A Shining Light? Islamism and Democracy in Tunisia

A Tunisian soldier stands guard at a beach near Sousse, June 2015.


A Shining Light? Islamism and Democracy in Tunisia

Jason Pack and Andrea Brody-Barre

24 Jul 2015

Major questions were asked of the so-called 'success story' of the Arab Spring after the Sousse attack. But the contest between secularism and Islamism runs deep in Tunisia, write Jason Pack and Andrea Brody-Barre.

It has become common wisdom in Western capitals that Tunisia is the Arab Spring's only (partial) success story. And yet more needs to be done to protect the country from the storms that surround it and threaten to pulverise its vulnerable quasi-democratic edifice.

Amidst counter-revolution in Egypt and state collapse in Yemen, Libya and Syria, Tunisia remains a functioning state, governed by a democratic constitution. For its citizens, speech is freer, votes count more, and religious tolerance is greater than five years ago. And yet, due to events emanating from beyond the country's borders, it too may revert back to polarisation, repression, and dysfunction.

The 26 June attack that killed 38 European holidaymakers in Sousse brought Tunisia crashing back into international headlines. The attack was carried out by Tunisians trained in Libya. Both the attack itself and Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi's response laid bare the problematic relationships between secularists and Islamists of all stripes. Genuine security concerns that could threaten Tunisia's gains should not become fodder for political manoeuvrings that prove even more detrimental for the country's politics.

The response to Sousse showed the problematic relationships between secularists and Islamists.

Tunisia's struggle with Salafi-jihadi groups has intensified since the ousting of Ben Ali in 2011, which catalysed the Arab uprisings, though the foundations of the Tunisian-Libyan militant nexus, so concerning today, were laid in the 1980s. When Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, took the helm of the National Constituent Assembly in 2011, it was reluctant to curb Salafi-jihadi elements, perhaps hoping that political openness would entice other non-violent Salafis into its moderate Islamist fold.

The approach failed. Rather than uniting the Islamist camp, the past three years have seen it splinter, leading to jihadi attacks on mainstream Tunisian politicians. Ansar al-Sharia's violence and the Tunisian government's equally confrontational response mark an escalation that seems to be shaping the latter's increasingly antagonistic relationship with Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tunisia's only registered Salafi political party. A curtailing of rights, however, is not likely to address the factors that are breeding Salafis – violent or otherwise – and will in fact exacerbate the situation. Alienating groups does not eradicate them but can increase their radicalism and unpredictability, especially in an age where transnational networks are the modus operandi.

Recent developments in Libya provide a chance for Tunisia's regional environment to finally become marginally more stable. The 11 July UN-backed agreement among discordant Libyan factions offers a glimmer of hope. Despite the Islamist-aligned General National Congress' refusal to sign on, both the Tripoli and Tobruk governments stand to gain from collaboration in minimising the jihadi threat. All parties to the negotiations – not to mention Tunisia – would benefit from Libya's increased security and political unity. The UN-mediated deal is an important first step, but more international and regional support is needed.

British Prime Minister David Cameron recently mentioned the possibility of conducting air strikes in Libya as part of the broader offensive against militants. The US also appears to be willing to acknowledge that Tunisia requires additional assistance on the counterterror front. Reports allege that an American drone base, possibly intended for surveillance of ISIS activities in Libya, is in the early phase of development.

But while both actions are statements of support, they are not the type of assistance Tunisians require most. Given their genuine transition towards a multiparty democracy, the West should be lavishing them with economic assistance, training programmes, and educational packages; support which combats the diseases of disillusionment and frustration that fanned the revolution, not those which temporarily treat the symptoms of violence. Such a narrow counterterror approach will not strengthen the West's allies in the region or win the war of ideas.

Counter-extremism in Tunisia treats symptoms rather than root causes.

Domestic Tunisian reactions to the Sousse attack are also attempting to treat symptoms rather than root causes. The planned construction of a wall along the Libyan border is perhaps less concerning than the State of Emergency declared on 4 July. And yet, neither is likely to be able to halt any attacks should the jihadis be committed to carrying them out.

Rather, these measures represent a curtailing of Tunisians' freedoms. In their wake, Essebsi has taken on expanded powers, police and military have increased authority, and the government has moved to close down 80 mosques. Essebsi, who some see as a relic of the old guard – but who came to power with the blessing of Ennahda – could be on the verge of a crackdown that would open up dangerous and possibly irreversible fissures.

Interestingly, Ennahda remains a relatively acquiescent coalition partner. Despite claims that it used a light touch with Salafis when it was in power, the pendulum appears now to have swung the other way. After ceding power following the assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, Ennahda did not run a presidential candidate in the 2014 elections, and appears to be following the government's fairly hard-line anti-Salafi lead. While Ennahda's strategy of compliance may be intended to win over moderate Tunisians, it may do more harm than good, both to itself and to Tunisia's political culture.

Adamant secularists will likely not be convinced of Ennahda's commitment to democratic principles no matter how well it behaves. The party's self-conscious submissiveness may, however, also alienate potential voters who would support it if they felt it represented a genuinely moderate Islamism. With Ennahda complicit in any upcoming crackdown, its supporters may abandon it in favour of more hardline Islamist groups. Similarly, an atrophy of a functioning loyal opposition within a culture that privileges " conflict avoidance, rather than conflict resolution" threatens democratic gains in ways different from, but perhaps equally important as, the abuse of executive power. The result may be apathy (if politics seems like a game only for those at the top) or polarisation (if moderate voices refuse to engage in constructive discourse). The dream of a healthy participatory Tunisian democracy is at risk.

Faced with security risks that threaten the country's economic lifeblood and situated in an unstable region, external threats to Tunisia's nascent democracy cannot be wished away. However, the subtle threats from within may prove its undoing. Respect for constitutional limits is paramount, but so is fostering a political milieu that constructively engages – rather than crushing or co-opting – opposition, secular and Islamist alike.

This is primarily a Tunisian problem to solve and Western powers should be hesitant to mediate between Tunisia's rival parties or to set stringent conditions for access to outside support. Rather, the West should look at Tunisia as an embattled democracy in a geostrategic region. As such, we should be willing to offer the kind of political and financial support that is currently offered to countries like Ukraine and Jordan. Instead of rallying around walls and drone bases, Tunisians, Americans, and Europeans should work together to facilitate the kind of structural and systemic changes that will allow Tunisia to address its immediate security threats and consolidate its democratic gains.


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