Will Egypt’s disfunction spillover to Tunisia? The presidential race raises questions

Despite the obvious parallels between the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, and the clear effect Tunisia’s successful ouster of Ben Ali inspired Egyptian activists, there has been surprisingly little cross-pollination of democratic ideas between Egypt and Tunisia. But as the Egyptian presidential race heats up and Tunisia enters another dangerous escalation between secularists and Islamists, there is the possibility that Tunisia’s Islamists, long a bastion of moderation among Muslim Brotherhood-inspired parties, will adopt Egypt’s more conservative approach. This could have two contradictory effects in Tunisia, both of which could drive further fissures through Tunisia’s increasingly divided political landscape.

Despite the dominate narrative of the Arab Spring – as a collection of uprisings linked by common cause against authoritarianism in the Arab world – Tunisian public debate has been largely insulated from events elsewhere in the Arab world. While Tunisians are aware of and sympathetic toward the other uprisings – especially in Libya and Egypt – there has been little public discussion of the paths toward democracy these countries have taken. Tunisians rightly see their path as a model to follow – rather than the violent and chaotic paths followed by their neighbors.

Tunisia’s separate path has also been due to the much more moderate inclinations of its leaders. After well-run and fair elections, Tunisia’s Islamist party immediately joined hands with secularist counterparts to run the government and write the constitution. Unencumbered by ultra-conservative political parties in the government – such as Salafi parties – the coalition has taken many moderate stances, including the announcement last month that Ennahdha would not endorse inclusion of sharia law in the new constitution.

Ennahdha’s moderation, however, has cost it support both among its more conservative members, many of whom are more influenced by traditional Muslim Brotherhood political ideas (from whence the movement began) and by an increasingly vocal Salafi movement, which while officially excluded from politics, is making itself and its views seen across the country. And despite its moderation on key positions, its inaction against rising extremism and its seeming complicity against very public threats to basic freedoms has made Tunisian secularists skeptical if not openly worried about the future path Ennahdha will take.

It is against this backdrop that events in Egypt could conspire to influence Tunisian politics. The New York Times reported today that the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate has taken a much more conservative line:

“This is the old ‘Islam is the solution’ platform,” he said, recalling the group’s traditional slogan in his first television interview as a candidate. “It has been developed and crystallized so that God could bless society with it.” At his first rally, he led supporters in a chant: “The Koran is our constitution, and Shariah is our guide!”

One month before Egyptians begin voting for their first president after Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Morsi’s record is escalating a campaign battle here over the place of Islam in the new democracies promised by the Arab Spring revolts.

The article goes on to describe how throughout the post-Mubarak period, Egypt’s MB has played a much more moderate game:

The Brotherhood, the 84-year-old religious revival group known here for its preaching and charity as well as for its moderate Islamist politics, took a much softer approach in the official platform it released last year. It dropped the “Islam is the solution” slogan, omitted controversial proposals about a religious council or a Muslim president and promised to respect the Camp David accords with Israel.

What effects could a more conservative Egypt have on Tunisia? They are twofold:

Firstly, while Ennahdha is a well-oiled and disciplined political machine, its leadership is widely recognized as lying at the more liberal end of the party’s political spectrum. The debate over sharia was, by Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi’s own confession, widely contested within the party before being decided upon. Ghannouchi’s argument was not a defense of civil institutions, but rather a wish to avoid a controversial debate at a critical time for the country.

If Egypt tilts further to the right, Tunisia’s more conservative Islamists – many trained side-by-side with their Brothers in Egypt – could begin to press for more conservative stances within Ennahdha – testing Ghannouchi’s leadership. Tunisia’s Salafi groups may be further emboldened at pressing for more radical change. At the same time, Ennahdha’s secular partners in the government (CPR and Ettaktol), already under pressure from opposition groups to join them, would be forced to choose between abandoning their partner in government, or going along with a platform much more conservative than they had agreed upon.

