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.

The strange return of Habib Bourguiba to Tunisia

On Saturday in Monastir a strange event took place. Gathered together in the same place for the first time in decades were the Destourians – supporters of the former Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba. They met to discuss plans to provide a unified political front in an effort to return the country to what it described as the path it departed from under Ben Ali, and the equally fatal path of the Islamists.

Blogger for French magazine Marianne, Martine Gozlan, described the event:

…forces of modernity are looking to unite to resist obscurantism: that was the sense of the mass meeting held Saturday, March 24 in Monastir under the auspices of Beji Caid Essebsi, the previous Prime Minister, and in the wake of the founding father whose massive portrait dominated the meeting: Habib Bourguiba….The old Beji Caid Essebsi, who was once his traveling companion, and had the difficult task of leading post Ben Ali Tunisia to the polls last October 23rd, had assembled all the forces of the centrist opposition on Saturday March 24th.

The reformation of Destourian parties has elicited many reactions here from across the political spectrum. While the potential impact of a return to Bourguibism excites many Tunisians, to others it is the first step toward a return of authoritarianism.

You don’t have to go far in Tunisia to find people who love Habib Bourguiba. A populist and a nationalist, Tunisia’s first leader after independence modernized the country, Many Tunisians, particularly those born before independence, see Bourguiba not only as a force for good, but as a true leader of Tunisians – he is their Papa. And while many of his supporters will decry his authoritarianism, they also applaud what they saw was a relatively uncorrupt individual who only wanted the best for his country. These people often also supported Ben Ali, at least up until the point that his nepotism and kleptocratic ways became known. During the uprising last year, they didn’t want an overthrow of the system, just a cleaning up.

Detractors of Bourguisme tell a very different story. They see Bourguiba as a meglomaniac who denied human rights and set the stage for Ben Ali. To Ennahdha supporters, Bourguiba relentlessly pursued, persecuted, and imprisoned them. But not only that – Bourguiba reviled Islamists. When asked what separated him from an Islamist, Bourguiba replied: “Fourteen centuries.”

When Bourguiba-era minister Beji Caid Essebsi stepped back into the political scene last February to take over the caretaker government, both hardcore Ennahdha supporters and human rights activists squirmed. While he justified his lack of fundamental reforms by saying that he was just an interim leader and that the elected leaders should make those decisions, his opponents saw someone who wanted to preserve the status quo and keep the ancien regime well-placed to retakeover the country.

Recent statements, followed by Saturday’s conference in Monastir, by other so-called Destourians have put many people edge, just as they have excited many who see in the party a chance to unify the country.

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.

Tunisian-American journalist Wafa Ben Hassine sees trouble in the potential alliance between leftists and members of the former regime:

It appeared that Essebsi and his crew were desperately seeking to rebrand the RCD. The Caid Essebsi and co. are succeeding, albeit only within a small niche. To this niche, Essebsi is simply the reincarnation of Bourguiba, representing modernity and ‘balance’ in social values….

….What is alarming are the scores of left-wing parties that made their way down to Monastir yesterday. The left should be more careful about its actions and what they reflect – the Tunisian left is already painted as an elitist segment of society. Why exacerbate the image, and in turn appear to betray the very values that led to Ben Ali’s ouster?

Bourguiba, over 24 years since being deposed, still stirs emotions and makes headlines in this country which he built in his image.  Almost half of the population knows Bourguiba only from history books – many of which are being rewritten as we speak. Whether the reconstitution of his party and his ideas will take hold is far from certain.

Will the Tunisian left return to authoritarian Bourguisme – more reactions on Tunisia’s Independence Day

As I wrote yesterday, the left celebrated Tunisia’s indpendence day on Tuesday with a peaceful celebration downtown. Much of the reporting afterward was self-congratulatory – the left had shown that it can mobilize! Some reactions from the left, however, were more critical. These criticisms focus on the fact that the left seems perpetually unable to get the support of popular classes – and that could lead to a return of authoritarianism.

