Tunisia: The Path Towards Reform


December 07, 2012 05:46 EDT
As Tunisia attempts to make its way towards reform, the country struggles to define the role of Islam in the state and society. 


Tunisia gained independence in 1956 after 75 years as a French Protectorate. Demands for freedom date back to the beginning of the 20th century but the country had to wait until Habib Bourguiba, leader of the nationalist Neo-Destour Party, led Tunisia to independence. After years of imprisonment, Bourguiba became Tunisia’s first president after the monarchy was abolished in 1957.

In his pursuit of transforming Tunisia into a modern and secular state, Bourguiba introduced the Personal Status Code, based on a 'modernist' interpretation of Islam. It specifically advanced women's rights through the requirement of women's consent to marriage, improved divorce rights, and the abolition of polygamy. These reforms also aimed at strengthening the president’s power vis-à-vis the religious establishment.

Significantly, from the 1970s onwards, Bourguiba oppressed both secular and religious opposition groups in his one-party state. Prominent among the latter was En-Nahda, or the Renaissance Party, which was founded as the Islamic Tendency Movement in 1981 and is now, under Rashid Ghannouchi, one of the key pillars of the new government that has followed Ben Ali’s ouster.

In 1987, Bourguiba was deposed by his Prime Minister Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. Despite promises to enhance political participation, Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) dominated all subsequent elections as the era was characterized by a lack of political freedom and repression. Moreover, in spite of having been named Africa's most competitive economy by the World Economic Forum in 2009, Tunisia experienced high rates of unemployment of around 14% over the last decade and even higher rates among youth. The resulting polarization of wealth was one of the crucial factors which triggered the uprising in December 2010.

Why are Tunisian Affairs Relevant? 

Tunisia has played a pioneering role in the Arab Uprisings. Mohammed Bouazizi´s self-immolation on December 17, 2010, protesting the confiscation of his wares, made him a symbol of the hardship many Tunisians face. Subsequent protests against corruption, high unemployment, and rising food prices climaxed on January 14, 2011, resulting in Ben Ali´s ouster and exile to Saudi Arabia. However, this historic moment was only the beginning of the desired transition.

Due to the pressure of continuous protests against remnants of the former regime in government positions, a newly established Constituent Assembly was elected in October 2011. The elections were deemed free and fair by international observers, and  the Islamist En-Nahda Party won a plurality with 89 out of 217 seats. The assembly's main tasks include the drafting of a new constitution and the formation of an interim government. In December 2011 the human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, a staunch critic of the former Ben Ali regime, was sworn in as the new interim president, supported by En-Nahda.

Notwithstanding these positive steps, the question of Islam's role in society and in the new constitution remains a contentious issue. En-Nahda has attempted to address concerns of Tunisian liberals and Western observers by assuring that Shari'a (Islamic law) would not become the basis of all laws in the new constitution.

Nevertheless, the validity of the party's claim of political distance from Salafist groups concern many inside and outside Tunisia. Notably, Salafists are frequently protesting for a more prominent role for Islam in both government and society. With regard to the recently published draft constitution, Human Rights Watch´s deputy Middle East and North Africa director, Eric Goldstein, criticized that if left unchanged, “the constitution will undermine freedom of expression in the name of protecting sacred values” and will be detrimental to women's rights.

Tunisia has recently seen clashes in Siliana between police and protesters over dissatisfaction with the interim-government. While the country attempts to enact political, social and economic reforms, unrest in Tunisia indicates that there is a long way to go.

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