Tunisian Government Tightens Grip, Sparks Fears of Islamization

Tunisia’s Ennahda government is injecting Shariah into everyday life. The Tunisia of tomorrow might resemble the Saudi Arabia of today and the Libya of yesterday, writes Nizar Bahloul. During the past seven months, the government has tried to win the sympathy of extremist parties and limit the freedoms that Tunisians have enjoyed for decades.

al-monitor Ennahda Party members fill out their ballots during the election of the new leadership of Ennahda in Tunis July 16, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi.

Topics covered

tunisian revolution, tunisian economy, islamists, ennahda

Aug 7, 2012

On Thursday, July 26, a shock wave hit the seat of the Tunisian government in the Kasbah area of Tunis, as well as Ennahdha’s headquarters in Montplaisir. Finance Minister Houcine Dimassi resigned, slamming media outlets and Tunisian opposition parties, which for months have been relentlessly criticizing the country’s bad administration by a government that cares more for the elections and its party than for its own country. The die is cast and the rest is history.

The government and Ennahdha have two choices. Their first option is to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to media and opposition backlash — including the statements of Mr. Dimassi, political observers, analysts and the governor of the Central Bank of Tunisia (CBT), who was recently dismissed from service — buying into the sweet words of “Samir Dilou and his associates.” On the other hand, the government can choose to lend a sympathetic ear to its various critics and provide appropriate solutions that might save the country, which is currently in a state of stagnation. Apparently, the government and Ennahdha have adopted the first option, relying heavily on political detours and distractions.

Instead of debating important issues — the devaluation of the national currency, the dismissal of the CBT governor, the reasons behind the minister of finance’s resignation and issues of compensation [for former political prisoners] — Ennahdha instead has just passed a bill banning blasphemy in Tunisia, in addition to a new constitutional article challenging gender equality. What perfect distractions!

At the same time, mass media outlets are broadcasting the astonishing attacks carried out by customs agents against the studios of Ettounisia TV channel and buildings belonging to the channel’s advertisers. In addition, several activists at the Tunisian General Trade Union (UGTT) have been arrested and tortured, the trade union confirmed.

All of these events have taken place in the middle of Ramadan, in the thick of summer vacation, under the scorching heat and on extremely crowded streets. Worse yet, rumor has it that cases of cholera have recently been reported.

In light of Ennahdha’s ambitious policies, there is no doubt Tunisia will go back in time a few centuries. However, no one expected – not even the best forecaster in town – that Tunisia’s regression would be accompanied by the outbreak of diseases that have been officially and globally eradicated.

Are last week’s events part of a distraction strategy that our leaders are using to divert Tunisians’ attention away from the chaotic events that took place two weeks ago? Or do they reflect the [short and medium-term] policies supported by the Islamist party? Whatever the answer may be, Tunisians must fight back for a variety of reasons relating to the economic situation, freedom of expression, freedom of creativity, justice, trade unions’ rights, etc.

During the past seven months, the government has passed new laws and issued resolutions to tighten its grip on the economy, win the sympathy of extremist parties, and limit the freedoms that Tunisians have enjoyed for decades. Below is a list of the actions the government has taken since seizing power.

  • The CBT’s governor was dismissed from his post.
  • There has been talk of monetary compensation for former political prisoners. However, it is still unclear whether or not this compensation will include prisoners charged with terrorist attacks and coup attempts.
  • There is now a new draft law that criminalizes any blasphemy. It aims to silence anyone who criticizes religion, and also bans all religious research (that is inevitably associated with agnosticism) and proselytism. In its current form, the law is so “flexible” that it outlaws any simple newspaper articles, drawings, sketches, movies and caricatures that could be considered blasphemous. Even worse, it could send their authors to prison for two years.
  • A new constitutional article has been proposed, stating that women are the compliment to men. This surely constitutes the first step towards gender inequality. Our women (mothers, sisters, wives and daughters) who, for years, have been striving to obtain equal inheritance rights, are today forced to take a step backwards and defend other rights that they acquired years ago. So, who among them still “dares” to raise the subject of equal inheritance?
  • As the cornerstone of all human rights, justice aims to impose and restore order. We hope that the justice system in Tunisia will remain loyal to its main purpose. Without an independent justice system, it is impossible for us to assert our rights. What will happen if the Tunisian justice system is no longer secular?

Naturally, the government will ignore the aforementioned criticisms and attempt to sweep them under the rug. A politician like Samir Dilou will feign indignation and denounce such arguments as merely diatribes and verbal one-upmanship. Additionally, a person like Mustafa Ben Jaafar will dismiss all of the preceding arguments as “absurd,” claiming that the members of Ennahdha party respect human rights and freedom. “Let them say what they like to say, we will not change our opinion,” they will say.

Despite whatever answers Samir Dilou, Ennahdha, the government and their staunch allies (namely the Congress for the Republic (CDR) and Ettakatol parties) are keen to give to the public, and regardless of the arguments that their “zealots” (whose numbers are increasing) always provide, Tunisians must never forget the two telling slips of the tongue that Hamadi Jebali committed. The first was using the term “caliphate” and the second was when he referred to a “new dictatorship.” If we are pessimistic, we could consider such slips of the tongue as indicative of the actual policy supported by the ruling party. All of these recent events are just the tip of the iceberg and the government still has a long way to go before achieving its ultimate goal: the Islamic caliphate. Abdelfattah Mourou, a co-founder of the Ennahdha party, admitted a while ago that the current generation [of politicians] is lousy and that they [Ennahdha] are depending on their children to make changes. Furthermore, Ridha Melhadj from the Islamist Ettahrir party, recently announced on Mosaique FM that the government’s current actions have nothing to do with Islam. Melhadj has added, “Ennahdha is simply observing its step-by-step policy, which is too slow and too soft.”

The facts and warning signs are there. The “Tunisia of tomorrow” might resemble the “Saudi Arabia of today” and the “Libya of yesterday.” It is now up to Tunisians to choose which stance they want their country to adopt. Will they chose the version that sings Marzouki, Ben Jaafar, and Dilou’s praises or the one that voices fierce opposition to the “minorities” and the “media of shame”?

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