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Forecast for Tunisia

As hopes fade for an Arab Spring, the country where it all started remains sunny—but for how long?

Michael J. Totten
May 15, 2012
Café Delices in the Tunis suburb of Sidi Bou Said.(Michael J. Totten)
Café Delices in the Tunis suburb of Sidi Bou Said.(Michael J. Totten)

It’s no longer news that the Arab Spring has become unseasonably chilly. The Syrian revolution began as a nonviolent protest movement but is rapidly degenerating into a civil war. Libya is cracking up into a fragmented state controlled by hostile militias. And Egypt is ruled by the same Nasserist military dictatorship that seized power in 1952. (If the army there does step aside, don’t get excited: In last year’s election, two-thirds of Egyptians voted for Islamists—and a third of those chose the totalitarian Salafists, the ideological brethren of Osama Bin Laden.)

For a dash of optimism, though, one could do worse than to look to Libya’s North African neighbor to the west: Tunisia, the country actually responsible for kicking off this season of Arab revolutions. And if current trends in the region persist, it may be the only country of the Arab Spring that doesn’t slip back into winter.

It all started in the economically depressed town of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010, when a fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi poured gasoline over his head and set himself on fire in front of city hall. Too cash-strapped to purchase a license, he plunged into despair when a municipal employee confiscated his scale and made it all but impossible for him to eke out even the meagerest living. Bouazizi’s suicide galvanized the locals into an uprising that swept across the countryside and eventually reached the capital, Tunis, where, just four weeks later, it toppled the crooked and authoritarian regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Months of precarious instability followed, but hopes were raised, too. Interim leader Fouad Mebazaa promised “a better political life which will include democracy, plurality, and active participation for all the children of Tunis.” Genuinely free and fair elections were held in October 2011.

As in Egypt, more than 100 political parties stood for election. Also as in Egypt, the Islamists were the best organized. Ennahda, a party led by radical activist Rached Ghannouchi, who spent 23 years in exile in Britain, won 42 percent of the vote.

For secular democrats, the results were both disheartening and encouraging. Disheartening because even though Ennahda ran on a relatively moderate platform—emphasizing jobs and religious freedom rather than political Islam—at the end of the day, the party’s leaders are Islamists, and they won more votes than anyone else. But it was also encouraging because they won less than half the votes and were forced into a coalition government with secular liberal parties.

Though the current government is temporary, it has the critical task of writing the new constitution. And last month, Ennahda’s leaders formally announced that they would not push for Islamic law, or Sharia, to be cited as even a source—let alone the source—of legislation in the new constitution.

This is an enormous step for an avowedly Islamist party, but we’ll see if it’s sincere. Are Tunisia’s Islamists capable of long-term moderation and power-sharing? Or are they simply being shrewd—saying the right things in order to bide their time until next year’s election, when they can consolidate more power? The answer will determine if Tunisia will actually transition to a liberal democracy or if theocracy is boiling slowly.

“Every Islamist in the world has the same ambition—the Islamization of the society,” I was told by Rami Sghayier, a young activist who works with Amnesty International. “A moderate doesn’t mind if it takes 10 or 20 years. An extremist wants it now. That’s the difference.”


I spent most of this March and part of April in Tunisia, but you hardly need that long to realize that the country is paradisiacal compared with its violent, dysfunctional neighbors. It even competes with southern Europe as a worthy destination in and of itself, with millions of tourists visiting each year. Whole swaths of the capital Tunis could easily be mistaken for France if you didn’t know better.

Indeed, Tunisia has been more European than any other country in the region since ancient times, beginning with colonization by the Roman Empire and continuing through its rule by the Byzantines, its relatively weak Arabization in the 7th century, and more recently during the period of French rule through the middle of the 20th century. The nation’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, took power in 1956 when the French imperialists left, and he was always more like modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk than any head of state in an Arabic-speaking country. He forged a thoroughly secular government, dismissing the veil as “that odious rag” and banning it from schools and official buildings. He granted equal rights to women and oriented his country northward toward Europe rather than sideways toward Libya and Algeria.

Though he ruled as a dictator, Bourguiba always retained a solid base of support in the cosmopolitan coastal areas where most people in the country of 10 million live. And while he gave the opposition, particularly the Islamists, little political freedom, he did other things right. The majority of citizens became middle class after he scrapped his brief and botched experiment with socialist economics. After being forced to flee almost everywhere else in the Middle East and North Africa, 1,500 Jews in Tunisia remained as a protected minority.