Emna El Hammi writes:

If this celebration was primarily a celebration for all Tunisians, it is the left who was the chief representative, and with it clichés about the so-called westernized fringe of Tunisian society. For, once again, it was the left that was in the streets to defend against the Islamists, the values of democracy and freedoms. The left are the ones who struggle to unite the working class and find themselves in a grotesque image of a champagne socialist, westernized, bourgeois and not caring about their own hedonistic pleasures, and despising the poor.

She goes on to discuss how dangerous this image is for the left:

[These] events show once again that we are still struggling to get out of the identity debate that divides society in two….The left scarcely understand that if it wants to win legitimacy among Tunisians, especially those from the working class, it needs to get out of this identity debate and focus its policy on employment, social justice and social rights, which represent the real concerns of the population. It must also have a real desire to bring together Tunisian people around a common societal goal.

And that’s where we measure the threat of a possible Destourian [Bourguibiste] comeback, these ex-RCDists who have reconverted to the principles of Bourguiba, and seek to rebuild their popular legitimacy on the back of a revolution that they never sought. The reformation of former RCDists would be incredibly damaging to the left, they have a perfect knowledge of the [political] terrain and networks that have allowed them to feed the poor under Ben Ali. What is freedom or democracy when, in front, you are offered a job and a salary…

Bidules blog echoes El Hammi’s fears of a return to Bourguisme:

The Doustouriens [Bourguibists] the RCDists {Ben Alists]…A political force that dominated the country for 55 years. Today nobody talks about it almost as if it has no weight on the [political] scene. It is ignored, media appearances are rare. Are we going to underestimate this force? Tunisia is divided into two camps: the conservatives and modernists. Are the Doustouriens taking advantage of this bipolarity and this atmosphere of instability to prepare the BIG COMEBACK?…

…These forces may rise as a viable alternative following the failure of the Troika [the ruling coalition] economically and in the fight against corruption. In addition, errors in choosing the government leaders and cases of nepotism and favoritism led to the dismay of many Tunisians. Other democratic forces have been bogged down in ideological debates and issues over identity and struggle to move from being elitist parties to popular parties.

The idea of the former ruling party, refitted as a nationalist party based on authoritarian Bourguism, coming back into party may seem far off at this point. But recent polling by the International Republican Institute shows that former Bourguiba era politician and interim prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, is second only to Moncef Marzouki in popularity among Tunisians, with over 80 percent supporting him. On the other hand, links to the RCD are still toxic in Tunisia and there is nothing Ennahdha would like more than to be able to brand their opponents as remnants of the former regime.

Independence day in Tunisia – reactions from around the web

Yesterday Tunisians celebrated their independence day. On a beautiful Spring day in the capital, thousands gathered to show their determination to further the gains they have made as a society – not just since independence from the French over 50 years ago, but from the uprising just 15 months ago.

The reactions across the web were plentiful. Although French media focused on the secularist rally in which thousands of Tunisians marched for a civil state, all reports talked about the increasing divisiveness in the country – pitting for the first time Tunisian citizens against Tunisian citizens. President Marzouki’s addressed this issue in a speech focused on national unity:

This festival is an opportunity for us all to rethink our relationships, to live with our differences and despite our differences…National unity cannot last if it is built on misunderstanding, hatred and division.”

Bidules blog criticized Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s speech for ignoring Tunisia’s history:

Despite differences of opinion and all that happened in the post-colonial era, Bourguiba, along with Farhat Hached, Hedi Chaker and others, played a very important role in the independence of Tunisia and the implementation establishment of a modern state and strong institutions. To forget this important day is unfair and smells of of ingratitude.

Reuters reports on the secular demonstration in downtown Tunis:

Carrying Tunisia’s red and white flag, several thousand protesters filled Bourguiba Avenue, a focal point of protests that ousted strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 last year and sparked the “Arab Spring” uprisings.

“We came in our thousands to say to those who want to change the course of the revolution that we will confront you,” said rights activist Jaber Ben Hasan, amid chants of “the people want a civil state”.

