Arab World: A souring mood in Tunisia
In the country ignited the Arab Spring, hopes that young people had for freedom and a better life are fading.
Anti Ennahda protest Tunisia Photo: Zohra Bensemra /Reuters
Just a year ago, on October 23, 2011, Tunisia elected a Constituent Assembly
tasked with drafting a new constitution within a year. Elaborated on in a number
of committees, the final draft should be made public in the coming days. It will
then have to be voted on by the assembly prior to being submitted for approval
Yet the mood in the country is anything but optimistic.
Hopes for a generous and democratic constitution have been swiftly dashed.
Secular and Islamic forces are fighting to determine the face of
post-revolutionary Tunisia. At the heart of the debate are a number of articles
having to do with democratic values, such as equal rights for women, freedom of
speech, freedom of religion and discrimination.
Human Rights Watch sent a
letter to the members of the Constituent Assembly strongly requesting that they
reconsider articles infringing on these rights. Tunisia, for so long the outpost
of secular values in the Arab world, must now come to terms with Islamic forces
trying to turn back the clock to the time of Muhammad.
Both sides are
taking the fight to the streets. Encouraged by the victory of the Islamists of
the Ennahda party in last year’s elections, Salafists are pushing to forcibly
impose Shari’a (Islamic law) through use of intimidation and violent
demonstrations. They prevented the screening of Persepolis, a film critical of
present-day Iran; they rioted to protest Neither God nor Master, a film produced
by Tunisian Nadia El Fani, and they vandalized exhibitions “not respectful of
Wearing Islamic veils in institutions of higher learning had been
banned under the regime of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali; today the ban is
crumbling under repeated assaults.
Salafists call for mass demonstrations
to demand the inclusion of Shari’a into the constitution. Last March, two
Tunisians were sentenced to seven-and- a-half years in jail for “having posted on
the Internet documents mocking Islam.” Secular forces and women try to hold
counter-demonstrations in favor of a secular Tunisia, but they are no match for
The general feeling is that the ruling party, which shares
the same Islamic ideology and the same objective, is not really trying to curb
the Salafists and looks the other way – when it is not covertly doing a similar
job. For instance in Tetuan, the Popular Association for the Defense of the
Revolution organized a mass rally against the offices of the local farmers’
At the head of the association stood Lotfi Nagdh, who was
also the moving force behind the Movement for Tunisia. He was savagely beaten
The Popular Association for the Defense of the Revolution is
a front for a number of Islamist movements that support Ennahda, while the
Movement for Tunisia is a secular, liberal movement founded last summer by Béji
Caïd Essebsisi, who briefly served as prime minister after the
The movement is becoming increasingly popular and may well
win the next election, due to be held in June 2013. Ennahda angrily accuses it
of wanting to restore the despised former regime. The death of Nagdh was a huge
embarrassment for the regime. The minister of the interior, a member of Ennahda,
made things worse when he claimed Nagdh had died of a heart attack.
the end, interim President Moncef Marzouki – not an Ennahda member – had to step
into the fray and admit publicly that the man had indeed been killed during the
The position of Rashed Ghannouchi, president of the
Ennahda movement, remains ambiguous.
Exiled by Ben Ali, he came back
after the revolution and declared that he wasn’t looking to rule and would not
be a candidate in the forthcoming elections. Yet the political party which he
created – and which bears the same name as the movement – won 41 percent of the seats, subsequently forming the government with the help
of two small leftist parties and appointed the prime minister as well as most of
Needless to say, this sets the course.
criticism from Western countries as well as from liberal forces within the
country, Ghannouchi pledged that the party would not demand the implementation
of Shari’a and would be content to keep the first article of the former
constitution: “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state, its religion
is Islam, its language is Arabic and its type of government is the Republic.” It
was written this way coined in 1959 to ensure a large consensus.
problem is that stating the Islamic and Arab nature of the country opens the
door to the introduction of Shari’a.
Indeed, Article 17 of a first draft
of the constitution made public in August stipulates that international
conventions will be adhered to inasmuch as they are not contradictory to the
constitution; this could allow for a disregard for human rights and other
pledges, including agreements Tunisia signed in the past.
3 affirms freedom of religion, attempts against “the sacred” are still
considered to be crimes. Since the article does not define what is defined as
“sacred,” it could be used by Islamist leaders to sue for blasphemy anyone
accused of insulting Muhammad or Allah. It would be a convenient way to jail
people who oppose the regime – Muslims who convert to another religion or
advocating a secular regime, and even members of other religions.
selfsame article qualifies as “crime” any attempt at normalization with “Zionism
and the Zionist state,” making Tunisia the first country to forbid any contact
with Israel. And since the article is part of the constitution, unlike a law, it
cannot be changed. Article 28, which deals with women’s rights, does not mention
equality but rather “complementarity” within the family.
calls for dialogue with the Salafists; in an interview with French daily Le
Monde, he is quoted as saying, “If we diabolize the Salafists, in 10 to 15 years
they will rule the country,” adding that they should be encouraged to get to
It is unclear whether the draft of the constitution will
actually be published this week. A lot is going on behind the scenes; the
reference to blasphemy is apparently being taken out to satisfy public
In any case, though the Constituent Assembly is likely to adopt
the text, the referendum could go the other way.
secular and Islamist forces are battling it out, the government is not doing
much to redress the economic situation that has been going from bad to worse
since the revolution. Tourism is down and unemployment is up, with young people
being most affected; an estimated 25% of them are vainly looking for
It was from Tunisia that came the spark that ignited the whole
Middle East, when young people fought for freedom and a better life. Today, hope
is fading in Tunisia as it is in Egypt and in Libya.
Indeed, many of the
young men and women who started the revolution are now fleeing the country to
find a new life in Europe. Nearly 50% of the 60,000 illegal immigrants that
arrived in Lampedusa in South Italy in the last months were from
The writer, a Fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs,
is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.