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.
x
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.

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs