The Context – A Host of Negative Regional Factors
The Arab Spring presented a unique opportunity for political change in North Africa.
Seven years on, the path to democracy, at least as conceived and understood in the Western world, remains uncertain and problematic.
The internal socio-economic, structural and political dynamics at the base of the crisis that has hit the Middle East and North Africa are common in Mediterranean countries. Many have long been affected by instability due to complex local situations, the transformations brought by the intensification of relations with the international community, and the need for economic and social development.
In addition, one notes the persistence of serious structural problems in large areas that are marginal or even abandoned compared to those that are more active and linked to dynamic economic growth.
The pervasiveness of social networks is in the mix and can lead to a contagion effect. The networks encourage young people to challenge regimes and can build pressure for a new phase of transition, aimed at building an inclusive democracy. If the pressure fails to work, another phase of reaction and protest can follow quickly.
Another destabilizing factor is demographic pressure, with populations destined to grow at least until 2030. This can disorient the young, who are exposed to unemployment due to the lack of development of fundamental sectors.
At the socio-anthropological level, the uncertainty of the young puts pressure on traditional family and social structures because it delays the entry into the world of work and postpones the creation of an autonomous family unit.
Added to all these difficulties are plainly inadequate standards of living, the lack of recognition of participatory rights and freedom, discrimination, corruption, a lack of transparency in the judicial system, limited access to healthcare for large segments of the population, and ethnic and tribal tensions.
All these factors combine to give life to a mixture of political structures and regimes, in which the old coexists with the new, and the presence of democratic and Western organisms does not seem, at least outwardly, to conflict with the authoritarianism and permanence of types of government resistant to change.
When discontent and dissatisfaction do arise, governments can react with blunt repression and violence alone to stop attempts at change. Often enough, this hardcore approach only helps to spread agitation and extremism over time, which in turn nourishes terrorism and undermines internal and international security.
On the other hand, positive accommodations mixed with minimal force in a dangerous situation can lead to further unrest and the kind of uprising that eventually proves disastrous for all.
Tunisia knows this dangerous North African balancing act well. It chose revolution over the regime in the end, leading the Arab Spring.
While the fluid and extremely dynamic situation described above can be seen across the MENA region, individual countries do not present all the same reference parameters, as the socio-political and economic landscapes in the area vary widely.
Tunisia stands out in its own way. Among the countries of the region, it oscillates between traditionalism and democracy, innovation and closure.
Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” of January 14, 2011 ended the 23-year reign of the authoritarian regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and led to unrest and uprisings against ruling governments in most of the Arab world.
Since then, Tunisia has moved towards democracy and the recognition of political and religious liberties while avoiding the widespread chaos, violence and bloody repression seen in other countries in the region.
In addition, the economy appears to be growing, thanks in part to a population that shares the same culture, the same values, and the same religion. No less than 98% of the population is Arab and 99% are Sunni Muslims.
Authoritarian History – Tunisia Before the Jasmine Revolution
Before the Jasmine Revolution, the Tunisian political system was characterized by strong authoritarianism, even by regional standards.
In the half century between independence from France in 1956 and the revolution of January 14, 2011, only two presidents governed the country and there was never any open political competition. Ben Ali, who ruled after Habib Bourguiba was deposed in a coup in 1987, carried out constitutional reforms that eliminated term limits and extended the maximum age for institutional positions. Presidential elections were theoretically open to other candidates, but the reforms ensured that Ben Ali was never in danger of losing the presidency.
In the parliamentary elections, nominal opposition parties received a fixed quota of seats but no political force was actually able to counter the Constitutional Democratic Rally (CDR), which dominated the legislature. Further down the power chain, even municipal councils were tightly controlled by the regime.
Essentially, after gaining independence Tunisia adopted a corporate model, where the demands of the people had to be addressed through institutions such as the ruling party or the national union. In this way, Tunisians were prevented from effectively choosing between political parties or trade union organizations, while a single intermediating institution, the CDR, was entrusted with the task of reconciling the different views of voters.
