An Arab Spring success story: Tunisia’s new constitution

February 19, 2014, 7:17 PM UTC

FORTUNE — “Is it ever going to happen?” We were asked that question during one of the bleakest moments of Tunisia’s constitutional transformation, on the wings of the primarily peaceful Jasmine Revolution that set the Arab Spring in motion.

The date was July 26, 2013. The past 12 hours might charitably have been described as volatile. In Tunisia’s complex past, July 25 has always been a red-letter day, sometimes celebrated with jubilation and occasionally stained with blood. July 25, 1957 marked the republic’s proclamation, and July 25, 2013 almost saw its demise with the assassination of Mohammed Brahmi, general coordinator of the Popular Movement and member of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA).

The Tunisian republic was undergoing a reawakening, starting with the December 2011 resignation of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Repressive dictatorships, dressed up as presidential democracies or flat-out authoritarian regimes, have bedeviled Tunisian politics for the last few decades.

Something stirred on July 26, though. Tunisia had not witnessed the heedless crackdowns and street violence that have been the norm in fellow Arab Spring states like Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Sure, in Tunisia there were serious religious and political disagreements, but those were being worked out in relative calm. But on July 26, the future of Tunisia’s political state seemed to be in question.

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George Bangham and I decided in the autumn of 2011 to help the leaders of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly (NCA) to assemble a comparative-law team to draft a proposed constitution. We felt an obligation to do right by the General Rapporteur’s Office. We brought together a diverse team consisting of 35 American, Bangladeshi, British, German, Indian, Spanish, and Tunisian human rights and economic advocates, a U.S. state assistant attorney general, international law experts, and members and staff of the Tunisian Ministries and Parliament and the U.K. Parliament. The Tunisians had to make their own choices. International advisors like us simply helped point out to the Tunisians how the consequences have worked out elsewhere and might work out in their country.

At times, the task seemed to have all the thrill of a dutiful burden. The team we assembled quit or suspended their regular jobs and private lives for little financial remuneration. And they weathered assaults on their careers and persons for something that they believed was greater than themselves. Many members of this team were veterans of Bangham’s British think tank, The Wilberforce Society, so the nickname “Team W” endearingly stuck. The team worked both in Tunisia and from five other continents.

Brahmi’s assassination hit us hard, not just because several NCA sponsors and champions of our constitutional endeavors were his friends, and not just because he was widely seen as an instrumental leader of his people. After Brahmi’s passing (his was the second such murder by the same hard-line Salafist assassin) and looming threats to others’ lives, the prospect of building a new Tunisia’s future was in doubt. So was ours.

The private costs were heavy, relationships broke off, marriages came under pressure — and sometimes we wondered if we had any right to continue to put our families through death threats, humiliation, and thinly veiled pretexts to social and professional ostracism. But no matter how bad things got, a Tunisian minister’s chief of staff kept reminding me, it could never be as bad as it had been for the self-immolating fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. His ultimate act was in heartfelt protest of the corruption in his country, the problematic expropriation of his wares (and thus his livelihood), and the incessant harassment and indignity forced upon him by a public official. We kept perspective.

Despite skepticism from many quarters, Team W managed to produce for the NCA’s consideration one of the most progressive constitutional documents in the region, enshrining equality and women’s rights, a balanced secularism suffused with the advantages conferred by religion, and greater diffusion of power than the Arab world has ever known. We justified every choice we made and left the recommendations up to the Tunisians. Team W had studied the civil, political, and economic structures of other Arab states, including Egypt and Morocco, along with those of Australia, Canada, several Eastern European and Latin American nations, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The moderate Islamist party Ennahda’s upper-echelon politicians had historically held at bay their secular, social democratic counterparts in the Ettakatol party, and vice versa. When President Ben Ali was ousted and the first free elections took place on Oct. 23, 2011, Ennahda prevailed. To form a government, Ennahda allied with two moderate secular parties: the Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic. (Together the coalition is often referred to as “the troika.”)

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At first, the parties were unwilling to compromise at all. The role of religion was not the only line in the sand. There was also the complacency toward casual corruption and an inability to agree on strategies to keep multinationals and even homegrown businesses interested in operating in a cleaner Tunisian economy. Commerce, military, equal dignity under the new constitution, and foreign policy all caused divisions.

But religion colored much of the debate, with accusations leveled at Ennahda for being inadequately tough on Islamist militants even after the two political assassinations. Nevertheless, we witnessed remarkable collaboration across party lines through the involvement of prominent women, ethnic minorities, young Tunisians, and freethinking politicians. Tunisia cast aside a crustily formal type of political negotiation that had long outlived its usefulness.

Unlike Egypt, the main party in power (Ennahda) compromised by relinquishing power to a caretaker government, perhaps in hopes of improving its political brand in the eyes of the Tunisian people or, less cynically, out of patriotism. And crucially, the Tunisian army did not attempt a coup amid the revolution.

We were moved by conversations we had with Tunisians from different ethnic groups and economic classes in town halls, editorial boards, local bazaars, village majlis, and all kinds of conversations. This was happening with NCA members and their constituents — deference that some NCA members had demanded from their constituents was now supplanted with deference often going the other way.

On Jan. 26, Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly ratified a new constitution. In this wave of constitutionalism, Tunisians have sought to honor the ethos that Americans have venerated since 1787: No person is above the reach or beneath the protection of the law. In the end, though, constitutions are part blueprints, part aspirations. They represent a nation’s commitment to itself so that temptations borne out of public emergencies don’t transform citizens into mobs and citizen-politicians into servants of the mob.

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Tunisians have demonstrated valor in the face of challenges made even more excruciating by religious and political tensions, furtive assassinations, and deafening uncertainty about the future. As he was signing the new constitution, Tunisia’s President Moncef Marzouki observed that “With the birth of this text, we confirm our victory over dictatorship.” It was not about trading in a “better” dictator for a “worse” one. This resolve should serve as an example to the other nations in the Middle East and elsewhere facing similar challenges.

Riddhi Dasgupta served as the chief draftsperson of the proposed framework for Tunisia’s constitution under the U.K.-based think tank The Wilberforce Society.