Tunisia the hope for democracy in the Arab World in 2014?

December 31, 2013 5:36 PM0 commentsViews: 13


Mehdi Jomaa. Photo : Leaders. com.tn

The US-based Slate Magazine recently featured two interviews with opposing Tunisian politicians: Béji Caid Essebsi, the leader of the Nida Tounes party, and Rachid Ghanouchi, leader of the Ennhadha party. The interviews were carried out by Lally Weymouth of the Washington Post.

Béji Caid Essebsi spent the interview strongly criticizing the Ennhadha led government, stating that they been inefficient and had harmed the Tunisian economy. He said that Ennhadha had tried to promote a state based on Sharia law, and to reduce the place of women in society. He also highlighted the failure of the National Constituent Assembly to pass the constitution and the election commission in the allotted time of one year.

He acknowledged that Ennhadha had denounced terrorist and Salafist groups which it considered threatening to national security, such as Ansar Al-Sharia, despite having initially been reluctant to do so. He praised the army, police and National Guard for their efforts to maintain a state of security.

Despite these concessions, he called for the standing down of the Ennhadha led government and claimed that the National Constituent Assembly, now in its third year, has become illegitimate.

Although Essebsi calls for compromise, when the Quartet (UGTT, LTDH, UTICA and Bar Association) and other political parties voted for Mehdi Jomaa as the new technocratic prime minister, Nida Tounes and Al Joumhari did not vote. Jomaa’s affiliation with the Ennhada-led government was one reason for Nida Tounes to reject his election.

In his interview, Rachid Ghannouchi comes across as a consummate communicator with Western media. However, he appeared to engage in a different type of dialogue with fellow Islamists in Tunisia, as exemplified by the famous video exchange with young Salafists.The two worlds are wide apart.

Secularists have become fearful of giving an inch, whether over women’s rights or the imposition of Sharia law; although contentious articles on these subjects have been taken out of the draft constitution, they could still be put back in.

To his credit, Rachid Ghannouchi resolutely pursued dialogue with Béji Caid Essebsi. He rejected Salafist linked terrorism, recognizing their refusal to work within the law, although it could be argued that this rejection came rather late. In the interview he also emphasizes that the government had allocated a fifth of its budget to deprived areas, even though recent demonstrations indicate that unemployment and deprivation are still at dangerously high levels.

Rachid Ghannouchi is right in suggesting that compared to Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya and Lebanon, