A shocking display of political brinkmanship is underway in Tunis this week. While commentators, including myself, have called attention to the culture wars (see here and here), the real power play is a political one, pitting the three major political forces, Islamist, secular, and former regime, against each other.
The sight of riots consuming entire neighborhoods around the Tunisian capital, and the systemic violence against civil institutions has created shock waves throughout Tunisia. The violence and rioting caused the government to impose a curfew last night.
But the interesting part of the government’s response has been its continual and forceful condemnation of what they refer to as secular extremists. Artists, organizers, and their political supporters are, according to Ennahdha, the force behind the political discord that caused religious extremists to riot and they should be criminally prosecuted. The rioting was further provoked by elements of the former regime who have been trying to destabilize the Islamist government from the beginning in an attempt to bring back the bad-old days of Ben Ali.
Ennahdha is, according to this reasoning, the only political force that can both preserve Tunisia’s sacred symbols and traditions, while also bringing law and order to the country. Beginning on Sunday, Ennahdha ministers, parliamentarians, and its leader have repeatedly pointed out that their role is to protect the country from all forces that would endanger the values or security of the state. Action on the security element took place last night as a curfew was imposed on the capital and other regions. Action on the sacred was announced this morning by Ennahdha leader, Rached Ghannouchi, who called for a massive protest after Friday prayers to defend the country’s sacred values.
Friday’s protest will serve two purposes, both fitting with the underlying political logic. Firstly, the protest will allow Ennahdha to coopt the Salafi movements who have also called for protests and who risked showing a much more extreme face of Tunisia than the government wants to project. Secondly, the protest falls on the eve of a major event planned by former regime elements, led by Beji Caid Essebsi, who is planning on announcing a political movement the following day. Ennahdha’s call to protest, which will likely draw tens of thousands of supporters, will help neutralize Essebsi’s announcement the following day.
Former regime elements, meanwhile, will take advantage of the dramatic violence and unrest by calling for a return to law and order. Beji Caid Essebsi has long voiced his intentions to form a political movement – the centrist, secular party has scheduled its coming out party for this Saturday for over a month. Following on the heals of a major event in Monastir last March, Essebsi’s goals are to create a viable alternative to Ennahdha that capitalizes on the people’s desire for more security and, to many, a return to the politics of Habib Bourguiba, modern Tunisia’s founder and and authoritarian dictator in his own right. Those who think, such as the government, that former regime officials are behind the recent violence, see this coming weekend’s event as a little too coincidental – as most likely the main message from this Saturday will be that the Islamist-led government is in no position to govern and cannot control the extremists who want to take over the country.
Liberal secular politicians are caught between these two elements, one they see as a secular dictatorship, the other a religious one. And yet, they are in a difficult position because their defense of freedom of expression and universal rights is one that does not appear to be shared by the majority of the population. Ennahdha’s attacks on provocative artwork are widely supported in this conservative country, just as its position on the Persepolis trial, while highly mediatized in the West, cost them no political points. The secular left is stuck defending an unpopular position, and one that seems both elitist and anti-Islamic. While some politicians have come out forcefully against the attacks on art, there is mostly a sense of shock or resignation that they do not have popular backing for their position. Nevertheless, secular parties remain viable for their unabashed antipathy for religious extremists. While Bourguibist parties call for law and order, they are compromised by their authoritarian pasts which rounded up and jailed not just Islamists, but any opponent to the regime. Liberal secularists have no such baggage and will hammer the point that it was only a laxist government that could have allowed the kind of religious extremism that is new (and unpopular) in Tunisia.
Finally, there is the interesting positions of the CPR and Ettakatol parties. Leaders in the government along with Ennahdha, Mustapha Ben Jaafar and Moncef Marzouki backed the position of Ennahdha that the art work in question was provocative and inciteful. These parties have always towed a fine line between appearing supportive of the Islamist-majority government and adhering to their roots as secular, liberal parties. Their political calculus appears to be that their futures reside in unifying their positions in the government, even if it risks internal turmoil within the party and a loss of liberal bona fides.
Under a curfew, with riots and unrest in their fourth day, political forces appear to be playing a high-stakes game for the future of political leadership of the country. One gets the impression that the fuse has been lit. With reports of protester deaths coming in this morning, there is a risk that events could spiral beyond the control of the much-weakened police apparatus. One also gets the impression that pushing things to the brink is exactly what many politicians here are eager to do.