Four months after Tunisia’s first freely contested elections, critics of the country’s Islamist-led government are sounding the alarm: Freedom, they charge, and a certain Tunisian “way of life” are under attack.
Their concerns mirror those of secularists and Western diplomats across the region, but they are especially poignant in Tunisia. Not only was Tunisia the starting point of last year’s Arab revolts, but it had one of the most settled secular traditions in the region and perhaps the best prospects for realizing a liberal democracy.
The largest Islamist party — En-Nahda — currently governs with the two main, secular-leaning parties: the Congress for the Republic party (or CPR) and Ettakatol. This ruling “troika” is often cited as an indication of a strong, moderate center in the body politic of the country, something less evident in nearby Libya or Egypt.
Recent events, however — including the arrest and beating of several prominent secular journalists, visits by controversial Muslim clerics and sporadic clashes between En-Nahda supporters and trade unionists — have triggered accusations that the troika has already gone radically off track. The government, these people say, is endangering the country’s longstanding attachment to modernity, as well as the original goals of last year’s revolution that ended decades of dictatorship under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
“The revolution is going backward,” said the headline on a recent front-page editorial in the daily At-Tounissia.
The newspaper has reason to be upset. Last month, two At-Tounissia editors and its publisher were arrested after the newspaper re-published on its front page a photograph that had earlier appeared in a Germany daily, of a Tunisian soccer star embracing his semi-nude girlfriend.
Although the At-Tounissia staff were subsequently released pending trial (a ruling in the case is expected March 8), the arrests were seen by government critics as a major turning point for the country.
“We now face a difficult test for our colleagues and the protectors of freedoms, as well as for the still-incomplete revolution and all of the reluctant promises,” the At-Tounissia editorial said. The “promises” referred to reassuring statements by Islamist leaders that they wouldn’t move against personal liberties.
Echoing the increasingly vitriolic debate in Tunisia, the newspaper’s editors went on to warn those who applauded the arrests that “you are not entitled to offer moral lessons after you licked the shoes of your masters during the previous era. The free will remain free and the slaves will always emulate their butchers.”
Writing in the Saudi-owned, London-based Al Hayat newspaper, journalist Rana al-Sabbaghelaborated on another theme that has become a staple of Tunisian media coverage: the rise of ultra-conservative Muslims known as Salafists, some of whom are linked to Gulf States such asSaudi Arabia and Qatar, and a tiny but worrying minority of whom are linked to al-Qaeda.
“Tunisia,” she wrote, “is being swept by a Salafi wave that has begun to threaten secular forces and personal freedoms in the shadow of a coalition government led by the Islamic En-Nahda Party, which is seeking to influence the shape of a new constitution ahead of parliamentary elections that will allow it to monopolize power.”
Tunisia’s political parties are drafting a new constitution that would replace the Ben Ali-era document that all sides seem to agree must be reworked in advance of elections in 2013.
Concerns have mounted among secularists that En-Nahda — and even its troika partners — may be adopting a more dogmatic approach to the role that Islam should play in shaping laws and society.
Sabbagh cited last month’s visit to Tunisia by Egyptian Salafist preacher Wajdi Ghanim as evidence of this Salafist wave. According to news reports, Ghanim was greeted by tens of thousands of Tunisians around the country. The Egyptian cleric supports female circumcision and other religious practices that have been rare in Tunisia.
Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s president and the current head of the CPR, sought to dismiss the importance of Ghanim, describing him as a “microbe.”
But Sabbagh saw that dismissal as being undermined when Habib Ellouz, a constituent assembly deputy and senior En-Nahda official, was spotted with Ghanim. Worse, wrote Sabbagh, En-Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi said the problem wasn’t the preacher’s visit, but coverage of it by the media, which he said was fomenting civil strife.
In the left-wing, Beirut-based daily Al-Akhbar, Turkish columnist Ece Temelkuran wrote that Tunisia’s secularists were losing the debate because they were focused on religious references — an argument that “is a dead end, where only the Sunni Muslim can walk away alive.”
“One should admit,” Temelkuran continued, “that in countries where the majority are believers in Islam, it is extremely hard to argue with a moderate Islamic government that is modern-looking and committed to neo-liberalism. It is not only that your country’s ordinary people can easily be turned against you, but also almost the whole world that adopted the American style of democracy will leave you alone with your desperate fate,” because Islamists won the elections.
Not everyone believes Islamists are about to sweep the stage in Tunisia. Columnist Sateh Noureddine wrote in the leftist, Beirut-base daily As-Safir, that “the ruling En-Nahda movement will not be able to produce a new tyranny, because the organization will not be able to bear this and society, which has just regained its freedom, will not accept it, even if some of its sheikhs aspire for such an outcome.”
There will surely be a continued search for a “pretext to contain Tunisia’s loud political life,” Noureddine added, although he warned that secularists would damage their own cause by pushing too far.
“This life,” he said, “is also flawed by a liberal radicalism that is as bad as Islamic radicalism and is calling for sex, nudity and even drugs out of spite.”
On this point, Noureddine was joined by a Tunisian commentator who criticized At-Tounissia for having run the racy photo on its front page during a particularly heated period.
“To be quite honest,” wrote Douja Mamelouk on the website Tunis-Live, “all that has come out of this incident of moral policing is the aggrandizement of mediocrity. Surely, this incident is calling into question the freedom of press under the new interim government. But it is also encouraging the `tabloidization’ of the press.”
For the widely circulated Tunisian daily As-Sabah, the debate over the future course of the country might actually be a positive sign.
Referring to Marzouki’s challenge to debate Salafists live on television (following criticism of his “microbe” comment), the paper said: “It reveals a new qualitative and unprecedented inclination affecting the way the authorities deal with social and ideological `phenomena,’ especially the ones described as being extremist. This inclination contradicts the terrifying and hideous security methods that were mastered by the Arab dictatorships throughout the last five decades,” and especially by Ben Ali’s regime.
In the end, the paper said, Tunisians will have to learn to live with an array of differences that had been submerged for so long, “rising above narrow ideological and partisan calculations and ending the accusations of betrayal, apostasy and mudslinging.”
That’s hard to do anywhere, but if Tunisia can’t get it right, it’s going to be much more difficult for other Middle Eastern states.