The assassination in Tunisia of Chokri Beleid, the symbolic figure of opposition to the former regime and a leading modernist and democratic figure in the country's agitated transitional period, came to reveal a serious and dangerous challenge to Tunisia's still fragile transition to democracy.
The murder itself is a byproduct of the increasing physical and verbal violence and intimidation that is becoming the norm as Tunisia changes. One of the main political actors that uses these unsavory tactics is the National League for the Protection of the Revolution — a force very close, if not attached, to the Ennahda Party. The key danger, however, comes from the proliferation of a radical and recurrent Salafist jihadist discourse. This is taking place in mosque sermons by pro-jihadist sheikhs and in the political sphere by the leading figures of these Islamist movements. They preach against what they call infidels, atheists and anti-Muslims (and therefore anti-Islam) and those belonging to the old regime — meaning all modernists, if not all non-Islamists — as well as against those who believe in a civil state. A good example of such an exclusive aggressive discourse is the arson attacks on Sufi mausoleums around Tunisia.
The absence of a reaction by the Ennahda-controlled government — and the muted reaction of the party itself, which called for “dialogue” — sets a very dangerous precedent. Responding to the hateful speech of the Salafists by calling for dialogue and the failure to pursue legal avenues against this virulent form of extremism is creating a dangerous political and security situation in Tunisia. Its winning of an election by a very thin margin, with a low turnout, and the fact that the party has been persecuted in the past does not allow it to think that it has a free hand to impose ideological views on the new administration.
This is not being done entirely through the rebuilding of state institutions, because the party needs allies to maintain its thin majority. Instead, this is being done through the reshaping of the socio-cultural values of society, and through deciding — through intimidation when neccessary— what constitutes morally and socially acceptable behavior in post-revolution Tunisia. The ball is in Ennahda’s court.
What we are witnessing currently is an attempt by the prime minister and secretary-general of Ennahda, Hamadi Jebali, to form a government of technocrats. The goal of this is to forge a new, all-inclusive national unity government for the unprecedented crisis Tunisia faces in today's transitional period. Ennahda, however, has the audacity to reject the proposal of its own secretary-general, because it does not want to surrender its majority in this time of crisis. The party is still dominated by a radical ideological constituency that wants to use the government to push its agenda and suggests changes that increase its control of the government, its gradual consolidation of power over the administration and bottom-up Islamization through both the preaching of ideology and indoctrination in schools.
The fact that a part of that constituency is both ideologically and politically close to the Salafists constrains the leadership in dealing with this constituency, for fear of losing an important part of its popular base. The recent events in Tunisia have brought a key challenge to Ennahda that it has always been careful to avoid.
Tunisia faces a tough choice. It can keep maintain its current policies and risk pushing the country into a polarized national crisis between the Islamists and the rest of society, or it can avoid such a crisis by accepting a consensus-building approach that allows the participation of all its political and social sectors. The challenge is to build a true democratic society, not a restrictive democracy held hostage by a set of untouchable sacred taboos based on religious doctrine — a form of democracy that Fareed Zakaria described elsewhere as an "illiberal democracy." If it does not do this, Tunisia could slip into a cycle of civil conflict in which everyone loses.
Ambassador Nassif Hitti is head of the Arab League Mission in Paris, a permanent observer at UNESCO and a member of the Al-Monitor board of directors. The views he presents here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.