Secondly, Tunisia’s secularists (in this case I use the term to describe both secularists in the liberal sense, as well as those from the Bourguiba mold), already anxious about a country run by Islamists, may take bolder actions against the government. Already Tunisian secularists are sounding the alarm bells. At a meeting yesterday, secularists from various parties gathered to voice their extreme concern over events over the weekend which saw Salafi activists disrupt a planned event of a well-known secularist activist and a physical attack on a political figure. The events, troubling in and of themselves, caused even greater alarm by the perceived luke-warm response of the Ennahdha ministers at the justice and interior ministries. The meeting yesterday included calls for the opposition to boycott the Constituent Assembly and to change their tactics from those of opposition movements to “resistance” movements.

Tunisia’s secularist will look with anxiety to an Egypt which has turned further to the right. Coupled with Ennahdha’s moderate rhetoric, secularist alarmism has mostly fallen on deaf ears in Tunisia. Most Tunisians simply do not see their country following the path of Iran or Saudi Arabia, and the Algerian civil war – with its complex moral narrative – is already a decade in the past. An Egypt which has turned toward the extreme would provide secularists with a narrative that could be a call to action among secular sympathizers in the country.

Both of these effects would be dangerous for Tunisia. Already polarized, Tunisia’s fragile political system would break down if the CPR and Ettaktol abandoned the government. Neither Ennahdha nor the secularists have enough seats to form a majority government. But even barring this extreme example, political parties will find it increasingly difficult to compromise in an even more polarized political environment. With elections scheduled within a year, the government may find it difficult to write the constitution on time – creating further pressure in the system as the country would face a constitutional crisis and the government (in whatever form it took) would face criticism that it could not act.

Ghorbal: Tunisia ignoring the real problem with the constitution – the courts

Samy Ghorbal, a Tunisian writer and political advisor to the opposition PDP, writes in Slate Afrique this week that while secularists celebrated Ennahdha’s abandonment of inscribing sharia law in the new constitution, they are ignoring the real problem – which is how the constitutional council interprets the constitution.

His argument, which no doubt many of my more conservative readers will take issue with, nonetheless raises the important fact that many essential debates over the shape of Tunisia’s future regime have yet to take place.

Some excerpts, translated by me, below. The whole article, in French, is worth a read.

…The real battle [not that based on Article 1 of the constitution], focusing on the architecture and processes of constitutional review, is just beginning. Because it is the role of a constitutional judge to propose and establish an interpretation of this section [Article 1). It is he who will tell how it should be understood, what it permits and what it prohibits….Everything will depend, ultimately, on the court or the Constitutional Council to be established; the checks and balances within it; and how its members will be appointed.

Tunisia has no tradition of independent constitutional justice. It is starting from zero. Established by presidential decree in 1987, the Constitutional Council, which ceased to exist after the (January 2011) Revolution, when the Constitution was repealed, was complicit in the dictatorship of Ben Ali. Can a constitutional court, which has long indulged in a servile/auxiliary role of the state, fulfill its cultural revolution and become the guarantor of rights and freedoms? Will it be given the means to do so?

These issues are of crucial importance for the future of the young Tunisian democracy. Yet they are strangely absent from public debate, and have found little echo in the Constituent Assembly. Most “modernist” parties were content to generalize about the rule of law and the need to ensure separation of powers in their election manifestos – without going into details.

The proposals unveiled by the Islamists in their program by 365 points, submitted on 14 September 2011, are equally succinct. Yet, to think about it, they leave no worry. Ennahda says it wants to establish a parliamentary form of democracy, “based on the separation of powers and judicial independence.”

In fact, in their system, all power emanates from the parliament, and, in the event a party would have the absolute majority, then all power emanates in reality from the majority party. Institutions would become hostage to one party or faction – starting with the Council or the Constitutional Court, whose president is elected directly by Parliament. There would be every reason to fear that this body is diverted from its intended liberal and turns, simply,as the guardian of the Islamic identity of the state and religious morality.

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.

Labib is dead, long live labib! The demise of Tunisia’s favorite desert fox

As my loyal readers know, I have been somewhat attached to the Tunisian symbol for the environment, a desert fox, or fennec, known as Labib. The cartoon Labib was created under the regime of Ben Ali to promote environmental causes and statues of him, and his family, are ubiquitous across Tunisia. Dressed in blue jumpsuits and armed with a purse, these long eared animals were long the target of baseball-bat wielding vandals. According to Business News, the demise of Labib is because, according to the ministry of the environment, “Labib’s system has failed”. Nevertheless, the spokesman for the ministry stated that popular support could bring back Tunisia’s desert fox.

