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 370 (photo credit: Zohra Bensemra /Reuters)
Anti Ennahda protest Tunisia 370
(photo credit: 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 by referendum.
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 Islam.”
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 Salafists.
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’ association.
At the head of the association stood Lotfi Nagdh, who was also the moving force behind the Movement for Tunisia. He was savagely beaten and killed.
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 revolution.
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.
In 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 demonstration.
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 the ministers.
Needless to say, this sets the course.
To deflect 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.
The 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.
Though Article 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.
That 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.
Ghannouchi also 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 know democracy.
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 opinion.
In any case, though the Constituent Assembly is likely to adopt the text, the referendum could go the other way.
Unfortunately, while 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 work.
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 Tunisia.
The writer, a Fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.