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

    Beijing Warns Critics Over South China Sea Dispute

    Official warns critics that the more they challenge China's position regarding disputed territories in one of world’s busiest waterways, the more it will push back

    Will New Russian Force Be 'Putin’s Personal Army'?

    With broad powers to control riots, suppress dissent, National Guard may be aimed at sending a message to West as much as keeping peace at home

    Foreign Media in Pyongyang Barred From North Korean Party Congress

    Hundreds of international journalists invited to cover historic party meeting barred from entering actual event

    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.
    Image Recognition Market Seen Doubling by 2020i
    X
    Ramon Taylor
    May 05, 2016 10:05 PM
    From auto tagging on Facebook to self-driving cars, image recognition technology as it exists today is still in its beginning phases, experts say — and will soon change the way users and corporations interact with the physical world. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
    Video

    Video Image Recognition Market Seen Doubling by 2020

    From auto tagging on Facebook to self-driving cars, image recognition technology as it exists today is still in its beginning phases, experts say — and will soon change the way users and corporations interact with the physical world. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
    Video

    Video Child Labor in Afghanistan Remains a Problem

    With war still raging in Afghanistan, the country also faces the problem of child labor as families put their school-age children to work to help make ends meet. But, thanks to VOA's Afghan Service, two families whose children had been working in a brick-making factory - to earn their livings and pay off family debts - now have a new lease on life. Zabihullah Ghazi reports.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Troops Recount Firefight Which Killed US Navy SEAL

    A U.S. Navy SEAL killed Tuesday, when Islamic State fighters punched through Kurdish lines in northern Iraq, was part of a quick reaction force sent to extract other U.S. troops trapped by the surprise offensive. VOA's Kawa Omar spoke with Kurdish troops in the town of Telskuf -- the scene of what U.S. officials called a "dynamic firefight."
    Video

    Video British Lawmakers Warn EU Exit Talks Could Last A Decade

    Leaving the European Union would mean difficult negotiations that could take years to complete, according to a bipartisan group of British lawmakers. While the group did not recommend a vote either way, the lawmakers noted trade deals between the EU and non-EU states take between four and nine years on average. Henry Ridgwell reports on the mounting debate over whether Britain should stay or exit the EU as the June vote approaches.
    Video

    Video NASA Astronauts Train for Commercial Space Flights

    Since the last Shuttle flight in 2011, the United States has been relying on Russian rockets to launch fresh crews to the International Space Station. But that may change in the next few years. NASA and several private space companies are developing advanced capsules capable of taking humans into low orbit and beyond. As VOA's George Putic reports, astronauts are already training for commercial spacecraft in flight simulators.
    Video

    Video US Worried Political Chaos in Iraq Will Hurt IS Fight

    The White House is expressing concern about rising political chaos in Iraq and the impact it could have on the fight against the Islamic State. The U.S. says Iraq needs a stable, central government to help push back the group. But some say Baghdad may not have a unified government any time soon. VOA's White House correspondent Mary Alice Salinas reports.
    Video

    Video Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limited

    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Taliban Threats Force Messi Fan to Leave Afghanistan

    A young Afghan boy, who recently received autographed shirts and a football from his soccer hero Lionel Messi, has fled his country due to safety concerns. He and his family are now taking refuge in neighboring Pakistan. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad.
    Video

    Video Major Rubbish Burning Experiment Captures Destructive Greenhouse Gases

    The world’s first test to capture environmentally harmful carbon dioxide gases from the fumes of burning rubbish took place recently in Oslo, Norway. The successful experiment at the city's main incinerator plant, showcased a method for capturing most of the carbon dioxide. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.
    Video

    Video EU Visa Block Threatens To Derail EU-Turkey Migrant Deal

    Turkish citizens could soon benefit from visa-free travel to Europe as part of the recent deal between the EU and Ankara to stem the flow of refugees. In return, Turkey has pledged to keep the migrants on Turkish soil and crack down on those who are smuggling them. Brussels is set to publish its latest progress report Wednesday — but as Henry Ridgwell reports from London, many EU lawmakers are threatening to veto the deal over human rights concerns.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora