Salafists, liberals squeeze Tunisia’s rulers

Ennahda’s moderate Islam wins few friends, lots of distrust, comparisons with Ben-Ali.

April 12, 2012 08:29
Tunisia Pres Marzouki marks Arab Spring

Tunisia Pres Marzouki marks Arab Spring, Sidi Bouzid_311. (photo credit: Reuters/Zoubeir Souissi)

Tunisia’s Ennahda Party’s strategy of bringing a moderate sort of Islam to the country is earning it enemies on both sides of the political spectrum, with conservative Salafists pressing hard for more religious strictures and liberals fearful of a return to repression.

The tensions are felt everywhere, from the halls of parliament, to university campuses and courtrooms, but Habib Bourguiba Avenue – the main thoroughfare in the capital of Tunis – has become the principal battlefield for the two sides.

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On Monday, police fought some 2,000 protesters marking the 1938 suppression of pro-independence demonstrators by French colonial troops. They were met by security officers armed with teargas and truncheons. Witnesses say that bystanders out strolling for the Martyrs Day holiday were swept up in the violence.

At the end of March, the government banned demonstrators on the boulevard after rival groups of liberal artists and ultra-conservative Islamists engaged in violent clashes. Critics say the order, blocking rallies at a place loaded with the same kind of revolutionary symbolism Cairo’s Tahrir Square, was tantamount to an invitation for violence protests.

 “People have many grievances against the government,” Sadok Belaid, who teaches at the University of Tunis, told The Media Line. “It’s afraid that these demonstrations will concentrate all the anger of the people on its bad performance on the political, economic and social levels, the reaction and the counter-reaction will accumulate.”

Ennhada’s troubles could serve as a lesson for Egypt, where another Islamist movement labeled “moderate” by many, the Muslim Brotherhood, is facing similar pressures. Voters in both countries have awarded big majorities in post-revolution elections to Muslim parties, but a secular, liberal minority worries that the revolutions they led are being stolen from them and that the Islamist leadership will clamp down on their new freedoms.

The police crackdown on Monday inspired the demonstrators on Habib Bourguiba Avenue to compare the new government to the toppled regime of Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali and his once powerful in-laws, the Trabelsi family. “The people are sick of the new Trabelsis,” protesters chanted. 

Amna Guellali, a researcher based in Tunisia for Human Rights Watch, sympathizes with that point of view. “We see the same pattern of repression that we used to see under the Ben Ali regime. For me, that underscores the lack of social overhaul, to structurally change the security,” she told The Media Line.

Ben-Ali, was unpopular with his people, but scored points with liberals for keeping Islamists at bay and granting rights to women. But when Tunisians finally got to vote in free and fair elections last October, the Islamist Ennahda Party emerged as the front runner. 

Ennahda now runs the country in coalition with two secular parties on an interim basis and is also taking the leading role in writing a new constitution due to be completed sometime this year. Last month, Ennahda pledged to keep intact the first article of the 1959 constitution that separates religion and state. It has also promised not to ban alcohol or impose the veil.

But conservative Muslims are not giving up. They often take to the streets with demands for such things as the imposition of Islamic (sharia) law and some activists have taken to freelance enforcement.

A television station is being sued for violating “sacred values” and “disturbing public order” by airing the animated film “Persepolis” about the 1979 Iranian revolution because it contains a scene depicting God. Manouba University has been the site of repeated clashes between liberals and Salafists, with the latter demanding an end to the campus ban on women wearing the veil.

Individual Salafists in small towns reportedly harass women for not abiding by conservative dress. In one incident a prominent secular intellectual and a newspaper editor were punched and kicked by a crowd of Salafists protesting outside a courtroom.

“The problem is that even if it tried, and it is willing to do, Ennhahda is not capable of satisfying everybody,” Belaid said. “They cannot meet the demands of the extremists of either side, but especially of the Salafists. They want to take power and push out Ennahda, which in the Salafists’ eyes is a traitor.”

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s liberals are not yet convinced that Ennahda won’t cave in to at least some of the conservatives’ demands, nor do they fully trust that the government will guarantee human rights.

When the Interior Ministry ordered its ban on demonstrations on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, it cited complaints from local merchants that the constant protests were disrupting traffic and business. But the order enraged the opposition, which it interpreted as a strike against freedom of expression.

“During the first phase of the transition, the political elite acted in a very smooth way. There was an attempt to use dialogue and comprise. Now, there are widening divisions in the political elite between Islamists and secularists,” said Guellali of Human Rights Watch. “Each one is trying to defend its own turf, and that might lead to heightened tensions on the street.”

Compounding the government’s woes over the religious-secular division, Tunisia’s economy is still struggling. Direct foreign investment jumped by more than a third in the first two months of this year from a year earlier, but government forecasts of the economy growing 4.5% have been trimmed back to 3.5%. Unemployment climbed to nearly 19% in the fourth quarter of 2011. 

The tourism sector has yet to recover. Tourism Minister Elyess Fakfak said last month that the number of visitors would rise 20% this year, but that would be a million fewer than the record seven million that arrived in 2010.

Ennahda can take solace in the fact that despite the noise in the street, many Tunisians continue to back the government. Opinion polls suggest that Ennahda Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s support has grown from the 37% of the vote his party received in the October elections. Approval ratings for his coalition partners have also risen.

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