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As Tunisia's Ennahda falters, supporters wonder if it can handle the heat

Before revolution toppled Tunisia’s dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Ghada Mtiri’s head scarf could get her into trouble with the police. Afterward, she campaigned for one of his chief victims, the moderate Islamist Ennahda (Al Nahda) party.

For her, Ennahda has stood for democracy, respect for religion, and the idea that “no one person can oppress another,” she says.

Now the party is under fire for what critics call a dismal leadership record. The murder last week of an opposition political leader ignited a smoldering crisis over how to replace a discredited cabinet – and how to get the original Arab Spring country back on track.

Tunisia has moved steadily toward democracy since Mr. Ben Ali’s departure in January 2011. But last week’s killing unleashed anger over what many call the government’s failure to ensure security and prosperity.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, from Ennahda, has announced a plan for a new cabinet of technocrats, and is asking for the backing of both the parties in government and those in the opposition. If he does not get enough parties to support his proposal, he says he will step down.

For Mtiri and other young Tunisians who rallied to Ennahda's banner, the crisis is an opportunity to reflect on the progress, setbacks, and lessons of the past two years.

“This phase is not for a single party,” she says. “This phase is for leaving aside the question of identity and building institutions.”

An end to persecution

Mtiri is a young woman with an easy smile from Sidi Hassine, a working-class district of the capital. In 2009, while studying at the Ecole National d’Ingénieurs de Tunis, she began wearing an Islamic head scarf.

It was a risky move. Ben Ali’s regime forbade the head scarf in state institutions and harassed women who wore it. Soon enough, Mtiri was stopped by police near her engineering school.

“What are you doing here?” a policeman asked. Mtiri replied that she was a student.

“You’re cultured, then,” said the policeman. Then he indicated her head scarf. “Why do you wear that thing?”

“Because I believe in it,” Mtiri said.

Two years later, Ben Ali was toppled by a wave of protests. Overnight, political parties – some already existing, many new – began readying to compete in Tunisia’s first free elections.

Mtiri had already heard of Ennahda. After Ben Ali’s departure, the party’s pledge to work with secularists while promoting an Arab-Muslim identity won her support.

“I will no longer accept being rejected because I wear a head scarf in my own country, or being told my ideas are backward,” she says.

An experiment in coexistence

In 2011, Mtiri campaigned door-to-door for Ennahda in Sidi Hassine with other young activists. Among them were Mohamed Salah Chebbi, then studying audiovisual technology, and Abdelhamid Hamadi, who headed the youth section of Ennahda's local office.

Ennahda won the October 2011 elections and formed a coalition government with two secularist parties that has been seen as an experiment in powersharing.

“The message is that two societal projects can coexist,” says Mr. Chebbi, a jovial young man with curly chestnut hair. “If that experiment succeeds, the Tunisian revolution will succeed.”

But today, many in Tunisia now question that government’s ability to run the country. Concerns have shifted lately from ideology to sheer competence.

Opposition parties accuse the government of failing to discipline violent groups, from hard-line Salafi Muslims to rowdy progovernment demonstrators called the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution.

Ordinary Tunisians complain of a malaise that has deepened since Ben Ali’s removal. Uncertainty has frightened investors and tourists. Unemployment shot to 19 percent in 2011 and remains at around 17 percent – with youth and rural regions hit even harder.

Meanwhile, Ennahda's coalition partners, the Congrès pour la République (CPR) and Ettakatol parties, have accused it of hoarding power. Ennahda has resisted their demand since last summer that it relinquish key ministries.

No going back

Frustrations boiled over on Feb. 6, after an unknown assailant shot and killed Chokri Belaid, an opposition party leader, as he left his house. Thousands hit the streets in protest, and even more attended Mr. Belaid’s funeral on Feb. 8. Some blamed the government for his death, and many called for its removal.

Now, parties are debating the way forward. Some opposition parties, plus Ettakatol, support Prime Minister Jebali’s proposal. But CPR, as well as his own party, Ennahda, reject it, signaling splits both within Ennahda and the coalition it leads.

For activists like Mtiri, Chebbi, and Mr. Hamadi, the future of a cause that won their devotion is now in question.

“I’m optimistic,” says Hamadi, a soft-spoken young man who served as a campaign organizer in Sidi Hassine. “It’s impossible for us to go backward.”

Like Mtiri and Chebbi, he argues that Ennahda and its partners should govern because they won elections and – thanks to a history of persecution by Ben Ali – embody the struggle to bring down his regime.

All three young activists want the government to push through controversial legislation that would bar thousands of regime figures and members of Ben Ali’s party, the now-banned Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD), from politics.

Worry that a Ben Ali-like mentality may linger among some Tunisians is part of what gives Chebbi pause.

“On one hand, we’re at an impasse, and Jebali’s proposal for a technocrat government could be a solution,” he says. “On the other, technocrats might have had a history with the RCD.”

Both government and opposition parties agree that the current cabinet must go. The fortunes of Ennahda and the coalition it has led are murkier. Whatever happens, says Mtiri, they should at least have learned a lesson.

“That internal conflict brings catastrophic results for our revolution,” she says. “They must work together to respond to the demands of the people.”

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