Tunisia: Wasn’t This What We Hoped For?

Following the successful revolution of January 2011, Tunisia has begun to rebuild itself. However, the country still faces many challenges, amongst them the re-emergence of the Islamist movement, Hizb al-Nahda.

John Maynard Keynes once wrote that: “It is not sufficient that the state of affairs which we seek to promote should be better than the state of affairs which preceded it; it must be sufficiently better to make up for the evils of the transition”. The people of Tunisia have been doggedly focused on their quest for a better state of affairs since January, when they ousted the regime of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. As elections for a constitutional assembly are due to take place on October 23, Tunisia’s institutions, parties, and society have proven keenly aware of the 'evils of transition'. The result is a remarkable balancing act between the revolutionary urge for change and a pragmatic need for continuity.

The nation that ushered in this year’s 'Arab Spring' has experienced a process that distinguishes itself markedly from its Egyptian and Libyan neighbours. Whereas Egypt struggles with finding an adequate role for the military, the Tunisian army has kept out of politics. In contrast to Libya, the Tunisian population never took up arms during the protests. Tunisia faces a number of serious challenges, including the question of how to most effectively integrate the country’s re-emerging Islamist contenders. Westerners have adequate reason to hope that Tunisia will represent a much longed-for role model of a stable and peaceful transition.

Remarkable Continuity

Is there a silver bullet to democratization? The experience of this corner on the northern tip of Africa is that a smooth transition process requires a number of preconditions. An aberration for the regional context, Tunisia does not run on hydrocarbons. Notwithstanding serious inequalities between the littoral areas and the inland, this country of ten million inhabitants is relatively wealthy and qualifies, according to the World Bank, as an upper-middle-income economy.

Above all, civil institutions have proven to be resilient: The Higher Council for the Achievements of the Goals of the Revolution, a transitional representative body made up of notables of different backgrounds and political orientation, has steered the transitional process. One of the Council’s key achievements is arguably the compromise on Tunisia’s constitutional system, which will shift from presidential to prime ministerial in order to limit concentration of power in the executive branch. Betraying nostalgia for Tunisia’s regime of Habib Bourguiba (1956-1987), senior members of the administration speak openly of “remarkable continuity” in the Tunisian transition. 

Behind this resilience of the state is a culture of moderation and pragmatism that is frequently presented as a uniquely Tunisian quality. Even for those social and political forces calling for a radical break with the past, 'change' often amounts to wiping out the corruption that was endemic amongst the high echelons of Ben Ali’s clan. In addition, there is a broad consensus on the economic and social challenges facing the nation. Unemployment and disparities among the country’s different regions require a degree of redistribution. Yet, as a small and resource-poor country, Tunisia has thrived on trade and openness, which does not require the visible, intrusive hand of the state. In an echo of continental Europe’s welfare model, political operators, including those of an Islamist persuasion, speak of Tunisia as a 'social market economy'.

Dignity and Disruption

For all the flowers sold as souvenirs on Avenue Bourguiba, Tunis’ central thoroughfare, nobody in Tunisia speaks of a “Jasmine Revolution”, as the western press have dubbed it. Tunisians rather savour the reach and depth of social mobilization around the fundamental quest for social justice. The first real indignados of 2011 were not those who hit the streets of Madrid and Athens, but those who ousted Ben Ali’s calcified autocracy. Their political forces have maintained a remarkably united front. Tunisia’s was above all a 'revolution of dignity'.

This consensus, however, has not prevented cracks from emerging in other, more contentious areas of governance. The transition surrounding security and justice is a case in point. While the army has played no role in the transition (the lack of which is another unusual feature of the Tunisian revolution) the security sector remains largely unreformed. Transitional justice that follows a regime change, of the kind experienced in Central Europe or South Africa, has simply not taken place in Tunisia. Another issue that caused disruption, and eventually a deadlock in the transitional Higher Council, was the proposal to regulate party financing, with leading parties refusing to disclose their resources.

For all the misdeeds of the previous regimes, Tunisians are proud of their liberal institutions, including the freedom of women and a progressive family code, which was adopted in 1956. Yet, in the run-up to the elections, the debate concerning morals has become particularly heated. Senior members of Nahda, the leading Islamist party, are accused of being ambiguous on the matter of polygamy. Some secular politicians are being singled out for their alleged consumption of alcohol. The growing attrition around the discourse on values underscores what is arguably the most complex challenge facing the fledgling Tunisian democracy. 

Islamist Renaissance

The most obvious disruptive element in the Tunisian transition concerns the role played by the quickly expanding, but young and unknown Islamist movement. Weakened by decades of intense state repression orchestrated by Ben Ali’s notorious Ministry of Interior, Tunisia’s Islamists were largely spectators at the toppling of the president. Much has changed since then: since the return of Rachid Ghannouchi, the historic leader of Hizb al-Nahda (or 'Renaissance Party') who was in exile for twenty years, the Islamists have displayed a remarkable ability to rebuild their organization and affirm their presence in Tunisia’s political and social realm. Different independent polls point to an electoral outcome in October in which Ghannouchi’s party will dominate parliament with up to 25% of the votes cast, almost twice as many as its closest contenders from the secular-leaning liberal and socialist parties.

