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

Scotland Vote Raises Questions of International Law

Experts say self-determination, as defined and protected by international law, confined narrowly to independence movements in process of de-colonization More

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

Conservationists hail ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015 More

Annual Military Exercise Takes on New Meaning for Ukraine Troops

Troops from 15 nations participating in annual event, 'Rapid Trident' in western Ukraine 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.
Russian Economy Reeling After New Western Sanctionsi
X
September 18, 2014 2:28 AM
A new wave of Western sanctions is hitting Russia’s economy hard. State-owned energy firms continue to bleed profits and Russia’s national currency plunged to a new low this week after the U.S. and the European Union announced new sanctions to punish Russia's aggressive stance in eastern Ukraine. But as Mil Arcega reports, the sanctions could also prove costly for European and American companies.
Video

Video Russian Economy Reeling After New Western Sanctions

A new wave of Western sanctions is hitting Russia’s economy hard. State-owned energy firms continue to bleed profits and Russia’s national currency plunged to a new low this week after the U.S. and the European Union announced new sanctions to punish Russia's aggressive stance in eastern Ukraine. But as Mil Arcega reports, the sanctions could also prove costly for European and American companies.
Video

Video Belgian Researchers Discover Way to Block Cancer Metastasis

Cancer remains one of the deadliest diseases, despite many new methods to combat it. Modern medicine has treatments to prevent the growth of primary tumor cells. But most cancer deaths are caused by metastasis, the stage when primary tumor cells change and move to other parts of the body. A team of Belgian scientists says it has found a way to prevent that process. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Mogadishu's Flood of Foreign Workers Leaves Somalis Out of Work

Unemployment and conflict has forced many young Somalians out of the country in search of a better life. But a newfound stability in the once-lawless nation has created hope — and jobs — which, some say, are too often being filled by foreigners. Abdulaziz Billow reports from Mogadishu.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid