Can Essebsi’s ‘Call for Tunisia’ movement unite the opposition?

My new article in Foreign Policy is out. An excerpt below, the full article can be found here.

On June 16, Beji Caid Essebsi announced the formation of the Call for Tunisia — a provocative new initiative which aims to unite Tunisia’s non-Islamist parties in a national unity movement to counteract the ruling Islamist-led government. The Call is raising profound questions about the extent to which post-Ben Ali Tunisia should accept the inclusion of former regime officials in future administrations. At a time when many of Egypt’s former regime officials loom in the shadows, and Yemen has struggled with the legacy of its provision of amnesty to the former regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Tunisia may once again take the lead in confronting a major political dilemma in semi-revolutionary change.

The Call for Tunisia features a broad spectrum of former regime officials together with secular liberals. The former regime officials, or RCDists (from the Constitutional Democratic Rally), were excluded from running in the last elections and see in the new initiative a chance to revive their political prospects. (There was no such cleansing of the actual government administrations — only positions in the Constituent Assembly). These officials and their supporters oftentimes criticize the current government as incompetent and unable to manage the complexity of government. They try to deflect criticisms of the rampant corruption and stasi-like police state of the past, by pointing to the (very real) progress achieved under Bourguiba and Ben Ali. They cite statistics on women’s rights, improvements in education, and infrastructure development, and they compare Tunisia with its neighbors in the Maghreb and throughout Africa. Their motives are clear — keep the good and throw out the bad of the former regime.

Read the whole article here.

Constitution watch – updates on the drafting of Tunisia’s new constitution

In what hopefully (depending on government progress and my discipline) will be a regular feature on the blog over the coming months, I give you my first “constitution watch” – updating readers on progress in the Constituent Assembly in drafting Tunisia’s new constitution.

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Two articles this week discussed contents of the preambule of the new constitution, which were leaked, separately, to reporters.

An article appearing in the Tunisian magazine Leaders reports that the new constitution will explicitly define the Tunisian republic as a civil state. According to their sources in the assembly it will also maintain the first article of the constitution and define the regime as republican, abolish the death penalty, and confirm respect for universal values.

In a separate article published by Tunisia Live on Wednesday, the English-language site reports that the constitution will emphasize “applying Islamic principles to the constitution, explicitly defining the Arab-Muslim identity of the state.” The article is unclear on whether these are separate articles in the preambule or not. “The draft also describes the new regime as “republican, democratic, and participatory,” based on respect for the people’s sovereignty and the separation of state powers.” The report also states that the draft will be released to the public next Monday, June 4.

There are no major revelations here, although it will be interesting to see how “applying Islamic principles to the constitution” will actually read in the final draft. Many secular opponents of the government have feared that while Ennahdha has specifically rejected references to sharia in the constitution, they will try to introduce a form of religion-based value tests for the country’s lawmakers and judiciary.

For a further discussion on how the constitution is actually being put together, see this article by Duncan Pickard in the Carnegie Endowment.

See also my previous discussion of including Sharia in the preambule here.

The collapse of Tunisia’s secular parties

Tunisia’s secular political parties have had a rough go of it. Thought to have been in a prime position to govern after Tunisia’s uprising, support quickly collapsed and splintered into various factions. Although the 9 major secular parties managed to garner about 30 percent of the popular vote in last October’s elections, only the two highest vote getters, the CPR with 8.7% of the vote and Ettaktol with 7%, decided to join the ruling coalition with Islamist party Ennahdha, which garnered 37% of the popular vote.

Despite a long period of self-reflection following their electoral defeat in October, the collapse of secular parties appears to continue unabated – this despite efforts to unify their efforts ahead of next year’s scheduled elections. Day after day newspapers report about the infighting, policy disagreements, lack of leadership, and lack of popular support. With less than a year to go until the elections (probably), let’s have a look at the parties and where they stand.

Congress for the Republic: The CPR came from out of nowhere in October to earn the second most seats in the Constituent Assembly. They ran on a populist agenda that stressed its willingness to work with whoever won – including the Islamists – and the charm of Moncef Marzouki. The party quickly ran into trouble, though, after Marzouki was named president of the republic in a deal that shared government positions between Ettaktol and Ennahdha. Marzouki was seen by some as abandoning his party in his pursuit for power. Without Marzouki holding things together, the party slowly broke down and finally split when its secretary general left the party at the beginning of May, taking with him a third of the parties delegates in the Assembly. They have subsequently former a new party, the Independent Democratic Congress. While Marzouki remains a popular figure according to (notoriously unreliable) polling data, the party itself may not be able to hold together, at issue is the extent to which the party should cooperate with Ennahdha.

