News / Middle East

Analysis: Tunisia's Secularist, Islamist Divide Hardens

Islamist Ennahda Party leader Rached Ghannouchi addressing media, Tunis, March 26, 2012, file photo.
Islamist Ennahda Party leader Rached Ghannouchi addressing media, Tunis, March 26, 2012, file photo.
Mohamed Elshinnawi
Just over two years ago, Tunisia’s revolution inspired pro-democracy uprisings across the Middle East and set an example for what has come to be called the “Arab Spring.”

However, a troubled economy, rising Islamist extremism, political polarization and the assassination of two opposition leaders and killing of eight soldiers in an ambush by militants have tarnished the Ennahda Islamist-led government and fueled opposition calls for its dissolution.

The opposition has accused Ennahda, led by Rached Ghannouchi, of being overly tolerant of a rising violence carried out by radical Islamists, and of supporting efforts to instill an Islamic identity in what has long been known as one of the most secular countries in the Arab world.

Ghannouchi, who spent 22 years in exile before returning to Tunis in 2011, has long said Tunisia’s new democracy is based on consensus and that the country’s political model is a mix of “moderate Islamists” and moderate secularists.”

Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda movement demonstrate as they chants slogans and hold a picture of assassinated politician Mohamed Brahmi during a demonstration in Tunis, Tunisia, July 26, 2013.Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda movement demonstrate as they chants slogans and hold a picture of assassinated politician Mohamed Brahmi during a demonstration in Tunis, Tunisia, July 26, 2013.
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Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda movement demonstrate as they chants slogans and hold a picture of assassinated politician Mohamed Brahmi during a demonstration in Tunis, Tunisia, July 26, 2013.
Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda movement demonstrate as they chants slogans and hold a picture of assassinated politician Mohamed Brahmi during a demonstration in Tunis, Tunisia, July 26, 2013.
But the recent killing of Mohamed Brahmi, one of the leaders of the People's Movement Party, a leftist member of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), shocked the country at a particularly sensitive time, as Tunisia's drawn out political transition is finally reaching its end, with debate on a constitution and planning for new elections expected to take place by the end of the year.

US concerns

U.S. officials are also concerned. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki condemned the murder of Brahmi and called on Tunisians not to let violence derail democratic transition.

“We continue to encourage Tunisians to express themselves peacefully despite the heightened tensions in the wake of the assassination. We condemn the use of violence in all of its forms, and, as we've said, violence has no role in Tunisia's democratic transition,” Psaki said.

Just as in Egypt, some scholars say, the divide between secularist and Islamist Tunisians has hardened since the revolution.

William Lawrence, a professor of North African politics at Georgetown University, says two years after former dictator Ben Ali’s fall, the Ennahda Party’s Ghannouchi’s stated political model of a mix of “moderate Islamists and moderate secularists” appears increasingly distant.

But unlike in Egypt, Lawrence says, Tunisia's army will not be the force to settle Tunisia’s political future. That role, he says, will likely fall to The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the largest trade union in the country with 600 thousand members.

“Unlike most of the Arab countries, the largest political force in Tunisia other than the Ennahda Islamist Party is the 600 thousand-member powerful labor union, which has been in the driving seat before, during and after the independence struggle,” he said.

Lawrence says the UGTT, with credibility among nearly all Tunisians, is well-positioned to play a mediating role to move the transition forward. Labor union officials have recently been leading the call for a technocratic national unity government to end the current political tensions that threaten to erode the democratic progress of the past two years.

Despite the political tensions, members of the National Constituent Assembly have been meeting virtually non-stop recently to draft a new constitution and approve an elections board to oversee future voting. Radwan Masmoudi, the president of Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Tunisia, says he is optimistic political polarization will not derail the democratic transition in the North African country.

“The transition is facing several challenges, but still on track. The constitution will be probably approved within two months and elections will be held by the end of the year,” Masmoudi said.

While some opposition leaders have called for disbanding the National Constituent Assembly over a dispute about the role of religion within the state and the prominence given to Islam, Masmoudi says the all-important UGTT has not taken that position and it is likely that the fourth draft of the constitution will be eventually approved, following a tough debate.

Critical economic challenge

While the political dispute in Tunisia continues to smolder, the country’s economy has suffered since the 2011 revolution. Unemployment is officially at 17 percent and more than 30 percent of young Tunisians with university degrees are looking for work. Experts say recent reforms of investment laws and an increase in public spending have had little impact.

William Lawrence of Georgetown University argues that just as a poor economy helped to bring about the demise of the Ben Ali dictatorship, it will likely be the economy, and not the country’s political disputes, that will make or break Tunisia’s full transition to democratic rule.

“It is the most important challenge. If you don’t have economic stability, you can’t have political stability,” said Lawrence. “The causes of the Arab Spring in Tunisia were more economic than political, so the first order of business for the government is putting food on peoples’ plates so they can have a certain amount of security in their lives.”

Others agree. Hafez Ghanem, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington , .C., says the Islamist-led government in Tunisia has so far failed to deliver on the revolution’s economic demands.

 “About 78 percent of Tunisians are dissatisfied with the general direction that their country is taking; 83 percent feel that current economic conditions are bad, and 42 percent believe that the country was better off under the former dictator,” Ghanem said.

He said discontent in Tunisia appears to be even greater than in Egypt. But on a more positive note, Ghanem said the Tunisian government has recently reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund to get a $1.74 billion loan to help its economy recover.

“Some 75 percent of Tunisians expect their economy to improve, but at the same time more political stability and internal security are needed in order to keep the growth trends,” Ghanem said.

Lawrence agrees, saying what is most needed in the near term is political reconciliation and a national dialogue that would lead, ideally, to reconciliation among competing political factions in Tunisia.

“The path toward reconciliation between Islamists and secularists needs to resume, bearing in mind that Tunis is the only Arab capital in which political Islam is driving the transition process, despite all the difficulties and contradictions,” Lawrence said.

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