It’s no wonder, then, that Tunisian society is accustomed to secularism and generally dubious of religious zealotry. While a large minority voted for Ennahda, many did so because the party candidates said that, rather than imposing clerical rule, they merely wished to repeal Bourguiba’s anti-religious edicts, such as the banning of headscarves in schools.

Ennahda has had to adjust to Tunisian society’s moderation in order to maintain popularity (hence their abandonment of a Sharia-based legal framework). Yet party officials I spoke to during my month-long trip there this spring were clearly trying to soften the impression of significant change. “This was an internal decision by Ennahda,” Houcine Jaziri, a member of the party and the secretary of state for emigration and Tunisians abroad, told me in his office in Tunis. “We never called for Sharia in Tunisian society anyway. We always called for a civil [secular] state.” Except this is not true. Ennahda officials were contradictory and vague on this point during the election and afterward, presumably because they knew perfectly well that the society as a whole was not yearning for political Islamization and were unsure they could win that fight with their coalition partners.

Ennahda’s leadership itself is divided into at least three separate factions. One segment wants Islamic law, full stop. Another is comfortable with a mixture of Islamic and secular law. A third faction—the one that ultimately came out on top in an internal struggle—has resigned itself to the fact that Sharia law may be impossible in Tunisia unless it can be imposed at gunpoint and thinks the party should drop it altogether or suffer egregiously at the polls. Even party head Rached Ghannouchi now says he does not want Sharia.

“Tunisia is a centrist country,” Jaziri told me. “Ennahda is being brave by not applying Sharia in the constitution.” This is an amazingly vague statement. Did he mean Ennahda was brave for standing up to the Salafists and its own internal hard-liners? Or that the Islamists are brave for trusting Tunisians to behave decently without clerical rule? He was evasive when I pressed the point but reminded me that religious values can and likely will inspire secular laws just as they do in countries such as the United States. “Laws regulating inheritance and so on,” he said, “will have Islam as a reference.”

Indeed, lest one get the wrong idea, it must be said: Many Tunisians do want an Islamic state. The Salafists desperately want one, of course, and they have Saudi Arabia in mind as a model. The hard right-wingers of Ennahda want an Islamist state, too. Others, mostly simple people in the conservative countryside, are drawn to the idea, but they have little understanding of how an Islamic state would actually work.

“Sharia is a very strong word,” Raja Ben Slama, a literature professor at the University of Tunis and a women’s rights activist, told me. “But it doesn’t mean anything in particular. There are two segments in Tunisia who want it. First there’s the segment that doesn’t know what it means. They’re fascinated by the word ‘Sharia’ because it refers to God and to Islam, so they like it even though they don’t know what it is. The other segment, the politicized one, knows what it is and knows why it wants it.”

“Sharia is human law,” Zeyneb Farhat, the director of Tunisia’s national theater, El Teatro, said to me over a bottle of wine at an Italian restaurant. “It is based on a human reading of the Quran. And there are 100 different schools of thought. So, what does Sharia even mean? To some Sharia means Islam while secularism means atheism. Ennahda does everything it can to promote this confusion.”

It’s true. One of Ennahda’s favorite tactics, both during the election campaign and continuing even now, is caricaturing the secular opposition as a bunch of decadent atheists. The party did run a moderate campaign last year, and it’s good news that it has publicly abandoned Sharia—at least for now—but some of its members routinely make extreme statements, including Ghannouchi, who has in the past praised Palestinian suicide bombers and threatened the United States. “There must be no doubt that we will strike anywhere against whoever strikes Iraq,” he said during the first Gulf War. “We must wage unceasing war against the Americans until they leave the land of Islam, or we will burn and destroy all their interests across the entire Islamic world.”

His most disturbing statements were made some time ago, but he still rattles Tunisian liberals. “Ghannouchi said ‘the Salafists are our sons,’ ” Sghayier, the young Amnesty International activist, said when I asked him his view on the man. “Excuse me, but the sons of who? The Tunisian people? Or the sons of Ennahda?”


On March 15 this year, Ennahda was given a righteous shellacking in nationwide university elections for posts in 40 academic establishments. The secular, left-of-center General Tunisian Student Union (UGET) won 250 out of 284 seats. Such an abysmally poor showing on Ennahda’s part suggests that the Islamists have lost a massive amount of popularity since last year’s election or that the rising generation rejects them out of hand—possibly both. Neither bodes well for the party’s future.