“We are here to bring victory to the civil state,” he said, referring to a state that was not governed by religious law.

Marianne reports ominously of a Tunisia divided in two as secularists demonstrated downtown while religious groups gathered by the thousands in a neighboring suburb:

And now, once again there were two Tunisias on Tuesday, March 20, for Independence Day. The beautiful, rebellious, feminine, youthful, draped in the national flag,with its bright red star as the eye in its cresent. She marched cheerfully down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the very place where she had made the revolution on January 14 that she refuses to see betrayed. And then there was another, the dark, the veiled, the bearded, not laughing, men on one side, women on the other, and nobody moves … frozen between the green flag from the Koran and the Salafist black standard. This one had gathered at the El Menzah Dome, a few miles from the center of Tunis, to proclaim the divine urgency to introduce Sharia law in the Constitution now being developed by the Assembly…

France’s Le Point gets reactions from Tunisians downtown:

“The Tunisian people are divided. If we continue like this, I would not use the term civil war, but … hatred among Tunisians that is emerging could complicate things. I do not want to put a blinders on, but the gap is growing. And if things do not move quickly, I fear that it will become more complicated,” laments Khaled Bouassida, dentist and member of the association Kolna Tunes.

This is a fear shared by Bassem. Proudly wearing his T-shirt which says  “Tolerant Tunisian,” the engineer of 29 years denounced “the attempt to divide the people.” “They want to create a war between Muslims and those they consider less Muslim. But the Tunisian people are diverse.” At his side, Hussam, an accountant, went further: “I am tolerant because I’m Arab and Muslim”

The President of the Association for Women and Dignity, Zahra Marrakchi, writing in Leaders is more optimistic following the day’s events:

Leaving the [Bourguiba] avenue, the protesters were still waving their flags, cars spread through the city in a concert of horns, waving flags. It was a wonderful event that took place without any accident or incident. No slogan called for hatred, exclusion or the use of force…It was a great day with a promises that there will be others.

Similarly inspired, French blogger, and longtime Tunisia resident, Benoit Delmas gives Tunisia an A+ for yesterday’s events:

The multitude of flags was proof that Tunisians do not want Salafist forces. A Republican atmosphere characterized this beautiful day. March 20, we commemorate independence. 56 years ago, France left Tunisia free to her fate. Today we whistled, shouted, smiled so that the country is a peaceful democracy. Tunisia, where veiled women stood alongside unveiled women in tolerance. Today, thousands of people demanded a Tunisia without Sharia. In peace, good humor, with conviction. Mabrouk.

Tunisia Live reports on the mixed feelings Tunisian’s have for their independence, and the increasingly common concern that Gulf countries and the United States are pulling the strings of the government:

Independence day brings mixed feelings for many Tunisians. While the day officially marked the end of the French colonial period, and the beginning of an era where Tunisia was recognized as a modern state, it also began an era of authoritarian rule. One political group was out distributing signs with photos of Tunisia’s first President and leader of the independence movement, Habib Bourguiba. “This is your worst nightmare,” the signs read.

Mohammed, a restaurant owner, said that even after Independence and the Tunisian Revolution he doesn’t feel like Tunisia is a truly independent country. “I don’t believe that Tunisia is really independent, before the Revolution I knew we were controlled by France. Now we are controlled by Qatar or America– I don’t really know and it does not matter, we are not really independent,” he said.

The question of divisiveness is a new and difficult question for many Tunisians. On the positive side, it is a symbol of a newfound pluralism. On the other hand, it has shown the dark side of Tunisia and exposed vast differences in opinion on important issues – including most importantly, religion. It’s a debate we will continue to hear a lot about in the coming months.

Tunisia’s compact with labor is broken

Mateur Tunisia is home to a small factory that typifies Tunisia’s industrial base. The plant in Mateur is one of three owned by the  German cable company Leoni, which has taken advantage of Tunisia’s low wages and relative stability to set up shop and employ up to 14,000 Tunisian workers. The plant produces components for fiber optic cables and is part of Leoni’s global supply chain.

