The Tunisian government approved a law to amend the country’s Personal Status Code to provide for gender equality in inheritance last Friday at a cabinet meeting attended by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi who had proposed the law last August.
The new law will likely be the focus of heated debate among conservative circles over the coming days as it is debated in parliament before being put to a vote against a backdrop of mounting discontent over economic problems in the country, as seen in the demonstrations organised by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) last week.
“President Beji Caid Essebsi chaired a cabinet meeting on Friday devoted to the examination of two draft laws,” the Tunisian presidency announced on 23 November. “The first is a presidential initiative supplementing the Personal Status Code, and the second relates to the state of emergency.”
“The cabinet approved the first bill, but decided to examine the draft law on the state of emergency in more depth, notably as regards various guarantees and judicial review before submitting it to a further cabinet meeting,” the statement said.
The cabinet’s approval of the law on gender equality in inheritance rights, a precedent for the whole of the Arab world, presents a new challenge to the rapprochement between Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and the Islamist Ennahda Party.
Ennahda recently gave Chahed a vote of confidence in his newly formed cabinet after months of tension between him and his own party Nidaa Tounes.
Conservative and Islamist forces charge that the law on gender equality in inheritance violates a provision of Sharia Law based on an explicit scriptural text.
The bill is unlikely to have a smooth passage through parliament, which has been dominated by the Ennahda Party since the schism that caused the secularist Nidaa Tounes Party to lose the majority it won in the 2014 general elections.
Because of the shift in parliamentary forces, Chahed had to draw closer to Ennahda in order to retain his premiership and counter his rivals in Nidaa Tounes.
One of these is the party’s General-Secretary Slim Riahi, who last week charged Chahed with trying to engineer a coup against Essebsi.
The cabinet’s approval of the amendment to the Personal Status Code comes a year before the country’s next general elections in October 2019.
Observers see the law as an attempt on the part of Essebsi to win over Tunisia’s liberal and secularist forces and women’s movements ahead of the elections, thereby compensating for losses due to the rift in Nidaa Tounes.
The approval of the law also occurred after the general strike called by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) after negotiations with the government had failed to secure a wage hike for the country’s civil servants.
Attended by hundreds of thousands of people, this was the largest strike the country has seen in five years. More than 3,000 people also responded to the powerful union’s call to stage a protest in front of the parliament building in Tunis.
The UGTT wants to see salary raises for the country’s 673,000 civil servants equivalent to those granted this year to employees in public-sector companies that range between 15 and 30 Euro ($17 to $34) per month.
In remarks to the French news agency AFP, UGTT Deputy Secretary-General Bouali Mbarki said that the wage increases “had not been taken into account in the 2019 budget” and that the union’s demands were linked to “an unprecedented rise in prices, a deterioration of citizens’ purchasing power... and the degradation of daily life”.
He appealed to the government “to find a solution that does not mean taking instructions from the International Monetary Fund and that preserves social stability.” He stressed that the union was “not negotiating with [IMF managing director] Christine Lagarde but with the head of the Tunisian government,” Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.
In 2016, the IMF approved a 2.4 billion Euro loan to the Tunisian government, repayable over four years, in exchange for a commitment to implement a package of economic reforms.
Since then, Tunisians have been plagued by soaring prices due to the plummeting exchange rate of the dinar, rising taxes and high unemployment rates. In January this year, mounting discontent over the country’s economic straits erupted into widespread rioting.
On Saturday, the UGTT took another step to put pressure on the Chahed government, releasing a statement accusing the government of failing to remedy the economic and social deterioration in the country and calling for another general strike to be held on 17 January 2019.
The statement reiterated demands for wage increases and stressed the need for the government to “rescue the public sector” and reform it in a manner that would enable it to play a leading economic and social role.
It also urged the Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, another powerful Tunisian labour union, to join the UGTT in the campaign to put pressure on the government in the interest of securing wage increases commensurate to the rising cost of living of both public and private-sector workers.
In view of the close relations between Chahed and Ennahda, it would appear that Essebsi and the Nidaa Tounes Party have an interest in pressuring the government to respond to the UGTT’s demands.
Such pressures would cast Chahed, tipped as a possible Ennahda Party nominee in the next presidential elections, in a poor light among the country’s popular classes.
At the same time, his popularity among conservatives and electoral prospects have also been harmed by the passage of the law on gender equality in inheritance, since he is a member of the same party as the president.
When Essebsi first proposed the law in August, the advisory shura council of the Ennahda Party issued a statement opposing gender equality in inheritance on the grounds that it conflicted with religious strictures, the constitution and the country’s Personal Status Code.
Any new law would “jeopardise the stability of the Tunisian family” and social customs, it said.
Since then, however, the party has issued no further official comments on the bill. This may have inspired presidential political adviser Noureddine ben Ticha’s confidence that parliament will now pass the bill.
“Most of the MPs and blocs in the parliament are convinced of the value of this bill and its importance to Tunisian society,” he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Tunisia moves to gender equality