Tunis — Debate on Tunisia’s new constitution was suspended for several hours Sunday after a deputy claimed he had received death threats because a colleague accused him of being an “enemy of Islam”.
The upshot of the raucous proceedings was that opposition members of the National Constituent Assembly eventually forced a successful revote on a proposed amendment that would make it unlawful to accuse someone of apostacy.
The death threats claim came a day after the NCA adopted articles making Islam the state religion but guaranteeing freedom of conscience.
Mongi Rahoui, of the leftwing Popular Front, accused Habib Ellouze of the Islamist ruling party Ennahda of calling him an enemy of Islam.
Such words are not taken lightly in Tunisia, where the suspected assassination by militant Salafist Muslims last year of two opposition politicians plunged the country into a political crisis that has still not been resolved.
The interior ministry said threats against Rahoui and two other people had been made on Facebook and that it was taking steps to protect them.
“The ministry has taken all security precautions to ensure the security of the parties and opened an investigation to determine the seriousness of the threats,” a statement said.
Addressing Ellouze, a hardline Ennahda member known for inflammatory comments, Rahoui asked: “How much more blood must there be before we understand that we are united (under Islam)?
“I tell you that I am a Muslim; that my father, my mother, my grandfather and my people are Muslims.
“What (Ellouze) said yesterday, that I am an enemy of Islam, has led to death threats against me.”
Ellouze had been quoted by a radio station Saturday as saying Rahoui is “known for his animosity toward religion”.
He said his words had been misinterpreted and apologised to Rahoui.
A number of secular opposition deputies angrily protested that such words could spell the same fate for Rahoui as befell Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi last year.
Ennahda’s detractors accused the moderate Islamist party of failing to rein in the Salafist militants.
Following the exchange between Rahoui and Ellouze, deputies demanded a revote on the apostacy amendment, which was rejected Saturday.
An ‘attack’ on free speech
After being suspended twice, deliberations resumed late afternoon, a new vote was taken and the amendment was approved by 131 of 182 people voting.
But its adoption drew fire from a civil rights group, which argued that it was an attack on free speech and opened the door to other such measures.
“Tunisian deputies, from the Islamist camp to the democratic camp, voted today against freedom of speech,” argued Amira Yahyaoui, president of Al-Bawsala, a group that monitors issues of political transparency.
Deputies were later set to discuss forming an electoral commission to oversee elections this year.
Later in the day they were to examine a chapter of the constitution dedicated to “rights and freedoms”.
Elected in October 2011, the NCA had been due to have drafted and adopted the text within one year.
But its work was delayed by deep divisions between Ennahda and the opposition, aggravated by a rise in Islamist attacks and sometimes violent social unrest.
Voting on the constitution comes amid concerns that a January 14 deadline for its adoption may not be met because of repeated disruptions.
It was on January 14, 2011, that ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family fled the country for exile in Saudi Arabia.
To be adopted, the constitution will need approval by two-thirds of the assembly’s 217 members. Otherwise, it will have to be put to a referendum.
Prime Minister Ali Larayedh has agreed to resign, handing power to a transitional premier, Mohamed Jomaa, but insists that the constitution and an electoral law be in place first to pave the way for elections.
The powerful UGTT trade union, which has been mediating in the crisis, is insisting that Larayedh step down by Thursday at the latest.
Its officials are scheduled to meet both Larayedh and Jomaa on Monday.