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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.”
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