This approach was not considered antidemocratic by the leadership of the CDR, so much so that the descriptor “al-tajammu” (rally) rather than “al-hizb” (party) was adopted to emphasize that the role of the CDR was politically wider than the role usually attributed to a traditional political party.
In fact, the Tunisian regime has often been compared to the Chilean regime of Pinochet. Both countries tried to achieve popular consensus based on a positive economic situation. Tunisia has long been considered an economically developed country, unlike other North African nations. It managed to reduce unemployment, create a competitive market model, especially in exports, build up industry, and invest in innovation and education. This approach was more rewarding and more sustainable than the statist policies adopted by other countries in the region.
Nonetheless, development was uneven at the regional level and the marks remain. The overall economic situation is still better in the coastal zones than in internal areas, especially in the western, central and southern regions. Youth unemployment in particular is very high in less developed areas. The process of radicalization of young Tunisians is more evident in these areas.
The historical political legacy still has a significant impact on the political perceptions and expectations of Tunisians today, especially among the older generations.
There are many obstacles to democratization. They include limited experience with basic democratic and electoral processes, a lack of supporting institutions and a free press able to inform the population, and insufficient participatory organizations addressing the most urgent issues facing civil society.
Indeed, the disaffection of the Tunisian people towards politics led to their depoliticization. In the absence of an open and participatory system, the regime attempted to foster a sense of inclusion and soften its authoritarian profile through the emancipation of women and the creation of a secular state. The measures included guaranteeing a female presence in Parliament, introducing a progressive law on personal status, and forbidding state employees to wear the veil.
Electoral probity, by contrast, was most certainly not a priority. Consider the experience of the Independent High Commissioner for Elections, the body responsible for preparing the country for the October 2011 elections. In its voter checks, it found only 2.5 million of 4.5 million names on the electoral register were truthful entries. Around two million registered voters had died or had been counted twice. A further 3 million Tunisians had been excluded, despite meeting the eligibility requirements.
With this backdrop, it is perhaps not surprising that the first survey conducted in Tunisia after the revolution of January 2011 found that only half of the interviewees were able to identify each political party, including the government party. In another survey, carried out in May 2011, only a quarter of interviewees said they had sufficient knowledge of the political situation in their country. Five months before the election of the Constituent Assembly, which had the task of drafting a new constitution, less than half of the respondents had precise awareness of the purpose of the election consultation. Two months after the vote, a high percentage of Tunisians defined the political situation of their country as “incomprehensible”.
Still, it is true that the revolutionary Tunisian experience did challenge widespread convictions. First of all, that the Arab world was resistant to political change and that popular mobilizations must necessarily be guided on the organizational level. Another widespread view was that only the educated and politicized urban classes could propel mobilizations and protests.
The real picture was mixed. In 2010, the first demonstrations of solidarity with Mohammed Bouazizi certainly were instinctive and spontaneous. Bouazizi was a struggling street vendor in an inland town who burned himself to death to protest against his treatment by local regime officials.
Yet it is also true that organized forces played an essential role in planning and managing the mounting protests. They included the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and the Lawyers’ Union. In particular, the support of the national leadership of the UGTT proved to be decisive in both moving the revolutionary movement from the inland areas to the coastal cities and in presenting explicitly political demands to the government.
Meanwhile, social networks such as Facebook become a key tool for coordinating and organizing demonstrations, disseminating news, and bypassing the censorship system to document the unrest and regime brutality. Ultimately, though, the networks do not appear to have played a very important and central role, in contrast with developments in other countries in the region, such as Egypt.
Regional trends differed too. In Tunisia, deprived internal areas where economic and social disparities were more serious and evident were the first to mobilize. It took eleven days from the first protests for the unrest to reach the capital Tunis. In Egypt, the riots started in Cairo and Alexandria before rippling out through the Delta and Upper Egypt.
The political transition was entrusted to three different transitional bodies. They dealt with issues related to the mandate of the Higher Authority for the Realization of the Objectives of the Revolution, Political Reform, and Democratic Transition.
