The Tunisia option

Article Summary
Despite comparisons made between the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, the latter has avoided the violence experienced by Egyptians and maintained some semblance of a state.

Between Libya, where religious, tribal and regionalist militias roam freely, and Algeria, with its fair share of war and violence, lies Tunisia, with its small army and weak security forces. It shudders at the thought of religious militias — which do not recognize or acknowledge borders — trespassing its borders. In contrast with Libya, Algeria has control over its borders, thus sparing Tunisia [such] concerns. Tunisia, which normally compares itself to Lebanon, is also a small country that has fallen victim to regional complexities.

The cost of the Tunisian revolution was not as high as it was in Egypt. State institutions were not crippled by popular movements. Facilities remained active and offices open; electricity remained available too. The revolution brought down the president, but not the state, whose pillars remained intact and active. The state did not fall, contrary to what happened in Iraq, Libya, Syria and almost Egypt. Tunisian intellectuals attribute this to the history of the Tunisian state, which dates back centuries. Others attribute it to former President Habib Bourguiba, who left behind the makings of a modern state.

Tunisia was the first to flare up in revolution, followed by Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. A comparison between Tunisia and Libya seems impossible. Under the reign of [Moammar] Gadhafi, Libya lacked the concept of a state. As soon as the regime was toppled, it fell victim to religious and tribal entanglement with a spurious government. Perhaps a comparison is more possible with Egypt. Just as occurred in Tunisia, the most prominent and united Islamist organization took  power in Egypt — the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In both countries, however, Islamist movements could not grasp the concept of the state. On the contrary, they found themselves confronting it. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, the judiciary system, media, army and security agencies were standing on opposing sides. In Tunisia, in a video that went viral, [Ennahda leader] Rachid Ghannouchi said during a meeting with Salafists that they did not vouch for the army or media outlets.

In both countries, the state resisted the attempts of one organization to take over and subordinate it. [Success would have] required a more vulnerable, compliant state, with less history. In Egypt and Tunisia, the state did not respond to the occupation attempts, called empowerment. The state publicly resisted the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while the Ennahda Movement could not take over the state regardless of its endeavors and the fact that it placed its members and supporters in various institutions. Administrative failure characterized the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda. Both parties were preoccupied with absolutism, provoking the state and people. Other than that, they did absolutely nothing except weaken the state and impede its course. This raised the ire of the people and crippled the state. Both movements were busy empowering — which meant plundering and subordinating — more than anything else, and just watched problems, especially economic ones, grow worse, leading to unbelievably high prices.

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The situation not only disturbed the poor, but also the large middle class in Tunisia. It also confused the bourgeoisie, a part of which sided with Ennahda to protect themselves and preserve their own interests. The large majority, however, represented by the Tunisian Union of Industry and Commerce, supported the opposition. This is how Ennahda lost its popularity. Despite this fact, it is still able to mobilize and attract supporters. Statistics, however, show that its popularity tops off at 25%, with the strongest party being the Call for Tunisia, founded by Beji Caid el Sebsi after the revolution. Sebsi served as a minister under Bourguiba and was prime minister after the revolution. The performance of his ministry was the best of all after the revolution. This fast rise of Call for Tunisia and Sebsi shows, first and foremost, a longing for the era of Bourguiba by those who see him as the founder and builder of the modern Tunisian state. The secular state of Bourguiba is the complete opposite of the Islamist state Ennahda wishes for.

This was starkly demonstrated during the constitutional dispute, which touched on the identity of the state and women’s rights. Ennahda agreed on the constitutional philosophy of Bourguiba—“an independent state, whose religion is Islam.” It circumvented the constitution, however, to add articles insinuating that religion was the origin of legislation. When it came to women’s rights, Ennahda also played with the constitution and used the term “complementarity” instead of “equal,” which means that women complement men; men are the foundation.

If we compare the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to Ennahda in Tunisia, we will find that both failed to master governance of the state. Ennahda, however, had the advantage of being more resilient and more able to cope with situations and overcome obstacles. The Muslim Brotherhood did not assign any importance to the drop in its popularity; it instead carried on with the empowerment process. When millions of people took to the streets and demanded early elections, the movement clung to its legitimacy and is still  dwelling on it. When the four unions suggested that Ennahda leave the government in preparation for new elections, Ennahda did not cling to its legitimacy and government and did not oppose holding new elections. Therefore, Ennahda avoided a bloody conflict and civil split.

Does this mean that Ennahda is an Islamist organization that differs at the core from other Islamist movements? Not really. Ennahda is similar to the Muslim Brotherhood in its attempts at empowerment and even establishing its own militias. The League for the Protection of the Revolution, founded by Ennahda, is almost the equivalent of an army. For some, the league is home to thugs and fatwas. Ennahda also allied initially with jihadist Salafism, as Ghannouchi said that Salafists reminded him of the days of his youth. In addition, Ennahda’s interior minister claimed that Salafist camps were used for sports training. On top of that, Ennahda violently responded to opposition movements more than once.

The Tunisian army has never intervened in politics. Tunisia is not a country that relies on that institution. The army allowed former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country and did not intervene to save him. This was perhaps done at the behest of the US. This same army will not defend Ennahda and, in the best scenario, will leave it on its own to confront the people taking to the streets.

Political parties are rife in Tunisia today, and this is only normal. We do not find stand-alone parties but rather alliances where leftist, nationalist and religious parties are all mixed together sometimes. For example, the leftist Popular Front is made up of 12 parties, including Marxists, Nasserists [and] the Social Democratic Path, in addition to two old parties—the communists and Democratic Alliance that represent leftist circles. The Democratic Alliance includes organizations from the nationalist and religious left. Ennahda also has its alliance, as does the Call for Tunisia, which is an alliance by itself comprising figures belonging to or longing for the Bourguiba era. Despite this abundance in parties, [opposition] remains peaceful in Tunisia. It remains a political misunderstanding even if it becomes violent at times. Ennahda rivals accuse it of conspiring with Salafist terrorism. The accusation, however, remains unsubstantiated even though Ennahda had considered Salafism as a backup. Currently, it publicly opposes and fights terrorism. This peacefulness is certainly threatened by infiltrations from Libya. Still, Tunisia remains the closest model to consistency and peacefulness among all Arab revolutions.

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Found in: zine el abidine ben ali, salafists, salafist threat, rachid ghannouchi, muslim brotherhood, moammar gadhafi, ennahda movement, arab revolutions
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