The word revolution is so casually bandied about these days that it is quickly losing all meaning. Nevertheless real revolutions still happen. Tunisia’s is a case in point. Though the pundits realize this only now, as early as January 2011, it was evident that Tunisia was undergoing a revolution, whereas Egypt and Yemen were merely recycling their ailing dictators for new ones. The Tunisian revolt was grounded in a workers’ struggle. In addition, Tunisia lacked a corrupting economy dependent on oil and a fat military indebted to the West. Thus we find Tunisia right on track in its revolution. Its leading Islamist party, Ennahdha (Renaissance) is moderate, representative, and getting duly recognized as a force that had opposed the dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The following two articles describe the hopeful atmosphere in Tunisia as it nears its elections for a Constitutional Assembly.
Dady Chery, Editor
Tunisia’s Evolutionary Revolution
By Fabrizio Tassinari and Rasmus Alenius Boserup
Project Syndicate via Al Jazeera
TUNIS – Ten months after the collapse of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime, Tunisia has produced a remarkable balancing act between the revolutionary urge for change and a pragmatic need for continuity. With elections for a constitutional assembly due to take place on October 23, the country that ignited the “Arab Awakening” is emerging as a regional paradigm for a stable democratic transition.
A number of preconditions have smoothed Tunisia’s path. Whereas Egypt struggles with the need to assert civilian control over the military, the Tunisian army has stayed out of politics. And, in contrast to Libya, the Tunisian population never took up arms during the protests. The economy does not run on hydrocarbons. And, notwithstanding serious inequalities between Tunisia’s littoral and inland areas, this small country of 10 million people is, according to the World Bank, an upper-middle-income economy.
Above all, civil institutions have proven to be resilient. A “Higher Council,” made up of notables of different backgrounds and political orientations, has been established to steer the transition. For all of the previous regime’s misdeeds, Tunisians are proud of their country’s liberal institutions, such as women’s rights and a progressive family code, adopted in 1956. Betraying some nostalgia, senior members of the administration speak privately of a “remarkable continuity” in the Tunisian transition.
But overall stability has not prevented cracks from emerging in more contentious areas. The security sector remains largely unreformed. The rough, transitional justice that often follows a change of regime has not taken place, at least not yet. In what is arguably the most striking change since the fall of Ben Ali, Tunisia has witnessed the swift rise of an Islamist movement that was banned from the country for decades.
The ascent of Ennahdha (Renaissance), the leading Islamist party, is less a reflection of latent ideological support among a newly liberated people than it is a testament to the party’s remarkable ability to fill the post-revolutionary political vacuum. Since January, Ennahdha has opened more than 200 offices. Scores of volunteers are deployed in electoral campaigning at a grassroots, door-to-door level. The party’s imposing headquarters in the suburbs of Tunis symbolize its position as the most effective political operation in the country by far.
While opponents ominously recall the involvement of party cadres in the deadly bombings of tourist targets in 1991, Ennahdha has gone to some lengths to appease its critics. Its electoral program calls for constitutionalism, separation of powers, citizenship-based rights, and the protection of women’s rights. Adherence to such tenets would place Ennahdha in the same league of moderate Islamist parties as the Turkey’s Justice and Development Party and its Moroccan counterpart.
Much like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahdha will have to marginalize the more militant fringes of Islamist politics, such as the salafis – and is likely to lose some of its supporters in the process. But Ennahdha’s ambition to win over – and, ultimately, stably occupy – the mainstream of Tunisia’s democratic politics requires nothing less.
There is no silver bullet to democratization. In Algeria in 1991, it was civil-society activists who called for a military intervention against the Islamists; in Tunisia in 2011, all political actors seem to accept that the Islamists’ democratic credentials must be tested through elections, and that the outcome must be respected. If Islamists are to be brought into the democratic fold and encouraged to move towards the political mainstream by getting their hands dirty in the give-and-take of day-to-day politics, then Tunisia may be the right place to try it.
Moreover, if there is such a thing as a Tunisian “model” of democratic revolution, its distinctiveness consists in its evolutionary character: the state administration has continued to function, and a cross-party consensus has emerged around basic social and economic policies. The middle class has taken charge, while a long-repressed Islamist contender has entered the fray of electoral politics.
Once a corrupt regime is removed, the road ahead often proves bumpy, as has been true in all of the countries affected by the Arab Awakening. But in Tunisia, what has also emerged is a lively nascent democracy that deserves the West’s support.
Source: Project Syndicate via Al Jazeera. | Fabrizio Tassinari is Head of Foreign Policy and EU Studies at the Danish Institute for International Studies. He is the author of Why Europe Fears Its Neighbors. | Rasmus Alenius Boserup is a researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies.