In the run-up to the first elections, the High Council managed the drafting of a law regulating the election of a constituent assembly. It was composed of representatives of opposition parties, trade unions and civil society groups, and “independent” personalities, including some with strong ties to the previous regime. The assembly took over legislative authority after the October 2011 elections and drafted a new constitution in early 2012.
An especially complex issue concerned the possibility of committing the Constituent Assembly to a “republican contract” (al-‘aqd al-jumhūrī) establishing a series of binding principles to follow in drafting the new constitution.
The context made this sort of initiative complicated. New political parties were emerging. They were small but aggressive and they tried to counteract the larger “entitled” parties. This led to confrontations which have endured.
The numbers are striking. Before the revolution, there were only eight legal parties and only half of them could claim a significant base. By October 2011, at the time of the election for the Constituent Assembly, the number of parties in competition had soared to around 120.
This situation made various political actors keenly aware of the importance of cooperation, despite the difficulties of the political consensus building process and the general disaffection of the population.
The transition process also addressed the issue of the opposition in exile. After the revolution, the two most important opposition figures abroad, Moncef Marzouki (Liberal-Democrat) and Rashid Ghannouchi (historic leader of Islamist opposition to the Ben Ali regime), returned from abroad. In the October 2011 elections for the constituent assembly, Marzouki was chosen as the Interim President.
Radicalization and Terrorism
Meanwhile, the political forces have had to deal with unstable geopolitical balances in the Mediterranean and pervasive radicalization, which was strengthened by youthful disorientation and discontent. Tunisia ranks first in the world for the per capita population share of foreign fighters who joined the ranks of the self-styled Islamic State in the Middle East. Inside Tunisia, intelligence activity has dismantled many jihadist cells and foiled attacks, but some terrorist attackers slipped through between 2013 and 2015, including the men who killed 22 people in the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March 2015.
It may be tempting to think that radicalization is the immediate and inevitable consequence of the lack of growth and development prospects that characterize the Tunisian socio-economic situation, despite the efforts of the current government to boost growth with structural reforms.
There are clear difficulties. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, under pressure from the IMF and internal financial weakness, was forced to implement an unpopular financial law. This situation led to an increase in inflation and hit a population already exhausted by the economic crisis and unemployment. The recent unrest, which began in the early months of 2018, strengthened the reactions of the political opposition and forced the government to call in the army.
However, tracing radicalization to the economy above all is a misleading conclusion. Economics are undoubtedly important, but radicalization can be the result of an accumulation of experiences that lead to violence. Multiple ideological interactions can accelerate and strengthen the process. The diversity of the paths and the wide range of causes do not allow us to theorize a typical model, or a sort of Weberian matrix used to simplify the approach to the question. Because individual choices are complex, the reasons that lead people to make extreme choices will be equally complex.
The words of Samuel Huntington can be used to illustrate the complexity of the terrain. He has written that men define themselves “in terms of progeny, language, history, values, customs and institutions and identify themselves with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations and, at the broadest level, of civilization.“.
That said, it does seem clear that the greater the level of domestic political violence, including repressive internal security measures, the higher the risk of radicalization will be. In Egypt, after the coup in 2013 a growing minority of young Muslim Brotherhood members started out on a process of radicalization by engaging in “defensive violence” and coming to see the state as an enemy to be eliminated. This type of revolutionary politics has also permeated the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership, creating a critical mass of individual members who share common attitudes towards political and organizational change in the Egyptian state.
Yet Tunisia is in a different situation. The constitution of January 2014 strengthened the transition to democracy, favoring the administrative reorganization of the country and the consolidation of individual rights and guarantees of freedom. Since 2014, Tunisia has been led by a government of national unity including political forces of secular inspiration such as the Nidaa Tounes party.
Moderation and Radicalization. The Position of Ennahda
A traditional theoretical approach frames the Muslim Brotherhood as a sort of “mother house” for political parties inspired by Islamic values. In Tunisia, this approach can be questioned, especially in relation to recent statements and positions taken by Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi.
