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Tunisia gets new constitution and caretaker cabinet

Tunisia's lawmakers adopted a new constitution Sunday and the prime minister named a caretaker cabinet tasked with organising fresh polls -- two key goals of the revolution that touched off the Arab Spring three years ago.

TUNIS: Tunisia's lawmakers adopted a new constitution Sunday and the prime minister named a caretaker cabinet tasked with organising fresh polls -- two key goals of the revolution that touched off the Arab Spring three years ago.

The North African country's Constituent Assembly adopted the new charter, seen as one of the most modern in the Arab world, with an overwhelming majority of 200 votes in favour, 12 against and four abstentions.

"This day will be proudly remembered in history," Speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar said.

"All Tunisian men and women can identify with this constitution, which preserves our past accomplishments and lays the foundations of a democratic state," he said.

The drafting of the new constitution lasted two years and exposed a deep rift between Ennahda -- a once-banned Islamist movement, now Tunisia's largest party -- and the secular opposition.

But after months of political crisis and sporadic violence, Sunday's milestones set Tunisia on course to achieve at least some of the goals of the uprising that toppled longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

In contrast, neighbouring Libya and Egypt remain mired in instability and crippling political deadlocks three years after the Arab Spring.

Mehdi Jomaa, the technocrat picked as prime minister-designate last month in a deal that saw Ennahda relinquish power in a bid to end the political crisis, announced he had presented his line-up to President Moncef Marzouki.

"I have submitted to the president the list of members of the proposed government to be subjected to a confidence vote in the National Constituent Assembly," he said.

With Ennahda and the liberals at loggerheads, especially since the assassination last year of two opposition MPs by suspected jihadists, the new cabinet is made up mostly of technocrats.

Elections top priority

Jomaa said the caretaker cabinet was formed based on three criteria -- "competence, independence and integrity" -- and called it "an extraordinary team which is aware of the challenges" and whose "mission is not easy".

The interim parliament still has to approve the new line-up in the coming days.

Jomaa had been due to announce a deal on Saturday but missed the deadline, arguing that his proposed line-up had insufficient backing and that negotiations would continue.

One of the main sticking points was over Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou, who was eventually kept in the new line-up despite fierce opposition from one faction of MPs.

Jomaa said that "elections are the priority of all priorities" and the interim parliament will continue its busy schedule with further discussion on a new electoral law.

Under the roadmap agreed by Tunisia's rival factions, parliamentary and presidential polls are due by the end of 2014.

The new constitution's 149 articles were read at Sunday's session before the vote.

Lawmakers had finally agreed on the document on Thursday after vetting it line by line over three weeks of painstaking negotiations and heated debate on issues such as women's rights and the role of Islam.

The resulting fundamental law is a compromise which some observers have warned is at times incoherent or vague but is widely regarded as the most progressive constitution in the region.

Executive power is divided between the prime minister, who will have the dominant role, and the president, who retains important prerogatives, notably in defence and foreign affairs.

Islam is not mentioned as a source of legislation, although it is recognised as the nation's religion and the state is committed to "prohibiting any attacks on the sacred", while freedom of conscience is guaranteed.

Ennahda's veteran leader Rachid Ghannouchi has hailed the charter as a "historic achievement" which he said would enable the establishment of the first democracy in the Arab world.

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