Troubles in an Arab Spring paradise

Hany Ghoraba
Wednesday 28 Nov 2018

In the wake of serious allegations against the Ennahda Party, Tunisia may be moving closer to an inevitable showdown with the Islamist movement

The term “Arab Spring” followed by the word “paradise” is a combination of words that has not often been used to describe the situation of any country in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region affected by the upheavals of the 2011 Arab Spring Revolutions.

These started in Tunisia in December 2010 and then spread to the rest of the region, particularly affecting countries such as Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

In the wake of the problems that have affected many of the other revolutions of the time, it has become common to praise the Tunisian model for its success in steering a way out of the chaos that attended the initial revolution.

However, this praise may be misplaced, since there have been overly optimistic, chiefly Western reports on the course of the Tunisian Arab Spring.

Tunisia was indeed spared the fate of other nations such as Libya, Syria and Yemen, all of which witnessed civil wars that are still being fought today.

The Tunisians also managed to dodge a major war on terrorism, such as has been the case in Egypt where a war against terrorist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and Hamas have left the country with thousands of casualties and billions of dollars in expenditures.

Yet, while Egypt has been on an upward trajectory in terms of its economy, social stability, tourism and investments, the Tunisian state is currently experiencing the opposite.

This has been the case even as Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi has managed to move the country away from a direct confrontation with the Islamists who dominated the Tunisian political system in the period following the Tunisian Revolution.

This was done while introducing major social reforms that have finally secured Tunisian women equal rights with men on issues including inheritance.

Tunisian Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Tunisian Ennahda Party retreated peacefully from power following the 30 June 2013 Revolution in Egypt that saw the ousting of Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi from power and marked the end of the rise of the group to power across the Middle East.

Ennahda ceded power in Tunisia and accepted a power-sharing arrangement with others by forging coalitions with Tunisian liberals including members of Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounis Party.

Tunisia’s secularists thus managed to avert a confrontation with Ennahda, though one is now on the horizon after seven years of concessions.

One of the issues that has ignited the new wave of confrontation with Ennahda is the alleged involvement of Ennahda Party leaders, including founder Rachid Al-Ghannouchi, in the assassinations of Tunisian politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahimi in 2013.

A panel of lawyers called the “Defence of the Martyrs Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahimi” has presented compelling evidence to the Tunisian courts on the involvement of Ennahda Party leaders in the assassination of these two politicians.

The evidence, including tapes and documents that indicate the formation of an alternative security apparatus in the party to target its critics and detractors, shows that an Ennahda cell headed by Mustafa Khadr, now serving eight years in prison in Tunisia after being found guilty of tampering with evidence, carried out secret para-military training.

Khadr is believed to have strong ties with Ennahda leaders who facilitated the formation of the secret apparatus with the help of members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Such revelations have shocked people across the Tunisian political spectrum, with many believing that the court case, now lodged with the Tunisian Military Court, will change the political balance in the country.

Essebsi announced the breaking of his party’s alliance with Ennahda in September, ending a five-year coalition, as a result of Ennahda’s refusal to replace Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

However, there have also been developments in the court case against Ennahda leaders for their alleged involvement in the earlier political assassinations. 

End Of The Honeymoon

As a result of such developments, Tunisia, earlier the poster-child of the Arab Spring, is experiencing a slide towards political unrest due to the end of the honeymoon with the Islamists represented by the Ennahda Party and its allies. 

The reality of this alliance is slowly rising to the surface. Regardless of what the so-called “moderate” Islamist parties pretend to do in the Arab world in order to gain popularity or the trust of the other political parties, their hidden agenda of domination and the eradication of opponents necessarily eventually becomes clear.

The tapes produced by the Defence Panel of Tunisian lawyers have displayed the full extent of the Ennahda-affiliated espionage cell and its intention to seize effective power in Tunisia.

They include statements by cell-leader Khadr to the effect that this secret apparatus controls some of Tunisia’s judges and that it wiretaps politicians and others in the country in order to obtain material that could be used against them.

Moreover, the panel has produced evidence showing that Ennahda-affiliated cells have spies in the US and Algerian embassies in Tunisia.

Aside from this political earthquake that could finally turn the tables on Ennahda’s political future in the country, on 23 November the biggest strike of public-sector employees in years began in Tunisia, halting most economic activities.

The protesters and strike leaders have rejected the austerity measures put in place by the government in the light of a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for emergency funding.

The economic conditions in the country are very far from being perfect, and high unemployment rates along with soaring inflation and a devalued currency have caused fury among many Tunisians.

The Tunisian National Statistics Institute has reported that the average wage in Tunisia lasts an employee only a week out of every month, and this statistic, along with others, is likely to increase anger at the austerity measures that are being put in place as a condition of the IMF loan, with these being seen as disastrous for many ordinary Tunisians.

While Tunisia was spared the kind of terrible Civil War that took place in Libya, Syria and Yemen after the Arab Spring, the country remains a target for domestic terrorists who want to destabilise its relative peace.

The suicide-bombing in the centre of the Tunisian capital Tunis earlier in November targeting a security outpost serves as a reminder that terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) are targeting Tunisia in their operations.

Tunisia has also contributed a large number of terrorists to IS in Syria, and the presence of jihadists on Tunisian soil remains a clear danger to the Tunisian state.

In an Algerian TV documentary entitled “Fighters for Hire” broadcast in June 2018, IS terrorist Hamza Al-Gari said that the Ennahda-dominated government in Tunisia had facilitated the travel of IS terrorists to Syria, and then ended its support after a change of fortunes in the war in the country had led to an IS defeat.

Needless to say, this is a claim that the Ennahda leaders have strongly denied.

Tunisia was once viewed by Western pundits as an oasis of peace in a troubled region and praised as being a growing democratic paradise.

However, the reality of the situation in the country is grim, and there are multiple challenges to Essebsi’s rule despite his bold social policies.

He remains burdened by Ennahda’s never-ending ambition to restore its powers over the Tunisian state, though postponing the inevitable showdown with the Islamists is unlikely to work either, since Ennahda will use every means at its disposal to undermine Essebsi’s authority.

Should Ennahda be found guilty of associating with the alleged secret apparatus that is now being investigated in Tunisia, Essebsi and the Tunisian parliament will have no choice but to take a tough decision on its future that could include its banning.

The once-hailed Tunisian political paradise is now facing its most serious challenge since the Arab Spring Revolutions on how far it will go to maintain its much-envied peace. As the days pass, the inevitable showdown comes closer.

* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Troubles in an Arab Spring paradise 

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