Islamists Rise Uncertainly After Repression
By Jake Lippincott
TUNIS – Aggressively repressed and forced underground by the recently deposed dictator Zine Abadine Ben Ali, the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahdha is poised to become the dominant force in Tunisian politics.
Since the dictator was ousted in an uprising last January, dozens of political parties have been trying to build support. However, thanks in large part to the enthusiastic support of the working class and residents of the disfranchised western regions of the country, Ennahdha now dominates opinion polls.
Its supporters hail party members’ reputation for honesty, connections to charitable organisations and for their tenacious opposition to the former dictator. Furthermore, Ennahdha’s official platform is quite moderate, and supporters say the party has more in common with a European Christian democratic party than with the theocratic dictatorships that rule many Muslim nations.
But due to the authoritarian nature of the old regime, parties contesting the Oct. 23 election have practically no experience governing, and no one knows what to expect from Ennahdha or their rivals. Their expected success has been met with fear and anger amongst members of Tunisia’s secular, coastal elite.
Ben Ali saw all forms of political Islam as a threat to his power. His secret police arrested thousands of activists and effectively banned working women from wearing the headscarf, and men from growing long beards.
While members of the coastal elite and professional classes generally supported the January revolution, they also tend to share the passionately secular attitudes of the former regime, and seem genuinely surprised that so many of their fellow Tunisians support an explicitly Islamic party.
Furthermore, Ennahdha’s populism and commitment to end decades of regional disparity potentially threatens the relative privilege that they enjoyed under the former regime.
A visit to the party’s headquarters sheds some light on the reasons for Ennahdha’s popularity. The first floor is filled with friendly, young campaign workers and volunteers. The women wear various styles of hijab, and the men dress in casual style. They mingle freely with visitors, trading jokes and small talk in Tunisian Arabic. This hospitality is not surprising, and is deeply ingrained in Tunisian society.
The atmosphere at the headquarters of Ennahdha’s main rival, the secular Parti Democrate Progressiste (PDP), is noticeably different.
The PDP members are polite and articulate, but the atmosphere is much less familial and traditional, and more corporate and western. The business suits and the campaign posters bearing the faces of the PDP’s leaders bring to mind a slick western political campaign or, the formal, westernised stamp of the former regime.
The PDP was never banned by Ben Ali, but its members were harassed and repressed. Despite this, the PDP has been struggling with the perception that they are the unofficial successors of Ben Ali’s former ruling party, the Rassemblement Consitutionel Democratique (RCD). Their electoral base is expected to be in the coastal cities that benefited most from the old government.
While the PDP’s enemies seek to paint them as too close to the corruption and elitism of the old regime, Ennahdha’s enemies make the accusation that the professed moderation of the party is only a façade, and that if elected they will try to transform Tunisia into a theocracy similar to Iran or Saudi Arabia.
Najma Kousri, a 20-year-old law student living in Tunis expresses some common concerns about Ennahdha. Kousri, who considers herself a progressive feminist and plans to vote for a small, leftist party, acknowledges that Ennahdha has long had a significant following in Tunisia.
“Ennahdha cannot be considered a direct threat to the democratic transition in Tunisia…the real threat is what remains of the old dictatorial system,”
she tells IPS. But she says they are
“double-faced” and could “prove to be a long-term threat.”
Ennahdha calls such accusations unfair.
“We have to protect the majority and protect the minority, whether they are with faith, with no faith, whatever,”
Feyjani Sayed, a member of Ennahdha’s political office tells IPS.
Furthermore, while Ennahdha is often credited by Tunisians for ending the ban on the hijab, Sayed says the party has no plans to make the hijab mandatory, and adds that the party’s moderation is a reason for its success.
“The element of religiosity could be an element of popularity…in general Tunisians like that, but they don’t want to over-emphasise that.”
In fact, despite the furore over Ennahdha’s ascendancy, compared to the secular PDP, their proposed platform has more similarities then differences. Economically both advocate what Sayed calls a “social free market”, and intend to develop infrastructure in the country’s troubled west in order to encourage investment and create jobs. Both parties also emphasise the importance of creating sustainable, transparent democratic institutions.
Sayed acknowledges that the election is not so much a contest of platforms as it is one of reputations and expectations.
“Some differences might be obvious and some things might have to do with the delivery…to which extent the different parties can deliver to the people, to what extent they are trustworthy.”
Many Tunisians respect Ennahdha’s decades of opposition to the former dictator.
“We were the main force that stood against Ben Ali…we paid the heaviest price,” says Sayed.
Finally, while Ennahdha’s policies don’t particularly set them apart, their overt references to the Quran and invocation of traditional values appeal to a deep conservative current that runs through Tunisian society. For those more secular Tunisians who are alienated by Ennahdha’s rhetoric and fear they will grow more radical once they gain power, Sayed says
“they have to wait and see…they should be protected, they should be respected… we are not seeking their love.”
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