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November 29, 2012

Rivals Battle for Tunisia's Future as Anniversary Approaches

by Henry Ridgwell

Tunisia has just marked its one-year anniversary since its first free elections - and will soon celebrate the second anniversary of the uprising that led to the downfall of its dictatorship and triggered the so-called Arab Spring. But critics of the new government warn human rights abuses are still taking place. As a new constitution is drawn up, opposing forces in the country are fighting to determine Tunisia's future.

Nearly two years after the overthrow of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, opposing forces are still fighting over Tunisia's future path.

Clashes erupted last month in the capital between police and Salafist Muslims.

Tension between hardline Islamists and secularists has risen since last year's election. The winner - the moderate Islamist Ennahda movement - is sharing power with two non-religious parties.

In London to receive the 2012 Chatham House Prize, Tunisia's President Moncef Marzouki said the coalition was a work in progress.

"If this experiment fails, another cycle of violence will undoubtedly take place. But if it succeeds, it can become an example for the rest of the Arab and Muslim countries," said Marzouki.

The co-recipient of the prize, head of the Ennahda movement Rached Ghannouchi, rejected accusations that Tunisia was moving away from democracy.

"We are certain that democracy and Islam are in harmony and that we can be democratic without letting go of Islam," he said.  Ghannouchi added that he believes "democracy without faith can turn into a power struggle where ethics are absent and where interest groups or financial lobbies rule."

Both leaders said fixing Tunisia's economy was vital for stability.

This week the European Union unfroze the assets belonging to 48 people associated with the former regime - potentially releasing millions of dollars back to Tunisian public funds.

Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui of human rights group Amnesty International says Tunisia's progress should not be forgotten.

"They did have elections which was quite significant for the region and I think it is setting a model for the rest of the region. But yet what we see ambiguity when it comes to human rights, when it comes to women's rights. We do see now people who are in jail in Tunisia for insulting Islam. This is something we haven't had before," said Sahraoui.

For the victims of the previous dictatorships, justice is at the core of the transition. A founder of the Tunisian Islamic Front in the 1980s, Mohamed Ali Harrath was tortured several times before fleeing in 1990. He now runs the TV station 'The Islam Channel' from London.

"No one should get away with murder; no one should get away with their wrongdoings. We have to bring them in; they have to face justice, but… after we have justice we have to move to reconciliation," said Harrath.

Harrath rejects what he calls Western fears of Islamization.

"Based on using that fear they supported dictators for so long. They have seen the results in terms of security, in terms of development, in terms of immigration," he said.

Large sections of Tunisian society are unhappy with their new government. But as the second anniversary of the revolution approaches, many analysts say the country where the Arab Spring began still holds lessons for those who followed its path.