Ettaktol: Like the CPR, Ettaktol ran its campaign on the grounds of working with Ennahdha. This earned it a place in the ruling coalition with the CPR and Ennahdha, and its secretary general the position of president of the Constituent Assembly. Seen at the time as a defeat, with Ennahdha leading the government and the CPR the presidency, Mustapha Ben Jafaar has maneuvered behind the scenes. Ettaktol suffered its first major blow in February, when thousands of its members resigned, including several assembly members. They were reportedly angry at Ben Jafaar’s non-democratic decision making and its cooperation with Ennahdha. Nevertheless, reports on the ground have shown that the party retains a structure that could lend itself to revival around election time. Nonetheless, Ben Jafaar’s low profile has not positioned the party as a leader – and polling data shows him far below his fellow troika partners Marzouki and prime minister Jebali, of the Ennahdha movement.

Progressive Democratic Party: The PDP is the biggest disaster among Tunisia’s secular parties. In January 2011, newspapers wondered whether party leader Ahmed Nejib Chebbi could be the next president of Tunisia – but the party’s extraordinarily poor performance in the elections (less than 4 percent of the vote) caused the party to rethink its approach. In subsequent months, the PDP has tried to regain its footing, but it does not seem to have found a formula that resonates. In March, Chebbi appeared at a major rally in Monastir with former interim prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi and dozens of former officials of the previous dictatorships. He was savaged by the left for appearing to stand with authoritarian remnants of the rejected regime. In April, the party attempted to unify various factions of the left through a fusion with two other parties, the coalition fell apart less than three weeks later. As of today, the party appears as fractured as ever and there is virtually no structure outside of Tunisia’s major cities.

Bourguibist Parties: Bourguibist parties, as I’ve written about previously, have attempted to regain strength through both opposition to the laxist Islamist government and a platform that eschews liberal values but harkens back to the proud days of post-colonial Tunisia when President Bourguiba led the country into modernity. As I wrote at the time: “To the secularist left, Bourguibists represent a major threat to their support base. The left struggled in the last elections, unable to get popular support or shed their image as elitists – or God forbid – atheists. Destourians never had a problem relating to their base. Through populist rhetoric and strategic handouts, they were able to reach out to the common Tunisian. And most importantly, they were able to do so without coming across as out-of touch. Thus, the consolidation of Destourian parties may be an attractive pull and secularist parties may be coopted by them.” Despite my optimism for the movement, the reality is that the Destourians are led by an 86 year old man. Despite his popularity, he remains a figure of the past, not of the future of this young country.

Other parties: Various other secular parties continue to struggle gaining supporters. Pro-business party Afek abandoned its platform entirely as it merged with social democratic PDP. The PDM, most recently implicated in a voting scandal at the Constituent Assembly, remains a party of Tunisia’s rich suburbs, with virtually no reach beyond the French-speaking elite. The POCT, the Tunisian Communist Party, has been an exception to the general fragmentation and loss of support among Tunisians. Its leader, Hamma Hammami, who long suffered under the regime of Ben Ali, remains a key figure in Tunisia’s labor movement and the party seems to remain above the criticism of many secular parties as elitist or opportunistic. The class struggle truly continues in the POCT. Nevertheless, perceptions of communist parties in Tunisia, as in much of the Arab world (and America, might I add), remain marred by the association with atheism.

Obviously, the secular parties in Tunisia are fragmented and dispersed. So what -what does it matter? There are two major reasons this matters.

Firstly, the constitution has not yet set up the electoral system, we do not yet know if Tunisia will have a parliamentary or presidential system or how the voting will be structured (proportional representation, majoritarian, etc). One of the major criticisms of last year’s elections in Tunisia was the confusing choice Tunisian’s had between the 100+ parties on the ballot. The Constituent Assembly may very well look to change this in the constitution, favoring fewer parties by requiring seats to be awarded only after exceeding a certain threshold of votes. The longer smaller parties remain independent, the more difficult it will be for them if an electoral system is chosen that disfavors them.

