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New Tunisia constitution viewed as potential model

TUNIS — Tunisia’s slow transition from dictatorship to democracy is nearing an end with a final debate on the new constitution, the first in the Arab world that avoids mentioning Islamic law and that is written by elected representatives.

Bordered by chaotic Libya on one side and autocratic Algeria on the other, the country and its national charter could provide a model for a turbulent region struggling with the conflicts between liberals and Islamists in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

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The opening of the debate at the Constitutional Assembly on Monday was marred by the deep polarization in Tunisia’s politics, as dozens of opposition deputies marched out of the chamber singing the national anthem in protest over the constitution’s latest draft.

Such theatrics, however, have been common during the nearly two-year lifespan of this body elected in October 2011 to write a new charter for a country of 10 million that spent the last half century under authoritarian rule.

The transition has been marked by the assassination of a politician, attacks on foreign embassies, street battles between hardline Islamists and their opponents as well as a deeply troubled economy that has been repeatedly downgraded by international lending agencies.

Yet with neighboring Libya filled with warring militias, millions in Egypt’s streets seeking to depose a democratically elected president and Syria mired in brutal civil war, Tunisia’s halting progress is a standout for democratization in the region.

Tunisia has taken the route of electing the authors of its new constitution.

In Egypt and Morocco, two other countries that received new national charters, the writing was done by a panel of appointed experts.

The difference, said Ghazi Ghareiri, a constitutional scholar at Tunis University, is that Tunisia will have a constitution in which everyone has an investment.

So while it takes much longer, the result will have greater legitimacy.

‘‘It’s not so much the content that is important but the degree of popular involvement in the constitutional question,’’ he said. ‘‘Other constitutions have been handed down from on high — this is the first one that will be a real expression of the competing forces in society.’’

Since the appearance of its first draft last year, the document has been hotly debated by civil society and in the assembly’s committees.

Demonstrations and popular pressure have led to three revisions of the document.

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