The newly elected Islamist-led government in Tunisia has offered reassurances to both women and gays that they will respect ‘individual freedoms’.
In an interview with Spanish news agency EFE, Ennahda (“Renaissance”) party spokesman Riad Chaibi said that they will not pursue the use of alcohol or punish atheism and homosexuality.
Chaibi, who spent five years in prison for his opposition to dictator Ben Ali, said that in Tunisia “individual freedoms and human rights are enshrined principles” and that atheists and homosexuals are a reality in Tunisia and “have a right to exist.” According to Chaibi, in the case of homosexuals there is also “a matter of dignity, because society sees them as undervalued.”
In the Tunisian Penal Code homosexual sex is punishable with imprisonment for up to three years. The US State Department 2010 Human Rights Report says that:
There was anecdotal evidence that gays faced discrimination, including allegations that police officers sometimes brutalized openly gay persons and accused them of being the source of AIDS. There were no reports of persons arrested for homosexual activity.
Chaibi also denied that his party intends to make the wearing of the veil for women compulsory. “The veil is part of belief, a religious symbol, and as such has no value if it is taken from freedom,” he said.
He said that the Tunisian political, social model is closer to Muslim-majority states like Turkey or Malaysia than to Iran or Saudi Arabia. Tunisia has always been considered the most ‘liberal’ on social issues in North Africa.
“We want a lot [of what they have] in Turkey and to take advantage of their experience,” says Chaibi of another country ruled by a democratically elected Islamist government. He defines the Turkish model as “Islamo-modernist.” Chaibi admitted that the Arab world is “inward looking” but said that “you cannot force the Arab world, or anyone, to be modern.”
“We will not force anyone to drink or not drink: our principle is to convince the people of the negative aspects of alcohol, or drugs, but we have no intention to force,” he said, recalling how American Prohibition resulted in an increase in the consumption of alcohol.
Secularists, women’s groups and other detractors have accused Ennahda of being moderate in public and radical in the mosques.
The party will be the largest part of a coalition government.
“Ennahda will be mindful not to offend its coalition partners, and also the youth who voted for it, who aspire to a certain way of life,” Issaka Souare, a north African specialist at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, told AFP.
“It will need the buy-in of other members of the assembly in all decisions.”
“[Ennahda] cannot afford to damage Tunisia’s relations with Western countries,” Souare said, pointing to tourism which represents almost a tenth of GDP.
Tunisia’s neighbour, Libya, adopted Islamic Sharia law on Sunday as the basis of all the new regime’s laws.
Photo credit European Parliament