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Tunisia finally passes progressive constitution

TUNIS, Tunisia -- After decades of dictatorship and two years of arguments and compromises, Tunisians finally have a new constitution laying the foundations for a new democracy.

Tunisia's leaders on Monday signed the new constitution adopted by lawmakers during the night, a key goal of the revolution three years ago that touched off the Arab Spring.

The historic document, seen as one of the most modern in the Arab world, was signed by outgoing Islamist premier Ali Larayedh, Speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar, and President Moncef Marzouki during a ceremony at the National Constituent Assembly.

“With the birth of this text, we confirm our victory over dictatorship,” Marzouki said in a speech to the assembly, before signing the document which he then embraced, waving the victory sign, “Much work remains to make the values of our constitution a part of our culture,” he said.

The charter, which took more than two years to draft, will enter into force in stages after its publication in the official journal, and in the run-up to fresh parliamentary and presidential elections later this year.

Overwhelming Support

Tunisia's dominant Islamist party Ennahda said it expected elections to take place in October.

The document is groundbreaking as one of the most progressive constitutions in the Arab world — and for the fact that it got written at all. It passed late Sunday by 200 votes out of 216 in the Muslim Mediterranean country that inspired uprisings across the region after overthrowing a dictator in 2011.

“This constitution, without being perfect, is one of consensus,” Ben Jaafar said after the vote.

The constitution enshrining freedom of religion and women's rights took two years to finish. During that period, the country was battered by high unemployment, protests, terrorist attacks, political assassinations and politicians who seemed more interested in posturing than finishing the charter.

At the same time, Egypt wrote two constitutions — and went through a military coup against an elected government. Egypt's charters were quickly drafted by appointed committees and involved little public debate or input. In Tunisia, an elected assembly of Tunisian Islamists, leftists and liberals worked on a detailed roadmap for their political future.

“We needed time to get this constitution as it is today,” said Amira Yahyaoui, who has closely followed the assembly's activities with her monitoring group Bawsala. “Clearly, writing this constitution to do a real transformation of the minds of people needed time and I absolutely don't regret these two years and I am happy we had time to discuss and think about all the arguments.”

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In this photo taken Sunday, Jan. 26, members of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly embrace to celebrate the new constitution. (AP)

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