Tunisia’s young democratic experience is struggling to survive as several forces are keen on intimidating it. The new era of democracy began in the aftermath of the December 2010 – January 2011 revolution which ousted the President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali (who ruled the country for 23 years), and ended a one party system that had lead the country since it’s independence in 1956.

The small north African country saw a turmoil recently after President Beji Caid Essebsi suggested, in a speech at the ceremony marking the National Women’s Day on the 13th of August, that the government consider the cancellation of a manifesto known as Decree 73 which prohibits Tunisian women from marrying Non-Muslim foreigners.

The ceremony also marked the 61st anniversary of the Tunisian Code Of Personal Status which is a series of progressive laws promoting equality between women and men in several areas. The laws are known as the deed of Habib Bourguiba who was the head of government at the time the laws were commenced and enacted, and later became the first president of the newly established Republic of Tunisia.

Citing the great achievement of Bourguiba in the field of equality, Caid Essebsi also suggested in the same ceremony a legislation to guarantee equal inheritance rights for women, an issue considered very sensitive and controversial for the country’s Muslim majority. So far, inheritance in Tunisia has been regulated in accordance with the Islamic law which allows women to inherit half of what it allows to men. For example, if the deceased has a daughter and a son, the share entitled to the son is twice as that of the daughter.

The president argued that prohibiting Tunisian women from marrying Non-Muslim foreigners puts many women in a difficult position, especially those who marry foreigners abroad. He also suggested that the manifesto is unconstitutional and is in conflict with the country’s 2014 constitution which guarantees the freedom of choosing a spouse, the freedom of belief and that of conscience in it’s article number 6. As for the equal inheritance, he suggested that it’s not contrary to Tunisia’s moderate Islamic teachings and that he is sure the state’s highest religious authority known as “Diwan El Ifta’e” would find the appropriate religious interpretation to support the move.

A day later on the 14th of August, the country’s official Grand Mufti Othman Battikh published a statement on his establishment’s official Facebook page, congratulating women for their national day and supporting the president’s suggestion calling him the ”father of us all (Tunisians)”. The Mufti stated that the move would be compliant to a verse he quoted from the Muslim Holy Book, the Quran and in accordance with Tunisian and international laws and traditions.

The proposed changes and the Mufti’s response were met with outrage from several politicians. A group of Arab nationalist parties and organisations joined together in issuing a statement of condemnation stating that the proposals interfere with clear religious instructions and cannot be justified. Leaders from Annahdha Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Tunisian branch also expressed their objection for the same reason, they were joined by Noureddine El Khadmi, a known Islamist who served as minister of religious affairs between 2011 and 2014.

A group of scholars and Islamic law teachers from the University of Ez-Zeitouna, Tunisia’s historical school of religion, rushed to condemn the suggestion of allowing marriage to a Non-Muslim calling it a crime of adultery. Hamda Saied, previously the Grand Mufti of Tunisia (from 2013 to 2016) called the suggestions “a pull-out of Islam”.

The controversy reached as far as Egypt, with Al-Azhar mosque (Egypt’s historical religious authority) criticising the Tunisian President’s ideas. In response to that, thousands of Tunisians and Egyptians went to social media with the Arabic Hashtag ”Oh Azhar stay with the army” calling on the mosque to rather intervene in what they called the Egyptian army’s persecution of its own citizens. The Tunisian Grand Mufti shortly responded to Al-Azhar’s involvement on Sunday 20th of August in an interview to Assabah daily newspaper saying that Tunisians know best about their affairs and that the mosque should not involve itself in internal Tunisian matters.

Parties, organisations and individuals supporting the president claim that equality between men and women is vital to the success of the democratic experience citing that the propositions are in the same direction of the recent bill passed by the parliament on the 26th of July which condemns violence and assaults on women promoting harsh punishments for perpetrators. The bill also cancelled a controversial article of the Penal Code (article 227) which allowed an assailant to escape penalty for raping a minor younger than 15 years old should he accept to marry his victim.

This is another manifestation of the country’s struggle for democracy which continues to be challenged by the Islamist and Arab nationalist movements. Tunisia’s government continues to work towards re-establishing and reinforcing security and order, as well as introducing reforms to the economy which saw its worst crisis in the wake of the 2011 revolution. Many believe that Tunisia is on the right path to becoming a true democracy, yet a fundamental question remains to be answered, that is, will the small Mediterranean republic survive the radical forces keen on pushing it backwards?