A Clash of Civilizations in Tunisia?

“…the meteoric rise of Ennahda…”

“…the polarization of Tunisia…”

“…the collapse of trust among the Tunisian political class…”

“…the foundations of consensus are crumbling…”

These quotes are from Marc Lynch’s article in Foreign Policy this week in which he surveys the rise of Islamist party Ennahda in Tunisia. To read it, one might think that Tunisia was on the verge of a political breakdown. While Mr. Lynch makes some important observations, his argument would be vastly more credible if he would link what he perceives as the growing fissures in Tunisian society with the number one concern of Tunisians from all walks of life – the economy.

His article is an important one, and it goes far beyond the vitriol one often hears about the political process in Tunisia, but it also raises more questions than it answers.

What society do Tunisians want?

During his visit to Tunisia Lynch traveled extensively and engaged with key leaders of several political parties, particularly Ennahda. Documenting their major organizational efforts, including establishing offices in every province, traveling and meeting with Tunisians, and holding large political rallies, he outlines a party that is clearly reaching out and impressing a large number of Tunisians. He also states that other political parties are neither as well organized or as popular.

So, are other parties unpopular because of their platforms? Or are they unpopular because they are not organized – and thus simply unknown?

While stating that support for Ennahda has reached 30 percent, he acknowledges that Ennahda has not released a political platform. So where does this support come from? Has it hit its ceiling? Is it capable of becoming even more popular?

Lynch states that there is indifference or contempt for other political parties, but he does not explain where this comes from. There are parties here that are seen as relics from the old regime, there are communist parties, labor parties, capitalist parties. It is natural for a capitalist in the business world to strongly disagree with the communist party platform, and likewise a communist involved in union politics to have contempt for the capitalists.

The question is whether these differences can be overcome in order to write a new constitution that Tunisians will embrace. Consensus will not be made from agreements on political platforms, but rather, agreement on the terms of debating these platforms. It is unclear from his perspective that we have passed that point here in Tunisia.

What about the Economy?

It’s curious that Lynch does not broach the number one issue for Tunisians – the economy. In the surveys that have addresssed this, and as Lynch points out anecdotally, Tunisians are very concerned about their economic prospects. Tourism has declined dramatically and the country is mired in a slump that will be difficult to climb out of before the elections take place and there is a roadmap for the country – and investors. It would follow that the party that asserts itself as most effective to deal with the economy would have an advantage when Tunisians go to the polls in October.

It would be helpful if in the political debates Lynch engaged in here in Tunis he would have posed the question, how will your party get Tunisia working again? And does this message resonate with Tunisians? It seems to me that a party without a platform might be vulnerable in the coming elections.

Narrowly defining the debate

Unfortunately, political debate in Tunisia has become an echo chamber because of the rise of Ennahda, with no one debating anything but that. The truth is that while Ennahda is popular, with 30 percent support, the majority of the population do not support it.

Lynch states alarmingly that the foundations for consensus are crumbling. But without exploring  the attitudes of the 70 percent of Tunisians that support parties other than Ennahda, this is difficult to judge.

There is no doubt that the rise of Ennahda raises important and fascinating questions about the future of what has been a an authoritarian, secular society. But it is not the only question in Tunisia, and it is certainly not the sine qua non over which consensus on the democratic transition may be made.

1 thought on “A Clash of Civilizations in Tunisia?

  1. Pingback: Too shy? Why Tunisian political parties need new media – and so do voters « A 21st Century Social Contract

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