* Ban Ki-moon calls Tunisia's new basic law a milestone
* Technocrat caretaker government to lead until new vote
* Tunisia's progress contrasts with Egypt, Libya
By Tarek Amara
TUNIS, Jan 27 Tunisia adopted a new constitution
on Monday, a big stride towards democracy in the country that
began the Arab Spring revolutions and has largely avoided the
chaos and violence now plaguing the neighbours it inspired.
After years under autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali,
Tunisia's charter has been praised as one of the most
progressive in the Arab world, designating Islam as the state
religion but protecting freedom of belief and sexual equality.
Parliament erupted in celebrations after the official
signing of the constitution. Lawmakers approved it on Sunday
evening, ending months of deadlock that had threatened to undo
"This is an exceptional day for Tunisia, where we celebrate
the victory over dictatorship. The government and the opposition
have won, Tunisia has won," President Moncef Marzouki told the
assembly after signing.
The small North African country's steady progress contrasts
sharply with turmoil in Libya and Egypt, whose people followed
Tunisia in ousting their veteran leaders in 2011.
Tunisia's stock market rose 1.7 percent on Monday in a sign
of investor confidence in the country's stability, with the
constitution in place and the formation of a new caretaker
cabinet that will govern until elections.
After months of crisis, Tunisia's transition got back on
track when ruling Islamist party Ennahda agreed to compromise
late last year and step down to make way for a non-political
cabinet of experts, led by former minister Mehdi Jomaa.
Hours before Sunday's approval of the constitution, new
prime minister Jomaa named technocrats with international
experience to key posts such as finance minister and foreign
No election date has been set, but Ennahda and opposition
party Nidaa Tounes, headed by a former Ben Ali official, are
expected to battle for the presidency.
In the National Assembly and on the street, political
divisions about the role of Islam were forgotten in the
celebrations over a constitution that United Nations Secretary-
General Ban Ki-moon commended as a "milestone".
"It is the first time we have been so united since the
revolution," said Asma Habaib, a young bank worker in central
Tunis. "It is like another revolution."
One of the most secular nations in the Arab world, Tunisia
struggled after its 2011 revolution with divisions over the role
of Islam and the rise of Islamist ultra-conservatives.
Islamist party Ennahda won the most seats in parliament, but
the assassination of two opposition leaders last year pitched
the country into crisis. Increasing deadlock in Tunisia, and the
Egyptian army's deposing of its Islamist president in July,
eventually prompted a compromise between Ennahda's chief Rached
Ghannouchi and the opposition.
Divisions are still present, but Tunisia's leaders, heavily
reliant on tourism for its foreign income, and with no tradition
of violence or military interventions, opted to battle at the
ballot box, not on the street.
Following that example will be tough for its North African
Two years after its own NATO-backed revolt toppled
autocratic leader Muammar Gaddafi, neighbouring Libya is caught
in messy transition, with its constitution undrafted, its
transitional parliament still deadlocked and former rebel
fighters refusing to disarm.
In Egypt, elected Islamist President Mohamed Mursi was
ousted by the army and jailed, and his Muslim Brotherhood
movement declared a terrorist organisation.
Egyptians approved their own new constitution this month,
but the country is still beset by political violence as army
chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pushes forward a transition
plan that is expected to lead to him running for the presidency.
Tunisia's new premier Jomaa has plenty of challenges to
secure stability before the elections in a country where many
complain about the high cost of living and a lack of economic
Islamist militants have been a growing threat in Tunisia,
which shares a porous border with Libya, where al Qaeda-linked
militants have sought refuge. A suicide bombing at a Tunisian
beach resort late last year showed its vulnerability.
International lenders also want Tunisia to curb public
spending on subsidies on fuel and basic goods to control the
budget deficit. Protests broke out recently over a tax increase,
forcing the government to roll back the measure.
"The adoption of a new constitution is an important step in
reducing political uncertainty in Tunisia," Fitch Ratings agency
said in a statement. "But easing political and social tensions
will be a long and challenging process."