Recently, however, an ongoing labor dispute between Leoni management and the UTT, Tunisia’s second largest trade union, threatened to close Leoni’s Mateur operation and throw 2,700 workers on to the streets. While negotiations have recently resumed, sparing the workers (for the moment), the precarity of the situation is indicative of wider unrest in the Tunisian labor market. It also represents the biggest risk to the current government.

While Tunisian unemployment and strikes have been well documented in the last year, little reporting has focused on the nature of the strikes and just what it means to Tunisian and multinational businesses operating in Tunisia.

Labor unrest was not unheard of under either Ben Ali or Bourguiba. In the 1950s, as Tunisia gained its independence, Habib Bourguiba relied on labor support. He later co-opted Tunisian syndicates, in an agreement that assured that the union had a place at the table, but in return unions bargained away worker rights. Ben Ali continued with this model, and while strikes, particularly in the mining sector, were periodic, there was never any regime-threatening labor unrest under the dictatorship.

Tunisian syndicalism took on a new form with the uprising in 2010/2011. Unions cast their support with the protesters – a key -ans often overlooked aspect to the uprising’s success. The subsequent period of transition from January 14 to the installation of a new government in December last year saw labor unrest increase dramatically. It seemed that any half-way organized union or guild went on strike. The airports, trains, utilities, and ministries all were affected by strikes. The police force, the enforcers of Ben Ali’s regime, were ironically some of the first to gain concessions from the government. Even workers in Tunis’s medina went on strike to protest the government’s feeble attempts to get tourists back in the souks.

While the government was in a position to acquiesce to demands from public sector (and state-owned enterprise) workers, private businesses were on their own to negotiate new contracts with their employees. While some firms were able to offer concessions to workers, a credit crunch from Tunisian banks and uncertainty in Europe narrowed the options for most businesses.

What was perhaps most critical was the “democratic” nature of the strikes. Many Tunisian workers went outside of their labor unions to protest employment practices. After a half-century of collaboration with the ancien regime, Tunisian workers felt that wages and benefits had been artificially kept low for too long. This represented a major change for business managers, who no longer knew with whom to negotiate.

The rules of the game shifted.

Some managers I’ve spoken to, who generally had good relations with their employees, were terrified that a rogue group could shut down their operations. They also believed that making concessions would not stop the problem, but only encourage more workers to use rogue strikes as a tool for negotiations.

It appears that this may have been the situation with Leoni, which stated, according to Tunisia Live, “this decision has been taken due to the impossibility of ensuring a normal continuation of operations at Mateur.”

Leoni is not the first foreign enterprise to consider ending operations in the country. Yazaki, a Japanese cable and wiring company, also ceased operations in southern Tunisia last year; negotiations are still underway this week between the Tunisian government and Yazaki to enable the return of normal operations.

Jeune Afrique reports that 170 foreign firms ended or partially ended operations in Tunisia last year. Tunisia experienced a 29 percent drop in foreign investment during the same period.

The social contract between capital and labor in Tunisia is broken. Tunisian unions feel the need to show their bona fides in the face of skeptical members, and managers do not feel that negotiations are being done in good faith. And the government has been reluctant to do anything about it.

As I’ve noted previously, Ennahdha has a generally neo-liberal economic worldview. They have promised greater globalization and are looking to further liberalize Tunisia’s economy. Some members of Ennahdha appear to hold extreme anti-labor views, with one radical member calling for protesters to be crucified. While foreign investors would be happy to see the situation stabilize, its unlikely that the death of their workers is in their interests.

Unions are skeptical of the government’s intentions. However, in this highly unionized workforce, the government cannot attract foreign investors without engaging the unions.

Meanwhile, the government is frantic to get Tunisian employed. A report today from the Financial Times states that the government is looking  to negotiate greater Tunisian immigration to Europe:

Mr Dimassi (Tunisia’s Finance Minister, Ennahdha ) says the government has been trying to convince European authorities to allow for “organised immigration” to the European Union to take some of the pressure off.