Secondly, and most importantly, while secular parties are busy bickering in Tunis, the country is becoming a one party system. For every meeting between Afek and PDP in Tunis, Ennahdha is opening another office in a small town in the hinterlands. Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi meets foreign dignitaries, even though he holds no official post in the government while opposition leaders struggle to fill school rooms with supporters.

Ennahdha is getting ready for the next 50 years of politics in Tunisia, building its infrastructure and its future leaders. In most cities you will find no other political offices besides Ennahdha. Tunisian voters in many areas will make their choices in the next elections having met no own from any other party. At a time when Tunisians are debating their very future, Tunisia’s secularists are not putting themselves at the table.

* (Update) A fundamental issue that I have not addressed in this analysis is the actual policies of secular parties and whether or not they resonate with Tunisian voters. This is obviously a crucial element to their success and the subject of a future post.

Jewish pilgrimage begins in Tunisia

File:El Ghriba.jpg

The Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today marks the beginning of the Jewish pilgrimage to the Ghriba on the Tunisian island of Djerba. While Judaism is the oldest religion continuously practiced in the country, Tunisia’s Jewish community has dwindled over the past 50 years from a population of over 100,000 in the 1950s to about 2,000 today.

Nonetheless, the pilgrimage to Djerba has remained an important symbol of Tunisian openness – this year especially as Tunisia’s democratically-elected, Islamist-led government tries to demonstrate Tunisia’s openness to both minorities and tourists alike. Some highlights from the web on this weekend’s events:

Tunisia Live reports that so far the event has attracted few pilgrims:

According to our reporter in El Ghriba, police and journalists outnumbered the pilgrims, mainly Jewish Tunisians, who attended the event.

The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has previously issued a travel warning advising Israelis to avoid Tunisia. But Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali declared that “Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past.”

, writing in the Guardian, describes the Tunisian governments efforts:

The current Tunisian government, elected last October, has made promotion of the event a critical priority for reviving tourism in the southern part of the country. At the recent International Congress of World Tourism, the Ennahda party leader and prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, declared: “Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past.”

President Moncef Marzouki visited El Ghriba synagogue at Passover – which this year also marked the tenth anniversary of an al-Qaida-related attack that killed 21 European tourists. Wearing a traditional Tunisian hat known as a kabbus, often used by Jewish men in Tunisia as a religious head covering, Marzouki emphasised that Tunisian Jews are an integral part of Tunisian society and “any vandalism or violence against the Tunisian Jewish people, their property or their holy sites is totally unacceptable”.

 

Setting the reset button on Franco-Tunisian relations

Just minutes after French election results were reported, showing that Socialist candidate Francois Hollande had defeated incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy, Tunisian leaders celebrated the socialist’s victory. Hollande’s victory opens the possibility for improvement in the declining relationship between Tunisia and its number one trading partner.

First the political reactions: Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s president, released a statement less than an hour after Hollande’s victory, saying:

On the occasion of your election to the presidency of the French Republic, I am pleased,on behalf of all the Tunisian people, to give you my most sincere and heartfelt congratulations to you and all the French people….We hope your election as head of the French Republic will restore momentum to our two countries with the aim to restore and strengthen their long-term partnership.

Mustapha ben Jaafar, speaker of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly and leader of the Ettakatol party, endorsed Hollande as a fellow social democrat:

We are hopeful that the arrival of the Socialists (in France) will give impetus to the historically strong relationships between our two countries….With France, the new democratic Tunisia wants to build a true partnership that respects the values of freedom and human rights, based on a strategy of co-development and shared prosperity. The special relationship of friendship and solidarity forged between Ettakatol and the Socialist Party are an added impetus for relations between France and Tunisia.

As Maghreb Emergent reports, it is not just Tunisia’s elites who are happy about the change – ordinary Tunisians are happy to see a change from a regime that they saw supporting their former dictator:

Compromised by his ties with Arab dictators and his lack of judgment during the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Nicolas Sarkozy has lost the confidence of Arab countries. Anxious to restore the image of France on the international scene, Francois Hollande has surrounded himself with new personalities who will be competent in changing these policies over his coming term.

Implications for Tunisian relations: France’s actions following the uprisings in Tunisia have not been forgotten. French Defense minister Michelle Alliot-Marie’s name continues to be invoked regularly as a symbol of France’s close ties with deposed dictator Ben Ali (she offered Tunisia support to quell the January 2011 uprising).