“They have learned some tough lessons these last four months,” says Ahmed Ounaies, the now-retired diplomat who briefly served as Tunisia’s foreign minister in the tumultuous days after Ben Ali’s departure last year. “They now admit that they’ll accept the claims by the democratic opposition in the assembly. They’re coming slowly, step by step, to the right way of ruling Tunisia.”

The liberal coastal elite is proving a formidable foe. “These people are clear-headed and are better prepared for the future,” Ounaies told me. “The newcomers are intruders in politics. They were either underground or in exile. The revolution was not theirs. Today’s Muslims are connected with modern life and are learning about it through TV, movies, and the Internet. They are not the theoretical Tunisian boys and girls Ennahda imagined. The Islamists’ thinking was superficial. They are being forced now into the concrete theater of responsibilities and are learning about the real Tunisian society. This rendezvous with history was inevitable.”

But the culture, progressive by Arab standards as it may be, still has a reactionary streak running through it. Farhat, the theater director, is relieved that she no longer has to contend with a police state, but something else, something less oppressive but at the same time a bit scarier for being less predictable, seems to have moved in to replace it. “After the revolution,” she said, “the censorship is different. This time the pressure is social instead of political. Two years ago the enemy was Ben Ali’s dictatorship. Nowadays the dictatorship comes from the people.”

Last summer, for example, a gang of Salafists set fire to a movie theater downtown for showing Persepolis, an animated Iranian film about a young woman during and after the 1979 revolution that briefly depicts Allah as a bearded old man. To Westerners the scene would appear no more anti-religious than the 1980s American Oh God! films starring cigar-sucking comedian George Burns as God, but even benign depictions of Allah rile the likes of the Salafists.

Nor is state censorship entirely a thing of the past. A few weeks ago the government fined TV executive Nebil Karoui $1,500 for showing the same film on television. He then hired a team of bodyguards to protect himself and his family from Salafist vigilantes and other potentially violent enforcers of “piety.”

Right now, secularism and Islamism co-exist in Tunisia in the same uneasy balance maintained in Turkey. The future, however, may be kinder to secular parties than the recent past has been to Islamists, since faith won’t create jobs, boost salaries, or bring back jittery tourists. Secular parties are discussing mergers to consolidate and boost the size of their base. And the old elite—the ones who built the modern republic after the French left—are reorganizing themselves to come back in force.

“No party has a majority,” said Ounaies, the former foreign minister. “It will be the same during the next election, but we will have another political actor. There will be the comeback of the Destour.”

The Destour was the party of Habib Bourguiba, the modern republic’s secular founder. Parts of it later became Ben Ali’s corrupt and despotic party, and its crooked and ruthless officials are finished forever. But the economic, political, and cultural Bourguibist elite haven’t gone anywhere. And they’re done sitting on the sidelines.

“The philosophy is still there,” said Ounais. “The virtues of that philosophy are still there. The people are there. They have a network throughout the country. The corrupted and wrong people have been taken aside, as they should, but the rock is still there. And they’re coming back.”


For once—at least for now—opposing forces in an Arab country are more or less evenly matched, and politics aren’t being decided by violence. Iraq could have done it after Saddam Hussein was overthrown, but it failed. Egypt could have done so after Mubarak was removed from the palace, but it failed. Libya isn’t exactly on track. Much of the world hoped Lebanon might pull it off after the Cedar Revolution in 2005, but it was not in the cards, not with Hezbollah as the tip of the Syrian-Iranian spear. Only Tunisia has managed to replace bullets with ballots. The government was freely elected. No party has a militia. The mukhabarat, the secret police, have evaporated. The army is small, and it stays out of politics. Tunisians have little choice but to battle it out ideologically and at the ballot box.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. If this period is but an interlude, if the country does end up falling to radical Islam, every Arab country will be at serious risk. For if political liberalism cannot take root even here, it won’t be taking root anywhere in that part of the world anytime soon. But for now they have something that looks like democracy. We’ll see if they keep it.


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Michael J. Totten, a contributing editor at World Affairs and City Journal, is the author of The Road to Fatima Gate and In the Wake of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Where the West Ends, will be published this summer.

Michael J. Totten, a contributing editor at World Affairs and City Journal, is the author of The Road to Fatima Gate and In the Wake of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Where the West Ends, will be published this summer.