In fact, several factors separate Ennahda from the ideology of Hassan El Banna, starting with its purely local origins. Ennahda was born at Ez-Zitouna University, an intellectual and religious center focused on the needs of Islamic society and the first Islamic university in the Arab world, founded in 737 C.E.
The two leading founders of Ennahda, Abdelfattah Mourou and Rached Ghannouchi, both studied at Ez-Zitouna.
In particular, Mourou’s spiritual father was Sheikh Ahmed Ben Miled. He engaged in the Tunisian national liberation movement and was involved in legislative consultations under the Bourguiba regime. His orientation was rather far removed from Sayyid Qutb, the Brotherhood’s prominent 20th Century ideologue.
In the early years of the movement, the religious circles of Ennahda and their leaders held progressive positions on trade unions and social welfare. In addition, the approach of being progressive about sacred texts has favored the modernization process initiated by Habib Bourguiba.
Now it would be completely erroneous to deny the influence in Tunisia of theoretical positions, such as those of the Muslim Brotherhood. The large number of publications and widespread regional debates have provided an opportunity to spread Brotherhood ideology effectively.
Rather, it is important to note that these ideas were adapted to the local ideological context. One could even hypothesize, noting the marked pragmatism that inspired the founders of Ennahda, that they were “the illegitimate sons of Bourguiba”. They supported the struggle for national independence, the need for social rebirth and the importance of modern instruments of governance.
These days the local context remains crucial. Over the past four years, Ennahda has played an important role in political governance. This activity has certainly affected its political identity. Much more so, in fact, than the decades of clandestine activity that preceded the revolution.
In 2011, the party was legalized and it gained its first experience in a coalition government with two secular parties. This was part of a trend for Islamic parties in the region – many are committed to identifying new activities and strategies from a deeply pragmatic viewpoint, presenting a long-term vision aimed at overcoming the foreseeable counter-reactions of a system that is facing change.
The trend was also visible at the Brookings World Islamic Forum in Doha in June 2015. Concrete and diverse public positions emerged, countering the idea that these groups are similar to occult confraternities and underlining instead that these groups intend to govern and participate in the formation of public policy.
So, are we really witnessing the professionalization of political parties in the Middle East and North Africa, especially where the transition process is proceeding, as so many parties claim?
According to statements released by Ghannouchi in mid-2016, for its part Ennahda intended to separate the religious mission of the movement (al-dawah) from its political work (alsiyasah). Is this move a decisive step towards secularism? Is it a separation from the party’s historical Islamist orientation?
Within Sunni Islam, the faith of 99% of the Tunisian population, political leaders and the ulema (religious scholars or authorities) are typically distinct and separate from each other. Logically, this distinction could eliminate the need for Ennahda to be, at the same time, a political party and a religious movement. Practically, however, decision-making will certainly create tensions and problems. The first question alone is hard – which offices should be attributed to “dawah” and which to “siyasah”? This is a crucial distinction for both politics and religion in Tunisia.
On the religious front, Ennahda has always been an alliance between a particular form of relatively moderate Salafism inspired by the thinking of the 13th Century C.E. theologian Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah and activism inspired by Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna. The more normative religious side of Ennahda, which prevails in the “dawah” wing of the movement, is linked to historical Tunisian Sunnism. The religious conservatives of Ennahda, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, are inspired by the traditions of Zitouna.
Conclusions – A Fragile Transition
The fragility of Tunisia’s transition was brought into stark relief in 2013 by two political assassinations.
In February, Chokri Belaid, leader of the Unified Democratic Nationalist party and an opponent of Islamists, was shot dead in Tunis. In July, assassins struck again in Tunis. This time their target was Mohamed Brahmi, the leftist leader of the People’s Movement. The assassinations sparked furious and violent unrest.
The regional backdrop in summer 2013 did not help – the coup in Egypt infuriated Islamists and encouraged their opponents. Divisions deepened.
