At Large

Looking at Tunisia

How Islamist will it become?

By 10.18.12

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A country noteworthy in the region for the establishment of a thoroughly liberal education system under Habib Bourghuiba, Tunisia has often been held up as a cause for optimism in the Arab Spring. Even as it was apparent that the Islamist an-Nahda was gaining ground in the run-up to the elections for the Constituent Assembly, analysts were predicting that the party would gain only 20% of the seats. In fact, an-Nahda took 40% of them, and so as the party holding the plurality, its members were given the opportunity to take the leading role in government. Hence the current prime minister is the Islamist Hamadi Jebali. On the other hand, President Moncef Marzouki is clearly a secularist.

Because the majority of Tunisians voted for non-Islamist parties and because there is indeed a considerable secular and liberal constituency in the country, it has been argued that an-Nahda may choose to play nice and not try to impose an Islamist agenda.

Evidence highlighted for this viewpoint mainly points to the party's refusal in March to name Islamic law in the proposed new constitution, responding to a proposal by the third-largest party -- the "Popular List" -- to name Islam as the key source of legislation in the first article of the constitution. Rachid al-Ghannouchi -- an-Nahda's leader -- explained the reasoning as follows at a conference in the party's headquarters in Tunisia: "We saw that Tunisians were divided over the issue of sharia. We don't want Tunisian society to be split because the revolution can only succeed with national unity."

Yet cautious as an-Nahda's approach may be, it does not wish to abandon its Islamist roots. In August it emerged that the party had introduced a draft law to the Constituent Assembly to criminalize blasphemy with a sentence of up to two years for conviction and four years for repeat offenses. This followed from the arrest and conviction in May -- with a fine of $1500 as punishment -- of a Tunisian TV owner for broadcasting the film Persepolis, deemed blasphemous for a scene representing God, and a 7.5-year sentence- subsequently upheld by an appeals court -- for a man convicted of blasphemy for posting cartoons of Mohammed online.

Human rights watchdogs have also expressed concern over blows to press freedom in the country, such that even the UN High Commissionership for Human Rights has urged the Tunisian government to take measures to protect freedom of speech.

Indeed, journalists working for the country's state-run TV channels have protested government appointments of media directors without consultation of the staff, such as the appointment of aofti Touati -- former director of the Tunisian security services -- as head of the Dar Assabah media group. Reporters Without Borders has also noted that there have been at least 130 attacks on press freedom in 2012 so far, with 84 cases entailing "direct physical attacks on journalists."

These trends in turn lead to the problem of Salafist rampages in the country, including attacks on hotels that serve alcohol and on a Sufi music festival just south of Tunis back in August. Particularly revealing is the case of a French politician of Tunisian descent -- Jamel Gharbi -- who went to his home country over the summer with his wife and daughter for a holiday. Vacationing in Bizerte in northern Tunisia, he cut short the holiday after being attacked in the streets of the town by a Salafist mob angered by the fact that his wife and daughter were wearing shorts and T-shirts. Being beaten with batons and sticks, Gharbi just managed to escape, and as he indicated to Le Figaro, "la police était inexistante" ("the police was non-existent"). He justifiably warned of being at the mercy of Salafists outside the tourist resorts.

The Tunisian police did take action to defend the U.S. embassy when it came under assault by Salafist protestors denouncing the "Innocence of Muslims" film. What is clear is that an-Nahda is unwilling to confront the Salafists insofar as they are not perceived to pose a direct threat to their power: hence the absence of the police to deal with Salafists mobs like the one that attacked Gharbi.

In any event, the an-Nahda leadership's condemnation of the U.S. embassy attacks, the warning raised by Marzouki that there may be some 3,000 active Islamist militants in Tunisia, and the active police search for the perpetrators of the U.S. embassy attacks, have only convinced the Salafists -- who appear to be a primarily youthful constituent- that an-Nahda is not Islamic enough for them. In an-Nahda itself, there is also a generational divide as some of the younger members call for reconciliation with the Salafists, lest an-Nahda be perceived in their eyes as a secular party. Even so, as Monica Marks indicated to Time, most of the Salafists voted for an-Nahda and the latter is likely to lose those Salafists' support come the next elections for being perceived as too moderate and pro-Western. This may partly explain the reported drop in approval for an-Nahda as indicated by recent polling data and even acknowledged by Rachid al-Ghannouchi: the majority of Tunisians expressed dissatisfaction (55%) with the an-Nahda-led government's performance, and at a crucial time no less, for the National Transitional Council that is to work on issues like the new constitution and organizing the upcoming elections for March 2013.
In sum, it seems reasonable to predict that an-Nahda -- torn between the existence of a considerable liberal and secular opposition, center-left coalition allies, and a rising Salafist contingent with which many of the party's youth sympathizes (the Salafist hostility to an-Nahda notwithstanding) -- will see its voting bloc considerably reduced in the next elections, with the rise of a new Salafist political bloc probably taking many or most of those seats to be lost by an-Nahda.

Even if an-Nahda ends up leading the next Tunisian government, it seems to me most likely that the party will become very much like Iraq's Islamic Dawa Party vis-à-vis implementing an Islamist agenda. That is, an-Nahda will not abandon its Islamist roots and will still aim to advance it in some respects (e.g. the proposed blasphemy law and monopolizing control of the press) but for want of trying to please everyone to a degree, there will not be a consistent or thorough program of implementation. Already we may be seeing signs of this tendency in the agreement to drop an-Nahda's original proposal to include a clause on blasphemy in the constitution.

In the end, an-Nahda may descend into irrelevance much sooner than we may realize, especially if members of the youth movement become dissatisfied and decide to join with the Salafists, who are definitely worth watching in the medium and long-run.

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About the Author
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org.