Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Egypt this is not: Tunisia stays calm as it debates democracy

Tunisia’s political camps are locked in a battle over the ruling Islamist party’s mandate to lead – but it remains a war of words only.

In Tunisia, even the most bitter disputes have a certain civility. At an ongoing sit-in by rival protesters outside the constituent assembly in Tunis, fiery slogans are offset by singing, and both police and popcorn vendors look on. 

The festive atmosphere belies the fact that Tunisia’s two main political camps –  the ruling Islamist Ennahda party and its allies and a collection of broadly secularist opposition parties – are locked in a tense, perhaps decisive standoff over the future of Tunisia’s democratic transition.

The murder last week of an opposition leader prompted dozens of opposition politicians to suspend their membership in the constituent assembly, which is just weeks away from finalizing a new constitution. Now opposition parties want the government, and maybe even the assembly, dissolved.

Both camps distrust each other and trade accusations of betraying the 2011 revolution that ended five decades of dictatorship. But, if their rhetoric is to be believed, they want essentially the same things: democracy, free speech, and respect for human rights. 

Article continues after advertisement

The dispute could set back political progress in a country widely seen as the best hope for Arab democracy. But Tunisians’ capacity for restraint has been their saving grace in the past, and could be again.

Losing control

Both Ennahda and its rivals claim deep roots in Tunisia, a Sunni Muslim country that has also been shaped by French colonialism and its secularist first president, Habib Bourguiba. Tunisians have known oppression, but not large-scale bloodshed, and are generally intolerant of violence.

Debate, however, can be fierce. The overthrow of Mr. Bourguiba’s successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, unleashed a culture war over the role of religion in public life. Ennahda swept elections on a pledge to build democracy while respecting Islam, and leads a coalition government with two secularist parties.

But today many blame Ennahda for persistent economic malaise, and the party’s main rival, the secularist Nidaa Tounes, is growing in popularity. Opposition parties accuse Ennahda of coddling the hardline Salafi movement, some of whose members have engaged in political violence. 

After the February murder of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, the opposition demanded that the government step down. The fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government last month encouraged Tunisian secularists to renew their call. 

The killing last week of another opposition leader, Mohamed Brahmi, pushed anger to fever pitch. At least 60 members of the 217-seat assembly have suspended their membership in protest, according to Al Bawsala, an NGO that monitors assembly activity, while rival camps of demonstrators maintain sit-ins outside the assembly building.

What constitutes a democracy?

Mahmoud Ben Romdhane, a member of Nidaa Tounes’ executive committee, describes Tunisia as one front in a regional struggle against Islamists looking to exploit the Arab Spring uprisings. He says that in such circumstances, people power is a valid way to bring change.

“Elections are an expression of the people’s will, but not the only expression,” he says. “Demonstrations, where they are extremely strong, have at least as much power as ballots.”

Sami Triki, a member of Ennahda’s political bureau, says the party is committed to democracy and has made key concessions to the opposition – notably refraining from trying to cite Islamic sharia in the new constitution and dropping demands for a purely parliamentary system.

Article continues after advertisement

He worries that a secularist bent toward French-style laicité – the strict exclusion of religion from public life – makes opposition parties hostile to Islam. (Mr. Ben Romdhane says this is not the case.) And he calls attempts to bring down the government an assault on democratic legitimacy. While Ennahda is not part of the Muslim Brotherhood, Triki’s argument mirrors that of many Muslim Brotherhood officials in Egypt. 

“Ennahda has committed mistakes, but not crimes,” he says. “It’s not logical to change the government every time a country has a problem. And who can dissolve the assembly? It’s elected.”

Room for maneuvering

For Nadia Châabane, a representative from the opposition Al Massar party who is boycotting the assembly, Triki’s argument rings hollow. She says both the assembly and government failed to uphold pledges not to exceed one year in power.

“Most of us who have withdrawn were saying we must leave after a year,” she said, holding vigil on Tuesday night at the opposition protest. “The [government parties] always voted against it.”

Yet beneath the political fray, she says, Tunisians are cut from a single cloth.

“We all reject corruption and abuse of power, and we’re all Arabs and Muslims, even them”, says Ibrahim Haddad, a middle-aged laborer and government supporters, nodding toward the opposition lines. “We need the assembly to finish the constitution. Of 100 meters, we’ve already come 80.”

Behind the bluster, some political forces indicate there is room for compromise. Ennahda is willing to negotiate on a national unity government, says Triki. And according to Ben Romdhane, Nidaa Tounes could accept the assembly staying in place if its mandate was strictly limited to completing the constitution quickly.

At the opposition protest, a university student named Marouan Ksaybi is scooping popcorn from his cart into paper bags for a line of customers. He supports the protest, and overall he is hopeful.

If Tunisians have a failing, he says, “it’s that sometimes we don’t understand one another.”