News / Middle East

    Tunisia Heads for Confrontation As Islamists Dig In

    People demonstrate with a national's flags against Tunisia's Islamist-led government, in front of the Constituent Assembly headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, Sept. 7, 2013.
    People demonstrate with a national's flags against Tunisia's Islamist-led government, in front of the Constituent Assembly headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, Sept. 7, 2013.
    Reuters
    Tunisia's ruling Islamists rejected on Monday a plan for them to step down pending elections, deepening a confrontation with secular opponents that threatens the most promising democratic transition to have emerged from the Arab Spring.
     
    Tunisia has been in turmoil since an opposition leader was assassinated in July, delivering a blow to hopes for a peaceful outcome to the first pro-democracy uprising in the Arab world.
     
    The Islamist government that replaced Tunisia's longtime ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had on Thursday cautiously agreed to talks on stepping down, after reading opposition protests as a sign it is time to compromise instead of digging in.
     
    On Monday it appeared to take a step back.
     
    “We cannot accept the threat of pressure from the streets,” said Ennahda vice president Adb el Hamid Jelassi. “There should be more guarantees.”
     
    Stubbornness was the undoing of its affiliate in Egypt - the Muslim Brotherhood which won office through the ballot box after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak but alienated the masses and the army by refusing to share power.
     
    In contrast, Ennahda had shared power in a coalition with two secular junior partners and had sought to appease worries that it could impose an strict Islamist agenda impinging on liberal education and women's rights.
     
    But it has alienated many Tunisians who see it has mismanaged the economy and gone easy on hardline Islamists. Its critics say it is playing for time to shore up its position before elections and its decision on Monday bolstered that view.
     
    “We have said that this government would not step down concretely before the completion of the constitution,” Rafik Abd Essalem, a senior Ennahda official, told reporters.
     
    The party also said it wanted more guarantees on a date for elections before relinquishing power to an interim government.
     
    Issam Chebbi, a senior official in the opposition Salvation Front, told Reuters on Friday it had accepted “without any conditions” a plan for three weeks of transition talks presented by the UGTT labor union that has been mediating in the dispute.
     
    Frustrated at lack of progress, the 800,000-member union on Sunday threatened to mobilize protests to pressure the government to accept the proposal.
     
    “They don't want to leave, there are plenty of hidden agendas here for Ennahda,” said one party leader from the opposition coalition last week as the wrangling continued. “We need guarantees, so there is still plenty of work to do.”
     
    Growing frustrations
     
    After the assassination in July, the second killing of an opposition leader by suspected Islamist militants this year, Ennahda came under mounting pressure and street protests from an opposition emboldened by events in Egypt, where the military overthrew the Islamist president the same month.
     
    A National Assembly writing the country's constitution had almost completed its work before it was suspended a month ago over the political crisis. Deputies got back to work last week though most opposition members stayed away.
     
    Ennahda, still the most well-organized Tunisian political group, has seen its support drop in the small nation where the crisis has eroded an already fragile economic outlook.
     
    But the party, which won 41 percent of the seats in the constituent assembly in October 2011, is still popular and organized enough to hold a 100,000-strong march in August.
     
    While it is split between moderates and conservatives, the opposition is an uneasy tie-up between Nidaa Tounes, a party filled with former regime officials, and leftist parties.
     
    Ennahda, keen to shore up its position, wants early elections. The opposition accuses it of stacking local government official positions with its allies to give it an advantage in any quick election.
     
    Even if the two sides do sit down for talks, a final draft of the constitution, the new electoral law and the date of the election may fuel more disputes.
     
    “There is distrust among all the parties about whether they will be given a fair shot in any elections,” said one diplomat. “If there is a technocrat government in place, we need to see how the electoral law is shaped.”
     
    Tunisia's economy can ill afford any more drift in its transition with its vital tourism industry still recovering from the revolt. International lenders are demanding reforms to fuel subsidies and bloated public wages to reduce the fiscal deficit.
     
    Another potential worry is the reaction of Islamist hardliners, whose influence has grown as they preach a purist vision of Islam calling for Sharia law. Once persecuted under Ben Ali, conservative Salafists have been allowed to form political parties.
     
    Under pressure, Ennahda has since banned Ansar al-Sharia, a radical group with ties to al-Qaida, blamed for a 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy. But Islamists say frustrations are growing over a crackdown many see as just like the old regime days.
     
    “Tunisia should be a Islamic country under Sharia law,” said one young Islamist in a Tunis cafe. “There is some frustration, and not everyone can be patient.”

    You May Like

    Saudi Arabia’s New Female Politicians in the Other Room 

    Many in Saudi Arabia say elected representatives should share unsegregated spaces; according to a recent survey, more than half the Saudi population, both men and women, prefer to work in a segregated place

    Russia Not ‘Apologetic’ for Syria Airstrikes

    With Moscow criticized for targeting armed opponents of President Assad, Russia’s UN envoy says his country ‘acting in a very transparent manner’

    Pakistan Warns of Islamic State's Growing Reach

    Aftab Sultan, General Director General of Intelligence Bureau (IB), briefed Senate Committee in closed hearing, saying that IS-linked groups have been expanding in Pakistan

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growthi
    X
    February 10, 2016 5:54 AM
    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Civil Rights Pioneer Remembers Struggle for Voting Rights

    February is Black History Month in the United States. The annual, month-long national observance pays tribute to important people and events that shaped the history of African Americans. VOA's Chris Simkins reports how one man fought against discrimination to help millions of blacks obtain the right to vote
    Video

    Video Jordanian Theater Group Stages Anti-Terrorism Message

    The lure of the self-styled “Islamic State” has many parents worried about their children who may be susceptible to the organization’s online propaganda. Dozens of Muslim communities in the Middle East are fighting back -- giving young adults alternatives to violence. One group in Jordan is using dramatic expression a send a family message. Mideast Broadcasting Network correspondent Haider Al Abdali shared this report with VOA. It’s narrated by Bronwyn Benito
    Video

    Video Migrant Crisis Fuels Debate Over Britain’s Future in EU

    The migrant crisis in Europe is fueling the debate in Britain ahead of a referendum on staying in the European Union that may be held this year. Prime Minister David Cameron warns that leaving the EU could lead to thousands more migrants arriving in the country. Meanwhile, tension is rising in Calais, France, where thousands of migrants are living in squalid camps. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Families Flee Aleppo for Kurdish Regions in Syria

    Not all who flee the fighting in Aleppo are trying to cross the border into Turkey. A VOA reporter caught up with several families heading for Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.