Tunisia’s interim President Moncef Marzouki has called his country “an exceptional experimentation lab in the Arab world.”
The experiment is Tunisia’s efforts to transition from an authoritarian dictatorship to democracy. If Tunisia is exceptional, it is because many believe this is where the Arab Spring has the best shot at fully blooming.
Egypt is bigger and more important, Libya’s revolution was bloodier, and if Syrians succeed in unseating President Bashar al-Assad, they will have paid the highest price for their freedom. But Tunisia was first, the spark that set the rest of the region ablaze. And while the Jasmine Revolution had its martyrs, fewer died in Tunisia than elsewhere where dictators were overthrown. Its revolution was relatively peaceful and quick: less than a year after president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down in January 2011, elections for Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly were held.
This took place in a country that, while lacking political freedom, was socially progressive—by 1956, women had equal rights and abortion was legalized in 1973—comparatively wealthy and well educated. A 2009 World Economic Forum report ranked Tunisia 30th in the world for health and primary education, and seventh for the quality of its math and science teaching. Culturally, many middle-class Tunisians were open to Europe. They did business there and spoke French. They might not have lived in a pluralistic democracy, but they had a pretty good idea of how one worked.
Islamists, however, had been harshly suppressed during the secular dictatorships of Ben Ali and his predecessor. During the 1980s, Rashid al-Ghannouchi, a leading Islamic thinker, spent years in jail before fleeing to exile in London. He returned after the revolution as a leader of the Ennahda Movement, an Islamist party, which won a plurality of seats in the 2011 election and now dominates Tunisia’s coalition government.
Ghannouchi’s views on the proper role of religion in society are moderate. “It is not the function of religion to teach us governance and how to administer the state,” he argues. “The mind is equipped to reach the truth about them based on accumulated experiences.” This sets him apart from more conservative Islamists, who believe religion should be supreme in all matters, governance included.
“Ennahda has embraced a discourse that is more tolerant, more democratic than other Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Eric Goldstein, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. These factors suggest Tunisia had a decent foundation on which to build a stable and pluralistic democracy. And yet in recent weeks the country has been rocked by a political assassination, the prime minister’s resignation, street protests and sometimes-violent clashes between Islamist and secular Tunisians. “This divide is growing stronger and stronger every day,” says Amna Guellali, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Tunis. The country that was the cradle of the Arab Spring is shaking.
This latest crisis was ignited last month when Chokri Belaid, a leftist opposition politician and firm critic of Islamism, was fatally shot outside his home. Four suspects, described by the interior minister as members of a “radical religious group,” were arrested. Some of Belaid’s supporters blamed the government—if not for his murder, then for tolerating the sort of radical Islamism that allegedly motivated his killers.
President Marzouki condemned the “hateful assassination” of a man he called a friend, and Ghannouchi described it as a tragedy and a threat to Tunisia’s stability. Still, thousands protested, there was a general strike, and several Ennahda offices were ransacked. Hamadi Jebali, the prime minister and a member of Ennahda, proposed forming a new government of apolitical technocrats to navigate the turmoil enveloping the country. He failed, and resigned Feb. 22.
Belaid’s murder “changed the rules of the game totally,” says Youssef Cherif, a Tunisian pro-democracy activist and political analyst. “It built again the wall of fear that we were able to destroy after the fall of Ben Ali. It also deepened the gap between secularists and Islamists.”
Cherif doesn’t believe Ennahda played an active role in Belaid’s death. But he does think the government is guilty of turning a blind eye to the actions of more radical Islamists—known as Salafists—who have fomented religious tensions in Tunisia. Salafists have attacked trade union rallies, smashed and burned supposedly idolatrous ancient shrines, and even bullied high school students attempting to perform the “Harlem Shake,” the frenetic worldwide dance craze. They are also blamed for an assault last September on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis.
“The leaders of Ennahda never tried to calm down these hate speeches,” says Cherif, speaking of heated Salafist rhetoric. Guellali says Tunisia’s police and judiciary have responded with “total inaction” to Salafist attacks. “There were not steps to bring the perpetrators to justice. This has created a sense of impunity for these groups.”
It’s unclear why police have stood back. Some suspect Ennahda approves of what Salafists are doing. Meanwhile some police are afraid of the Salafists, says Guellali, and the legal framework for prosecuting them is weak.
Ghannouchi hinted at another possibility in a speech in London late last year. He praised European democracy for its ability to “tame violence and get people with violent views to talk peacefully.” He may be hoping that violent Salafists can be brought into the democratic fold and convinced to advance their agenda through debate rather than arson.
But according to Hani Faris, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, allowing Salafists a long leash now is risky. “They form a threat to the national security of Tunisia, and to national harmony,” says Faris. “They create divisions, they create hatred.” Faris says Tunisian authorities need to be strict in applying the law so that Salafist gangs are restrained and their influence curbed.
That might go some way toward calming Tunisia’s political atmosphere, but it wouldn’t solve all of the country’s problems. Tunisia fell into recession following the overthrow of Ben Ali, and its credit rating was recently downgraded. Tourism, once a mainstay of Tunisia’s economy, has yet to recover.
“The mood is getting bad, certainly among the young people,” says Cherif. “A lot of people see all these things together and wonder if maybe it was better during Ben Ali. I hear that more and more now, people saying that, after all, we had a quiet life before and we don’t need these politics and debates.”
Cherif rejects this thinking. He worries about his country—about the street violence, the extremism of some Salafists, and of conservative hawks within the Ennahda party. But he notes that even the most emotionally charged political disagreements are publicly debated—something that couldn’t happen during the dictatorship. “As long as we are allowed to speak about what is wrong, things can be repaired,” he says.
Two years ago Cherif was considering leaving Tunisia for good. He was young and felt he had no future in the country. Then the revolution came. It was, he says, “the best thing that ever happened in my life.” Despite everything that’s come to pass since, he still feels the same way.