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

    Russian-Backed Offensive in Syria Pushes War to Tipping Point

    As threat to Aleppo and rebel forces grows, US plan to negotiate becomes less and less appealing for Syrian government, says one military analyst

    IS Runs Timber Smuggling Business in Afghanistan, Officials Say

    Government turning blind eye to smuggling, according to tribal leaders; Afghanistan's forest cover dropped by 50 percent in three decades, experts say

    Video White House Seeks $1.8 Billion to Combat Zika

    Obama administration says funding would 'support essential strategies to combat the virus' such as rapidly expanding mosquito control programs, accelerating vaccine research

    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.
    'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenyai
    X
    February 08, 2016 4:30 PM
    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 '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 New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    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 Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    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 Sanders, Clinton Battle for Young Democratic Vote

    Despite a narrow loss to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in last week's Iowa Democratic caucuses, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders secured more than 80 percent of the vote among those between the ages of 18 and 29. VOA correspondent Aru Pande talks to Democrats in New Hampshire about who they are leaning towards and why in this week's primary.
    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.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.