Tunisia has often been called the “one success story” of the Arab spring. This was always a problematic description and by mid-2021 it was untenable. After a decade of mismanagement under an Islamist-led Ennahda Party government resulted in political paralysis and economic turmoil, President Kais Saied dismissed Prime Minister Hicham Mechichi on 25 July, beginning a process intended to reset the political system.
There have been many competing narratives about these events, from within Tunisia and from various external actors with links to these factions. There is also the fact of Tunisia’s strategic location, north of the troubled Sahel region and on Europe’s southern border, and the country’s record during the Ennahda period as one of the largest contributors to the Islamic State.
To unpack these issues, European Eye on Radicalization assembled an expert panel:
Dr. Khadija Moalla, a development specialist with twenty-five years’ experience, ten in senior leadership positions at the United Nations, and an expert in international law, focused on issues of gender equality, women’s equality, the rule of law, and civil society.
Sami Moubayed, a Syrian historian and former scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has covered regional politics since 1998 and is a Research Fellow at St Andrews University in Scotland. His most recent book is, Under the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New Jihad.
Dr. Tommaso Virgili, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, where he works on liberal movements within Islam in response to the challenge of Islamism in Europe and the MENA region. He is author of the forthcoming book, Islam, Constitutional Law and Human Rights: Sexual Minorities and Freethinkers in Egypt And Tunisia.
Dr. Moalla started by noting that after the “uprising”, a term she prefers to “revolution” for the 2011 events, the Muslim Brotherhood in the form of Ennahda returned to Tunisia and took power, defining governance by religion in a way that had not been true in Tunisia before. People could vote and certain freedoms became possible that had not been under the autocracy, but “it was a democracy of façade”, says Moalla. The Tunisians were very patient, says Moalla, waiting for ten years even as unemployment and corruption rose.
In July, says Moalla, people in Tunisia had finally had enough: hundreds of thousands of people went into the streets to say, “this parliament doesn’t represent them” and this is why the president was “forced to take some exceptional measures”. The president’s decision to announce the dissolution of the government, among other things, prevented civil strife, says Moalla, since the protesters had started to burn down Brotherhood offices and this could have spiralled into something nasty.
Moalla calls for greater international solidarity with Tunisia during this transition since “we are [all] facing the same enemy”, namely “the huge international movement of the Muslim Brotherhood” and its offshoots, who pose an extremist and security problem not only in Tunis and Cairo. In more practical and immediate terms, Moalla said international actors should assist Tunisia in dealing with the crushing debt burden it has been left with by Ennahda.
Sami Moubayed said that the apologetics for Ennahda have to be countered, beginning with the idea that simply winning an election is equivalent to legitimacy, let alone proving them beneficial to the population. Moubayed notes that the classic case demonstrating this fallacy is that Hitler won an election in Germany. In Moubayed’s view, the removal of Ennahda from power is “one of the finest things to happen in that country in a very long time”.
Despite the rebranding efforts, Moubayed says, Ennahda remained a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and its rule was incompatible with the openness and liberalism of the Tunisian people. This is similar to the way Al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria gave itself a “face lift” and changed its name, but has not changed. Nor has the Taliban. The proof of this, says Moubayed, is the leaked recordings of Ennahda leader Rashed Ghannouchi meeting with Seifallah Ben Hassine (Abu Iyad al-Tunisi), the leader of Al-Qaeda’s Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia, and giving the jihadist strategic advice on infiltrating the society and spreading militant Islam. It would be like sitting down and offering to help Osama bin Laden, said Moubayed.
What is necessary now, Moubayed concludes, is to give credit to President Saied for taking bold action, despite the expectations that he would be weak, and to set aside the victimization narratives Ennahda is promoting. The actions taken by the president were “constitutional, justified, and much-needed”.
Dr. Virgili began by arguing that President Saied should not be given such blanket support, since he has ensured the inequality of inheritance rights for women and supports criminal penalties for homosexuality, explicitly based on the shari’a. Saied has also engaged in populist sloganeering of a kind that can be very dangerous to the democratic order of Tunisia.
Saied has pursued an anti-corruption policy that shows evidence of political bias against opponents, rather than being a legal instrument, according to Virgili, and the state of emergency does not meet the test of the constitution. It is possible that Saied will come through on his promises to restore democracy in Tunisia, but there are worrying signs, concludes Virgili.
“I don’t want to question Saied’s good intentions. I certainly don’t question Ennahda’s bad intentions”, concludes Virgili, and nor is there any doubt about the sorry state of corruption and dysfunction Tunisia was in. But “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, and one well-meaning man cannot hold all power: there must be checks and balances, and the law.
In the question-and-answer period, the panel discussed: the security implications of the Tunisian situation for Europe; the relations of Brotherhood parties like Ennahda to the AKP government in Turkey; the trendlines for secularism and civil society in Tunisia; the (in)compatibility of Islamism and democracy; and the economic reforms needed.