Ties between the countries have continued to be strained. Tunisia’s Islamist government has made it a priority to reduce study of the French language and to expand relationships beyond the traditional colonial relationship that has endured since Tunisia’s independence in 1956.

Despite these political tensions, commercial ties between the two countries remain important. While Tunisian newspapers report on new agreements with Gulf countries for golf courses or hotels, it is the ~3,000 French companies operating in Tunisia that remain the backbone of Tunisia’s trading partnerships. For more on Tunisia’s international relations, see this article from February 2012)

It is in this context that Hollande’s victory tonight is so important. Hollande has the opportunity now to reset the relationship that had been so fraught between Tunisia’s transitional government and the Sarkozy administration. Most importantly, it opens the door, as Marzouki and Ben Jaafar’s statements show, for Tunisian politicians to engage with France without losing political credibility.

International relationships remain based on complex political interests and it is wishful thinking that Tunisia’s relationship with France will change overnight with a new French administration. The historical relationship between the two countries remains complex. Nevertheless, the cloud that hung over Franco-Tunisian relations since January 2011 may be lifted with Hollande’s victory.

A Balancing Act: Ennahda’s Struggle with the Salafis

My new article, co-written with Brandeis researcher Aaron Zelin, has been published at the Sada Journal of the Carnegie Endowment. An excerpt:

On a day when organizers had called for a peaceful protest to honor the Qur’an, most Tunisians will remember the images of young protesters who climbed a clock tower at Tunis’s main intersection to raise a black and white flag inscribed with the shahada, the Muslim testament of faith: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger.” On that day, March 25, a small group of protesters also attacked and harassed a troupe performing in front of the city’s municipal theater. These controversial and heavily covered events raise questions over how the Tunisian government, led by the Islamist party Ennahda, will handle growing conservative movements.

While much of the Tunisian and Western press has focused on the debate between Ennahda and the secular opposition, Tunisia’s ruling party has also faced criticism both from within its own party and from more conservative Salafi groups. Ennahda’s approach to instilling Islamic values in society contrasts sharply with that of Salafi trends: while the party believes that society should gradually, and through democratic institutions, adopt the principles it once lost under colonialism and secular dictatorships, many Salafis assert that democracy infringes on God’s sovereignty by establishing humans as legislators. This intra-Islamist debate may prove to be the true battleground in the ongoing transition.

Read the full article here.

Photo courtesy of Sada Journal.

Can Tunisian Islamism survive without secularism?

Writing in AlJazeera, Northwestern University professor Elizabeth Shakman Hurd argues that democratically elected Islamist parties in the Middle East have overturned the secularist/islamist divide.

Yet outside actors should also consider what Middle East Report calls the “pull of the possible”, and reach out to actors, parties and tendencies that refuse to be defined by the political limitations imposed by a secularist versus Islamist frame….

Overcoming the urge to classify actors as secularists or Islamists will take some work. The US failed to see the Egyptian revolution coming in part because it followed the lead of the Mubarak regime and divided the world into two camps: radical Islamist threats to the regime and friends of Mubarak (and the US)….

…If interested parties in the region, the media, or the international community re-instrumentalise the secularist-Islamist divide it could jeopardise the long-awaited transition to democracy in the Middle East and North Africa…

…Democratic voices that are non-secular and non-theocratic exist across the Middle East today, and not only in Tunisia. Now would be a good time to listen to what they have to say.

Dr. Hurd’s point misses the fact that Islamist parties grew up and became popular as opposition movements to secularism. The question is not whether the West can get along with Islamist movements, but whether Islamist movements can define themselves without secularism.

As I wrote last month in Foreign Policy:

Ennahda seems intent on [characterizing] its opponents as extremists. The party aims to project itself as the guarantor of Tunisia’s moderate center, while at the same time pushing the center to the right. Recent statements by Ennahda’s leadership group “fundamentalist” and “extreme” secularists with radical Islamist groups. This is an interesting strategy because it co-opts the language used by the regimes of Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali that described the government as the guarantor of a certain Tunisian moderation. It also shows opponents of the regime as not only divisive, but also dangerous.

Today, Western governments are meeting with, providing aid to, and supporting the new Islamist led governments in Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia. The question may be not whether the West can handle Islamists, but rather whether Islamists can operate without secularists.