Willis from Tunis predicted the event last year in this cartoon: Caption: After the president, the family, and the RCD...whose turn is it next to "degage"? Cat: Me, I know! Me, I know

Graffiti in my neighborhood depicting Tunisia's symbol for the environment, Labib the desert fox, locked up.

Erik with Labib

Erik with Labib, the Tunisian mascot for the Environment

Tunisian transition leader speaks out – a must read interview

Image courtesy of Tunisia Live

Yadh ben Achour is one of Tunisia’s best known political philosophers. A lawyer by training, his academic work has focused on constitutional law and the role of Islam in a modern democratic state. He is best known for his leadership of Tunisia’s High Commission for the Transition which guided the government’s work and oversaw last October’s elections. You can read more from his bio at Tunisia Live.

Although criticized by some for being too secular, he is generally considered to be a highly respected jurist and his recent interview in La Presse is a must read for its clarity on the political situation. Some excerpts from the interview:

On whether Tunisia’s current situation meets expectations: Yes and no. Yes, insofar as Tunisia is in the midst of a democratic age of rare intensity. Yes, insofar as the strength of democratic civil society is undeniable, forcing governments to be more modest. No, because this period, without a constitution, without a permanent government, has become too long…the longer the transitional period is lengthened, the more dangers proliferate.

On the public debates taking place and Turkey: Everything we’ve done so far has been a waste of valuable time in lamentable and ridiculous discussions about female circumcision, the niqab, Sharia, the caliphate, and other dreams and utopias which all proceed from thoughts which will never be realized. It was these very thoughts that were once the fundamental causes of the general decline of the Muslim world. Turkey, ruled by an Islamic-oriented party, is admired not because it applies Sharia, or agrees with Salafism, or is inspired by the somber niqab for its fashion. The reasons for its success comes from the fact that they lead a secular state, which has achieved an economic growth rate well above 7% and is led by a competent government.

On the current government: For now, what we should avoid is harassing the government critics through impromptu or unjust attacks. But the government must, in turn, avoid blunders or improvising its actions. We need better coordination between the three heads of state. I will not go further in my criticism. I would say, however, that some ministers and secretaries of state, notoriously incompetent, are really not in their place and are sources of problems. I think that there should be a ministerial reshuffle urgently to get rid of some ministers and secretaries of state whose capabilities are extremely limited.

On the consolidation of political parties: What we observed during the elections of October 2011 is a certain lack of rationality, because of fragmentation and the number of political organizations, whether partisan or independent, and the phenomenon of lost votes. Remember that in some electoral districts, voters were forced to choose between 95 lists, which is an aberration. For future elections, therefore, we must first enter into cycles of consolidation among various political parties belonging to the same ideological family. This is what is happening now.

On the government response to security and justice: [The government’s actions on] security and justice give a clear impression of working under the inspiration of the principle of a double standard. From the case of Nessma TV to the recent sentencing of young activists on Facebook sentenced to seven years of prison by the trial court of Mahdia or the repression of the demonstration by unemployed young people on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, despite the ban, to the case of the newspaper “Atounisia”, or the aggression against the journalists Ben Hamida Soufiane and Zied Krichen and Professor Hamadi Redissi , or in the case of the national flag being insulted and defamed at Manouba, justice, every time, proved extremely harsh vis-à-vis the movement of intellectuals or artists of democratic and secular modernists and extremely soft or extremely slow, vis-à-vis the Islamists and Salafist movements of all sizes. All these events leave, objectively, the impression that the state is biased, which is a very bad sign. I’m not trying to judge intentions. They may be good. I describe a fact of opinion, an objective fact. It is true that the reaction of the interior minister, and Mr. Rached Ghannouchi, against the Salafists, tried to reassure the public. This is a good step. But we expect concrete action.

On the nature of the new constitution: Most important in our draft constitution is not about the nature of the regime. On this point, we must rely on the wisdom of the National Constituent Assembly. The real goal will be manifested through a declaration of human rights in the body of the constitution, then by the general principles of state organization which aim to ensure the neutrality of the administration, the separation of politics and religion, very strict control and management of public funds.