Two years on since revolution, Tunisia struggles with new political realities

Ahram Online, Monday 14 Jan 2013

On Monday, Tunisians celebrated 2nd anniversary of revolution that ousted Ben Ali regime. But can the new Islamist leadership navigate country's precarious post-revolution political map?

Tunisian Islamists holding banners as they demonstrate in Tunis, Tunisia, Friday, Jan. 11, 2013 (Photo: AP)

Tunisians on Monday celebrated the second anniversary of the revolution that ousted longstanding president Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali with an official ceremony attended by government and opposition figures.

President Moncef Marzouki, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and Parliamentary Speaker Mustafa Ben Jaafar met with leaders of the country's main political parties to mark the occasion. 

The country appears to be passing through a critical phase, however, both politically and economically. This was recently emphasised by the leader of the ruling Ennahda Party, Rached Al-Ghannouchi, who has insisted on dialogue with the opposition to overcome the current political impasse. 

"We want to bring all the Tunisian people together, through united political forces capable of dialogue, to agree on a timeline for the big political events, particularly a date for elections," he told AFP.

Salafist pressure for Islamic constitution

Elections in Tunisia in October 2011 resulted in an interim coalition led by the majority-winning Islamist Ennahda Party in a coalition with two liberal parties.

Ennahda, Tunisia's largest political organisation and the majority-winner within the constituent assembly, will draft the awaited post-Ben Ali constitution.

Speaking to Ahram Online last June, prominent political activist and sociology professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim described Tunisia's revolution as the "Cinderella" of the Arab Spring, in comparison to more difficult transitions in other Arab states. 

"Al-Ghannouchi is definitely a moderate Islamist politician in regards to all social, political and economic issues," Ibrahim stated.

He went on to note that Ennahda had left the positions of president and parliamentary speaker to non-Islamist figures in a bid to prove its intention to achieve consensus and avoid accusations of political domination.

The Islamist movement has taken a moderate track in Tunisia, which has a strong secular heritage and which provided the spark that ignited the ongoing 'Arab Spring.'

But it has also advocated for the introduction of Islamic Law by ultra-conservative Salafists who are unrepresented within the assembly and who have stepped up street violence to press for their demands.

Last month, a handful of Salafists attacked a hotel in Subaytilah city, destroying the hotel's furniture and bar. Bearded men threatened hotel guests with meat cleavers and called them "infidels," eyewitnesses said.

The bar-related incident in Subaytilah comes after a similar attack on a bar in Sidi Bouzid, in which bottles were smashed and customers chased away with cries of "God is Great" and "drinking is forbidden."

Sidi Bouzid, birthplace of the revolution, represents a stronghold of the Salafist movement, which has grown increasingly assertive in recent months.

Violence later spread to the capital, where clashes broke out between alcohol vendors and Salafists, wounding a police commander.

In March, Ennahda announced its refusal to make Islamic Law the "main source" of legislation in the new constitution, also vowing not to impose the veil on women or ban alcohol or usury.

Secularists fear that Ennahda has been too soft on recent violence by Salafists, who have since the revolution attacked or threatened theatres, cinemas and journalists, and, most recently, Tunisia's tiny Jewish community.

"Many Salafists were released from prison under a general amnesty plan for opponents of the Ben Ali regime during the revolution. Some of them should not have been, as their violence currently poses a threat to national security and to the democratic process," Tunisian activist Nabila Hamza told Ahram Online in early December.

Hamza added that the Salafists would not succeed in convincing Ennahda to impose Islamic Law via the constitution, as Tunisia's civil society and opposition "are too strong to allow this to happen."

She pointed out that Ennahda had initiated talks with the Salafists, but had later changed its approach to allow for dialogue with non-violent Salafist groups while taking a harder line when dealing with the movement's more violent elements. 

The Islamist-secular debate in Tunisia coincides with economic woes related to the ongoing Eurozone crisis, as Europe represents Tunisia's main market for exports and the source of most of its tourists.

Border threats

Tunisia has lately seen not only internal divisions, but also deterioration along its borders. Al-Qaeda, recently active in the Sahara, has reportedly benefited from an influx of weapons in the wake of Libya's civil war.

Last month, police reported finding two militant training camps near the Algerian border, possibly intended to prepare disaffected Tunisians for joining jihads in nearby Mali or Algeria.

In response, units from the military and national guard were deployed in a town near the Tunisian-Libyan borders following week-long clashes between police and residents protesting social inequalities.

Tunisia, Libya and Algeria agreed to an 11-point joint plan on Saturday to maintain border security and combat terrorism, arms trafficking and organised crime.

The decision was taken during a tripartite meeting between Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali in the southern Libyan oasis of Ghadames.

Meanwhile, Ben Guerdane, located some 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the border, has witnessed sporadic unrest since last Sunday, fuelled by Tripoli's decision to close the Ras Jdir border crossing in early September for security reasons.

Some protesters set fire to a local police station and ransacked the Ennahda Party's local headquarters, AFP reported on Sunday.

Civil representatives from Ben Guerdane are currently drawing up a delegation to be received in the capital on Tuesday by the Islamist-led government to discuss their demands.

Short link: