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

South Korea Divided on Response to North’s Cyber Attack

In past five years, officials in Seoul have accused Pyongyang of hacking into banks, government websites, causing chaos and inflicting millions of dollars in damages More

Video Calm Amid Fear in Daily Life in S. Sudan’s Bentiu

Residents have been trying to regain some sense of normalcy, but planning for the future remains uncertain as fear of attacks looms More

2015 Could Be Watershed for Syria Conflict

Republican control of US Senate in January could lead to more aggressive policy against IS militants in Syria - and against regime of Bashar al-Assad More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Jane Monheit Christmas Speciali
X
December 22, 2014 8:15 PM
Chanteuse Jane Monheit sings the holiday classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and explains why it’s her favorite song of the season.
Video

Video Jane Monheit Christmas Special

Chanteuse Jane Monheit sings the holiday classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and explains why it’s her favorite song of the season.
Video

Video Trade Talks Could Heat Up in 2015

With boosting trade a top priority for the Obama administration, 2015 may be the year that an agreement is finally reached on the Trans Pacific Partnership. But the trade deal, which is intended to boost trade between 12 Pacific countries, faces opposition as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Ugandan Doctors Aid Victims of Sudan's Civil War

In Sudan's state of South Kordofan, the number of amputees as result of civil war is in the thousands, but few have access to sufficient medical help. Adam Bailes recently visited the area and says a small team of Ugandan doctors has been providing remote help, producing new prosthetic limbs for those in need.
Video

Video Calm Amid Fear in Daily Life in S. Sudan’s Town of Bentiu

Six months ago, Bentiu was a ghost town. The capital of northern Unity State, near South Sudan’s important oil fields, had changed hands several times in fighting between government forces and rebels. Calm returned in November and since then, residents of Bentiu have been trying to regain some sense of normalcy. Bentiu’s market has reopened there are plans to start school again. But fears of new attacks hang heavy, as Benno Muchler reports from Bentiu.
Video

Video US Business Groups Press for Greater Access to Cuba

President Barack Obama's decision to do all he can to ease restrictions on U.S. trade, travel and financial activities with Cuba has drawn criticism from some conservatives and Republicans. People who bring tourists to the island and farmers who want to sell more food to Cuba, however, think they can do a lot more business with Cuba. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Three Cities Bid for Future Obama Presidential Library

President Barack Obama still has two years left in his term in office, but the effort to establish his post-presidential library is already underway. The bid for the Obama Presidential Library is down to four locations in three states -- New York, Hawaii, and Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, each of them played an important part in the president’s life before he reached the White House.
Video

Video Fears of More Political Gridlock in 2015

2014 proved to be a difficult year politically for President Barack Obama and a very good year for the U.S. Republican Party. Republican gains in the November midterm elections gave them control of the Senate and House of Representatives for the next two years -- setting the stage for more confrontation and gridlock in the final two years of the Obama presidency. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has a preview from Washington.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school

All About America

AppleAndroid