Increased emigration may help, but it seems a rather dramatic solution for the most fundamental issue in post-revolutionary Tunisia.

The FT goes on to explain various formulas the government is considering to create greater employment. This is a bit like adding a prosthetic arm to a patient that is still hemorrhaging. You need to stop the bleeding first. The proposed solutions, increased aid to young graduates and more government jobs are exactly what the former regime did in the weeks preceding the revolution. Ben Ali promised hundreds of thousands of jobs – but the promise was empty – because the system was broken and needed reform.

In order for growth to resume and investment to return, Tunisia needs to have a compact with labor that assures union rights, while forming credible mechanisms to resolve negotiations. Without it, the government just has promises and debt. Ennahdha has so far proved unable to to negotiate this compact but its survival depends on it.

Photo Gallery – Tunisia Year 1 – Bourguiba Avenue Januar 14, 2012

Some photos from yesterday’s happenings on Avenue Bourguiba in downtown Tunis in commemoration of the one year anniversary since Ben Ali’s departure. Reports say that up to 20,000 people took to downtown Tunis, many to celebrate, many to demonstrate that the revolution is not yet over. Ennahdha supporters were well numbered, as were Salafi groups, waiving their typical black and white flags, as well as communists and union members. I heard protesters chanting for all sorts of causes – for the return of the caliphate, for human rights, and for Bashar Assad’s degagement. 

Why Tunisia must preserve Ben Ali’s legacy

Tunisia must preserve the legacy of Ben Ali. Since January 2011, starting with the transition and continuing with the new Ennahdha-led government, Tunisia has begun a process of systematically removing elements of the old regime. It started with the man itself and his family. It continued with the spontaneous removal of Ben Ali’s photograph, previously ubiquitous in all public places. It continued with the removal of top bureaucrats, governors, and administrators close to the regime.

Little by little, in the last 12 months most public vestiges of Ben Ali have been erased from public life. This fall, one of the main squares on Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis was renamed from Place November 7 (the date Ben Ali came to power) to Place 14 January – the date of the revolution. Meanwhile, the central bank started the process of changing the bank notes, which had previously praised November 7 (see image).

Tunisia's 20 dinar bills before and after the revolution (courtesy of Rue89.com)

After 23 years of looking at shrines to Ben Ali in every public space in the country, there is something not only natural, but cathartic in removing these elements. But as a get-out-the-vote campaign video so clearly and viscerally showed, dictatorship can return at any time.

Indeed, while the fear of Ben Ali coming back is not a common fear in Tunisia, the fear of a return to dictatorship has been one of the most commonly heard refrains after the elections. It comes not only from the secularists, who were largely defeated and fear the rise of the new Islamic forces in the country. It also comes from Islamists, who accuse secularists of wanting to return to the methods of Ben Ali, with indiscriminate imprisonment and intimidation of any religious act.

While Ben Ali and his legacy are fresh in all Tunisian minds now, they will not be forever. The preservation of this period of corruption and torture must be embedded into the historical memory of the country. Older Tunisians often cite the example of Ben Ali himself, who came to power in a palace coup which overthrew Tunisia’s first authoritarian president, Habib Bourguiba. He promised to open an era of democracy and freedom, and yet quickly went down an authoritarian path himself.

It is for this reason that the state must preserve and publicize the actions of Ben Ali and his regime. As Juan Cole recently pointed out on his blog, myths around the Arab spring abound. But history will be written by the winners – and not necessarily accurately or objectively. All the more reason for Tunisia to begin the process now of establishing its history by rejecting the methods of Ben Ali. This can only be done by preserving the memory and the methods of the former regime.

[A note from Kefteji: I’ll be off on holidays for the next week.  Looking forward to the new year with a look back at the anniversary of the January 14 uprising and more blogging on Tunisia and its transition. Happy new year to all my readers.]