The fury erupted even though Ennahda had decided in 2011 to share power with two different parties, the nationalist Congress for the Republic (el-Mo’tamar min ajl el-Jomhūriya) and the socialist Ettakatol,
Those events underline an important point: the process of democratization, in itself, is a path that must be followed carefully and with determination. It demands unflinching perseverance.
In the case of Tunisia, the key question is promoting a culture of political participation in a society that had been largely depoliticized. First, the integration of important opposition movements that operated in exile in the past must be carried out in internal politics. Second, the internal security forces must be reformed to support the rule of law. Next, it is necessary to create socio-economic conditions that support growth opportunities and hopes for the future for the whole population.
The current government is heading in these directions. Politically, it is moving closer to western Mediterranean countries and asking for the support of the international community.
It is doing this in a challenging context.
On the economic front, the tourism sector is currently in crisis, depriving the economy of foreign currency and job opportunities. Confidence was badly damaged by the terrorist attack in the resort of Sousse in June 2015, which claimed 38 livesThe sector employs about half a million people and contributes around 7% of Tunisia’s GDP.
On the security front, the proliferation of terrorist activity in Tunisia has surprised both Tunisians and international observers. Until 2011, Tunisia, with a relatively cultured population and growing economic expectations, had a limited history of violent extremism compared to Algeria or Libya. This was due, in part, to the policy of strict control under the previous regime and to the secularization of the urban population in most of the Tunisian territory.
But the new Tunisia is not immune to regional trends, as evidenced by terrorist attacks and an April 2018 statement by the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, a group linked to al-Qaeda. It called on Muslims in North Africa to fight their governments and attack French interests in Tunisia, using “any means possible”.
The conditions are favorable for terrorists: they can draw on political instability, especially in the Tunisian inland areas, and make use of the chaos in Libya to penetrate Tunisian borders.
These issues have pushed Tunisia to consider security cooperation programs as a strategic priority. Partners include Algeria, which has the most effective anti-terrorist forces in the region, Morocco, and Western allies.
In the end, it can be said that Ghannouchi’s decision to abandon political Islam by separating political and religious activity is a refoundation of the political movement, leading to its rebirth as a “democratic and civil party inspired by the values of Islam”, or, said Ghannouchi, a “Muslim Democrat” party.
Political Islam emerged in response to dictatorship and secularism. When the Tunisian revolution eliminated the regime, Ennahda came out of hiding. In this way, Ennhada became part of the state, a pillar of Tunisia, and a contributor to the political broadening of the ruling class.
Arguably, the moderate positions taken by Ennhada are the values of modern Muslim civilizations, the values of Islam. Ghannouchi’s decisions pull the movement away from jihadist groups who have repeatedly invoked political Islam as a justification for their actions. He wants to stand out, adopt a different line, and become part of the post-Ben Ali democratic change in Tunisia.
Ghannouchi’s path has been very long. For decades he was forced to live in exile while his movement operated underground in Tunisia. Now, embracing pragmatism, Ennahda has emancipated itself, moving away from the Muslim Brotherhood and making Tunisia an exception in North Africa – with all its problems, it is still a land for relatively normal political action.
In the medium term, the choices of the Ennahda leader may have a positive impact on other countries of the Arab world, limiting the politicization of religion and, at the same time, increasing the confidence of moderates in the stability of institutions.
However, one can also argue that Tunisia today is quite fragile, vulnerable, and even isolated, despite its progress over the tumultuous years of this decade. It needs all the support from the international community it can get, starting with politics and the economy.
 M. Ottaway – Tunisia: The Revolution is Over, Can Reform Continue?
 Laurel E. Miller, Jeffrey Martini, F. Stephen Larrabee, Angel Rabasa, Stephanie Pezard – Democratization in the Arab World: Prospects and Lessons from Around the Globe – Rand Corporation.
 S. P. HUNTINGTON, Lo scontro delle civiltà e il nuovo ordine mondiale, Milano, 1993, p. 17.
 S. OUNISSI, Ennahda from within: Islamists or “modern Democrats”? Rethinking Political Islam Series, February 2016, p. 7.
 See ibidem.
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