Tunisia – the birthplace of the Arab Spring and since regarded as its favorite child – is straining, pulled on one side by violence in the streets and campuses, and on the other by political paralysis in parliament.

The latest sign that the transition from dictatorship to democracy, which began with the overthrow of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, came when riots erupted in the capital and other cities last week. They were sparked by Salafists – radical Muslims urging a return to the values and practices of early Islam –  protesting an art exhibit they said insulted Islam.

The violence, which left one dead and some 100 wounded, was the worst since Ben Ali’s ouster. Also, it threw a spotlight on the difficulties of the moderate Islamist Ennhada Party, who is now ruling Tunisia. The trouble has been squaring the competing demands of Salafist extremists who press their cases through violent protests, and liberal secularists, with whom Ennahda sits in an uneasy coalition.

Larbi Sadiki, senior lecturer in Middle East Politics at Britain’s Exeter University, described the situation as “appalling.”

“The political class, Islamist and secular, is quickly becoming the subject of widespread criticism, after the honeymoon granted it by the electorate. All Tunisia rulers seem to be repeating, like a broken record, is to be given time and the benefit of the doubt,” Sadiki told The Media Line.

“Polarization within the Islamists [camp] does not bode well for orderly transition.”

It didn’t start out that way. Unlike Libya, Syria and Yemen, Tunisia dispatched its despot quickly and with relatively little violence. Unlike Egypt, the country moved on to elections in an orderly way, with voters giving their backing to an Ennahda that pledged itself to democracy and freedom and to team up with the secular parties of Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol to govern.

But the coalition was more a “marriage of convenience” than a meeting of minds over Tunisia’s future and just six months in power it is already showing signs of strain, Marina Ottaway, senior associate at the Carnegies Endowment for Peace’s Middle East program, said in a recent commentary.

Sadok Belaid, a professor at the University of Tunis’ School of Legal, Political and Social Sciences, said a major part of the problem is that Ennahda leaders lack any experience in governing. In the years before the revolution Ennahda had been banned and its leader, Rachid Ghanouchi, forced into exile.

“They don’t understand anything about economics, diplomacy or social policy,” Belaid told The Media Line. “They thought that with Islam they could run the country. It’s the same situation with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and with the Islamic parties in Sudan and in Iraq.”

Lying somewhere on the religious, social and political spectrum between the Salafists and the country’s largely secular and Westernized elite, Ennahda seems to be satisfying no one. The art exhibit and the riot it set off serve as a good example of the challenges they face.

Set up in a suburb of secular, sophisticated Tunis, the exhibit featured a painting of a naked woman with bearded men standing behind her. Another work formed the word “Allah” from a line of insects. Another showed an enraged Salafist sporting a distinctive bushy beard with steam coming out of his ears and vampire-like teeth.

According to police, who have begun arresting those responsible for the rioting, Salafist activists sent someone to scout out and report back on any blasphemy.

When the answer they got back was positive, they sneaked into the gallery and destroyed some of the works. Subsequently, rioting broke out in several parts of the country on June 11 and 12.

Armed with knives, Molotov cocktails and clubs, they torched a Tunis courthouse, attacked police stations, seized a military vehicle, damaged the office of a liberal political party and fought police firing teargas. One Muslim cleric called during prayers at an ancient mosque for the killing of “blasphemous” artists.

The government cracked down on the rioters, arresting the cleric and briefly imposing a dusk-to-dawn curfew. It banned rallies planned by fundamentalist groups as well as by Ennahda itself. But party leaders were divided on whether to blame the artists and the Salafists.

Ali Layaredh, the interior minister, lay the blame for the violence on the Salafists but also condemned “anarchists” who failed to respect conservative sensibilities. Culture Minister Mehdi Mabrouk called the art exhibition blasphemous. Ennahda leader Ghanouchi said in a television interview that parliament should consider a law barring provocation of religious sensibilities, likening the proposal to European statutes banning Holocaust denial.

When it was formed in the 1970s, it was one the nascent Islamic parties inspired by and aligned with the Iranian revolution. But over the course of the next decade it began to adopt a more pragmatic and moderate program. “We are not an Islamist party, we are an Islamic party, that also gets its bearings by the principles of the Koran,” its spokesman said a year ago.

But Belaid said Ennhada has had trouble shaking off the remnants of his more radical and violent past. The party is divided between those who are sympathetic to the Salafists and those who have no tolerance for violence and regard last week’s violence as crossing a red line. 

Analysts say Ennhada is eyeing the parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2013 nervously.

Sadiki of Exeter said the Salafists need to be integrated fully into the political game, but also commit “to shared values of progressive democratic reconstruction that precludes use of force.” But the Salafists could easily carve off a good chunk of its conservative Islamic voter base if the party fails to defend Islamic values.

Belaid said the biggest threat to Ennahda comes from the secular side of the spectrum with the formation on June 16 of Nedaa Tunis (Call for Tunisia) Party by Beji Caid Essebsi, who served as prime minister in the interim between the ouster of former president Ben Ali and the December 2011 elections.

“They [Nedaa Tunis] understand politics and have administrative experience,” Belaid said, adding the new party will become a major player in the political scene. “This is a danger for Ennhada leadership and their electoral prospects.”

For more stories from The Media Line go to www.medialine.org.

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