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Arab Spring or Islamic State – The Case of Tunisia

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  • March 31, 2015

    One day in December 2010, twenty-six year old Tarek Mohamed Bouazizi, a jobless youth, succumbed to despair and immolated himself. Fortuitously, the event was captured on Facebook, discovered by al-Jazeera’s Mubasahr television and aired on the network. The consequences were incendiary: fuelled by the electronic media, massive protests broke out. In response, the authorities blocked websites and arrested online activists. Other activists took over and ensured that the tweets, videos and photographs reached the social media through proxy sites. A new method of mass political protest came into vogue.

    As protest spread, the initial grievance against unemployment and corruption was transformed into a demand for political change – the removal of President Zainul Abedin Ben Ali and the system he presided over. He had been in power for 23 years, and the entire economic elite of the country, it was claimed, was related to him by blood or marriage! The scale of civil unrest persuaded the Tunisian Army to advise the President to go into exile. Had the mould of ‘military intervention in support of authoritarian elite’ cracked? The Tunisian example became contagious – people in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and elsewhere in the Arab world took ‘to the street’ to seek political change. This was the birth of the Arab Spring. But it turned out to be short-lived and was replaced by ‘Islamic resurgence’ – a divisive development whose lethal consequences have come to the fore.

    Ben Ali’s departure on 26 January 2011 did not end the protest; demonstrators wanted the whole system to change. Prime Minister Mohammad Ghannouchi was made to resign and replaced by Beiji Caid el Sebsi, with the mandate to hold elections to a constituent assembly, which would revise the constitution and supervise the executive (an innovation in political life in the Arab world).

    Elections & New Constitution

    The elections to the Constituent Assembly were held in October 2011. It became a contest between the ruling party and Ennahda, which had been banned for its Islamic links by the Ben Ali government. With the change in regime, it was legalized and its leader, Rachid Ghanouchi, returned from a 20-year exile. As expected, Ennahda emerged as the strongest party with 37 per cent of the vote. The Assembly elected Moncef Marzouki of the then ruling party as President and Hamadi Jebali of Ennahda as Prime Minister.
    Rachid Ghanouchi advocated moderate Islamism, along the same lines as the ruling Freedom & Justice Party in Turkey. But the secular and leftist elements were not convinced: the gulf between the urban Francophile elite and the majority Arabic speaking populace made Ennahda’s task more difficult. It needed to compromise. Freedom enjoyed by women in Tunisia became the test case.

    Women’s Rights

    Under the previous regime, women enjoyed more freedom than anywhere else in the Arab world – polygamy was banned and women could seek divorce on equal terms with men. The draft constitution mentioned “complementarity” between men and women in the family. When this was vigorously contested by women’s groups, Ennahda agreed to replace the word with “equality”. Said Ferjani, a politbureau member of Ennahda, asserted: “the party is “not looking to impose a lifestyle on anyone, we are here to defend freedom.”

    Islamists

    Simultaneously, the hard-line Islamists demanded the introduction of Sharia and clashed with the security forces on several occasions in 2012. In 2013, at least one person was killed in clashes between police and Salafi Islamists of the Ansar al-Sharia group in Tunis where it was holding a meeting. Police also clashed with protesters in Kairouan, a historic city near Tunis. Assassination of opposition politicians – Chokri Belaid, an anti-Islamist in February 2013 and opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi in July the same year, prompted demonstrations and a general strike, and calls for the government to resign.

    Constitution and new government

    The adoption of the new constitution was followed by the resignation of the Ennahda-led government. A caretaker government of independent figures was formed with the mandate to organise fresh elections under the new constitution. Nidaa Tounes, a newly organized party that included secularists, trade unionists and liberals, emerged as the largest party in the parliamentary elections held in October 2014. In December 2014, Nidaa Tounes candidate Beji Caid Essebsi was elected as president defeating the incumbent Moncef Marzouki.

    President Essebsi and his party mark less of a break with the old system. He has been prominent in politics for more than half a century, and has served two autocratic rulers – Habib Bourguiba, leader of the freedom struggle against French colonial rule, and Zainul Abedin Ben Ali, the recently deposed president. Despite that, he won support from a cross-section of voters.

    "Mr Essebsi and his party have demonstrated that a political party can change its opinion and attitudes," commented Meherzia Labidi, one of Ennahda's most senior members of parliament. "I hope that both he and his party understand that whoever is governing Tunisia shall respect the constitution. It's the achievement of all Tunisian people," she added. But there are powerful dissenters.

    Extremists

    The representative character of the new government has not deterred the extremists from challenging the authority of the government. The recent attack on the Bardo museum (housed in a 15th century palace) and killing of foreign tourists has demonstrated that the challenge from the hardline Islamists remains. The choice of this target is similar to the destruction of ancient sites and artefacts in Iraq by the Islamic State extremists.

    Tunisians form the largest national group among Islamic State volunteers operating in Syria and Iraq. Many young recruits receive training in neighbouring Libya, where no one is in total control. In January 2015, Tunisian Minister of Interior Lotfi Ben Jeddou admitted that 9,000 Tunisians, banned from travelling to Syria, were inadequately monitored. “Counter terrorism efforts remain insufficient within both the society and the cyberspace,” he indicated. Slaheddine Ben Frai, a sociologist, referred to the recruitment of youth especially in the age group of 13 to 17: “Takfiri” groups made use of preaching tents and mosques to attract youths, enclosed areas such as prisons were also favourable spaces for recruitment.

    Economy

    In its region, Tunisia is relatively well-developed economically and has benefitted from links to the European Union (EU). But the prolonged recession in the global and EU markets impacted the Tunisian economy adversely: one consequence was high unemployment, which was what had triggered the protest leading to the change of regime. The improving international economic outlook should have beneficial effect. For social peace and, specifically, the campaign against the extremists, it is imperative to bridge the economic gulf between the “urban Francophile elite and majority Arabic speaking populace.”
    Ambassador S.K. Bhutani is a retired diplomat with a wide-ranging expertise on the Middle East. He had served as Ambassador to Egypt in the late 1980s.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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