Is Tunisia Heading for a Violent Confrontation?

The increasingly authoritarian behavior of the ruling Ennadha party suggests that Tunisia is about to experience a confrontation that could turn violent, writes Hedi Shraeib. The people are getting tired of the mainly Islamist government that replaced the old regime, but a credible opposition force has yet to be formed.

al-monitor Supporters of Tunisia's Etoile Sportive du Sahel soccer club run as tear gas is fired during clashes in an African Champions League soccer match against Esperance Sportive de Tunis at the Sousse Olympic stadium early August 19, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Stringer.

Topics covered

law, constitution, army, tunisia, media, islamist, ennahda, ben ali

Sep 7, 2012

Let us hope that the upcoming elections will not devolve into a civil war. The verbal jousting, which has always been normal in such circumstances, now includes intimidation, blackmail and all kinds of threats. The era of measured replies is over. Worse, physical assaults, which used to be limited, seem to have become part and parcel of the political landscape.

These are the events that fill the pages of our daily press. Commentators and self-appointed “opinion leaders” parade before microphones and cameras to take public stances and dispense their “truths,” which the next day are either corrected or contradicted. It is a real cacophony. Ethical and professional investigative journalism remains in its infancy. Impressions and hunches often take precedence over rigorously supported arguments. For example, it is being said that Qatar will be allowed to fleece our economy in exchange for a few dollars for the ruling party. That may or may not be true but what is really known about the heads of capital in this small emirate, which is not known for its industrial know-how nor for its ability to transfer technology? Almost nothing.

Not only should “all violence” be condemned, but also specifically the insidious, sneaky and treacherous kind of violence targeting the most vulnerable people. The instances of such violence are too many to list but they are so rarely publicized, analyzed and explained, that they are quickly forgotten.

One piece of information chases another until, as if by magic, they all end up pointing to the only concern of the moment: the next election, which some call “decisive” and others call “historic.”

Everything is being ignored in favor of “creating” favorable power relations that will have to decide whether they are in favor of renewing the troika, forming a republican coalition, forming a popular front, or, finally, forming yet another “third way.” The choices are many. The undecided voters should not be concerned since even more choices are expected to emerge.

Do not get me wrong, this mockery will not be spared by history, which, as everyone knows, does not forgive the vanquished.

This phenomenon finds itself inexorably and unconsciously driven only by the electoral concern. But in addition to asking ourselves why something should be done, are we asking ourselves how it should be done?

Everybody knows that Islamism — in its various components and in the shape it is today — is unable to meet the country’s challenges. The ideological constants of “social morality” and “economic liberalism,” to which Islamism subscribes (albeit sometimes reluctantly), is preventing it from imagining other “possibilities.” This evidence that battered the “provisional authorities” is in disarray.

New battlefronts are opening up: water conflicts, public markets, women, artists, journalists, etc. We are stunned and speechless to see the old regime’s methods returning: haphazard dismissals and appointments, the reactivation of old methods to ensure public order, and compromises and arrangements with the remnants of the old regime.

Test balloons and procrastination, which are sometimes followed by undeclared but obvious setbacks, are shrinking the room to maneuver. The Islamists are trying to hold on to their gains.

Machiavelli argued that the three pillars of power were religion, the army, and the law. The majority party has religion covered. It is the safest and most effective ideology in a country such as ours. The fact remains that many of our citizens fear God more than anything. And as long as the Islamists and their allies give religion a modern look, they will continue to benefit.

The army pillar (in the sense that the authority controls the devices of coercion) is clearly not under their control. The chain of command is not working properly despite high-level appointments. The army is not yet the “the big mute” it should be.

The third pillar is the law. The difficulty of making a law above all laws [the constitution] is proof that large sections of society distrust the Islamists.

The movement has lost nothing yet, but its electoral legitimacy is fraying. Procrastination and corruption are shrinking its room to maneuver.

Those who have been disappointed are seeking an alternative. They are trying to unite. After the attempts at reconciliation, there is a need for alliances, fronts, and electoral agreements. Large urban factions are urging the formation of such alliances. Let us admit that the various oppositions have never been so explicit about that “urgent need” as they are today.

But the young popular front is attempting to rally whom exactly? Nida Tounès has decided to form a political force and is calling for unity around common values. One must be a very poor political observer to believe that that would be enough to convince “the masses.” Relying solely on the protest vote could well turn out to be a fatal political mistake.

The neutrals, the champions of the third way, have also become part of the political landscape. Should they be called the center-center or center-left?

And what about the social perspective? There is nothing really new here but they are telling us to be patient and that it will come later. Opinion polls and studies are being done. Some political scientists say that there are places for three or four political parties. But the places are very expensive, which is not surprising. The confrontations are expected to become sharper and more violent!

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