular elite fear might be lost under an Islamist party.

Ennahda, as well as its coalition members, has promised to maintain women's rights.

Also protesting were relatives of those killed and wounded in the monthlong uprising that began in December, calling for justice against the security forces.

The North African country of 10 million people has been essentially a one-party state since it won its independence from France in 1956, yet it was able to organize a successful election accepted by all participants in just four months.

A number of the protesters outside the parliament building focused on Qatar's alleged role in the success of Ennahda, charging that the party had been funded by the wealthy emirate.

"No Jazeera, No Qatar, the Tunisian people are free," chanted protesters.

Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi made his first international visit after the elections to Qatar.

Qatar paid a highly visible role supporting Libya's rebels and is accused by some in Tunisia of trying to influence the Arab Spring, especially through the influential Jazeera news network, based in Doha and partly funded by Qatar.

A Jazeera camera crew was attacked by protesters, who called them "mercenaries" and "agents."