The swift rise of Nahda is less the story of default ideological support by a newly liberated electorate, than it is one of remarkable ability to fill the post-revolutionary political vacuum. Since the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, Nahda has opened more than 200 offices in Tunisia. Scores of volunteers are deployed in electoral campaigning at a grassroots, door-to-door level. The party’s imposing headquarters in the suburbs of Tunis symbolises its position as the most effective political operation in the country.

Nahda has gone to some lengths to appease its critics. Opponents recall Ghannouchi’s celebratory speeches about the Iranian revolution in 1979 (from which he later distanced himself) and the involvement of some party cadres in the deadly bombings of tourist targets in 1991. But today Nahda’s electoral program spells constitutionalism, separation of powers, citizenship-based rights, and the preservation of women’s rights. Such tenets arguably place Nahda in the same league as its moderate Islamist counterparts such as the Moroccan Justice and Development Party and Turkey’s AK Party.

Will It Last?

There is more to Nahda’s success than sheer organizational capacity and political wits. In the light of its uncompromising opposition to Ben Ali, the party also embodies the clearest and cleanest alternative to the survivors of the old regime for large segments of the Tunisian electorate. But what may be perceived as a strong advantage in the short run could potentially turn into a serious challenge to the party’s long-term cohesion.

At present there seem to exist at least three sociological groups inside the Nahda. There are the political activists who, like Ghannouchi, fled the repression in the late 1980s and have just returned from exile. There are also the tens of thousands of political prisoners who spent much of the past two decades in detention. Finally, there is a less homogeneous '1980s generation,' whose members stayed silent in Tunisia during Ben Ali’s regime. It remains to be seen whether Nahda will be able to reconcile these different experiences and networks, or whether the party will split into several competing parties as has recently happened with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The recent ousting from Nahda of the respected Islamic thinker and party co-founder, Abdel-Fattah Mourou, underscores the relevance of such speculation.

Not unrelated is Nahda’s relation with the more radical and conservative elements of the Islamist movement. Much like the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, the party is under pressure from a small, yet increasingly active Salafi movement, whose rise is generally attributed to the influence of Saudi Arabia’s satellite TV-preachers and labour migration.  While lack of interest in electoral participation makes its political appeal limited for now, the Salafi tendency has been known to exist in Tunisia for a while, and its presence is being increasingly felt in public life. Locals recall gloomily an episode from July this year, when Salafi activists physically prevented a cinema in central Tunis from screening “Neither Allah, Nor Master”, a documentary film that they had deemed 'immoral'.          

Much like the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, Nahda will have to distance itself from the more radical fringes such as the Salafis. In doing so, the party is likely to lose some of its supporters. But Nahda’s ambition to win over, and ultimately stably occupy the mainstream of Tunisia’s democratic politics, requires nothing less.

A Great Tunisian evolution

Before this year’s Arab awakening, Islamists offering a strategic and ideological counterweight to secular autocracies proved to be a recipe for ruthless repression. Today, the tables have turned and it is rather Islamists who respond and reject the liberal-secular dogma. Ominously, a controversy over whether the full-faced veil can be worn in Tunisian universities led to violent clashes between Salafis and the police last weekend.

But the fact that Nahda promptly condemned these and other recent protests sustains a broader point: if Islamist movements are to be brought into the democratic fold, encouraged to move towards the centre of the political spectrum, and get their hands dirty in the endless bargaining that is day-to-day politics, then Tunisia may be the right place to try it. In Algeria in 1991, several civil society activists called for a military intervention against the Islamists; in 2011 Tunisia, the political forces seem to accept that the Islamists’ democratic credentials must be tested through elections.

With a somewhat more daring leap of faith, the pragmatism characterizing the Tunisian transition can be taken a step further. Tunisians are surprisingly indulgent about the realpolitik behind the decades-long engagement of European governments with corrupted autocracies in the region; “we blame them,” a top operator told us, “but we understand them.” On the other hand, the transition so far is remarkably aligned with the objectives of longer-term and lower-profile policies that institutions such as the European Union have been carrying out for the past twenty years. In this sense, if there is such a thing as a Tunisian 'model', it lies as much in its evolutionary character as in its revolutionary character: the state administration has continued to run, the middle class has taken charge, and a cross-party consensus has emerged around basic social and economic policies, at the same time as a long repressed Islamist contender has entered the fray of democratic politics.

As for the other countries involved in the Arab awakening, once the top layers of a corrupt regime have been removed, the road ahead is nevertheless destined to be bumpy and uphill for some time to come. But in Tunisia, what has emerged is also a body politic that deserves the West’s unreserved support.

*[This article was originally published in the independent online magazine www.opendemocracy.net, on October 14, 2011]. 

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