TUNIS — A key proposal by Tunisia's ruling Islamist party to outlaw blasphemy in the new constitution, which stoked fears of creeping Islamisation, is to be dropped from the final text, Assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar told AFP.
The agreement to drop the clause follows negotiations between the three parties in the ruling coalition and must still be approved by the committees drafting the constitution, which Jaafar said would be debated by parliament next month.
It comes after President Moncef Marzouki warned that radical Islamist militants pose a "great danger" to the Maghreb region, and following a wave of violent attacks -- blamed on Salafists -- on targets ranging from works of art to the US embassy.
"There will certainly be no criminalisation," Jaafar, the 72-year-old speaker of the National Constituent Assembly, said in an exclusive interview.
"That is not because we have agreed to (allow) attacks on the sacred, but because the sacred is something very, very difficult to define. Its boundaries are blurred and one could interpret it in one way or another, in an exaggerated way," he added.
The plan to criminalise attacks on religious values sparked an outcry when it was first announced by the Islamists in July, with the media and civil society groups warning that it would result in new restrictions on freedom of expression.
Jaafar argued that freedom of expression should be guaranteed, as a key achievement of the mass uprising that ousted former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali last year.
"There is a fundamental achievement of the revolution that should never be called into question, and that no one should be able to challenge, which is the freedom of expression and of the press."
Reporters Without Borders cautiously welcomed Jaafar's pledge, saying it had already raised its concerns over the issue with the authorities.
"We are relieved that, for the time being, this grave threat is being kept out of the constitution," the media rights watchdog said, adding that "using blasphemy legislation to restrict freedom of expression is unacceptable."
UN rights envoy Margaret Sekaggya, in a preliminary report published last week, had also called on the government not to criminalise "attacks on the sacred," saying the poorly-defined term could easily lead to arbitrary interpretation.
The parliamentary speaker said Ennahda, the Islamist party that heads the ruling coalition, would agree to drop the blasphemy clause even though it was at the heart of its political agenda, having modified its earlier position.
"Sometimes we hold talks within the troika (three-party ruling coalition) and we feel that they (Ennahda) are prepared to let their opinions develop, to move the lines a bit," said Jaafar, who heads Ettakatol, a leftist party in the coalition.
Tunisia's interim parliament is tasked with drafting a new constitution, which has been much-delayed due to disagreement over the nature of the political system, something that has threatened to set back next year's elections.
The Islamists have been pushing for a pure parliamentary system, while the other parties want important powers to remain in the hands of the president.
"I have high hopes that a compromise will be found," Jaafar said, recalling that Ennahda had already agreed not to insist on Islamic sharia law.
A first draft of the text will be submitted to the Assembly in November, and then each article will be debated between December and January, according to Jaafar who said that he now expected the vote to take place before next summer.
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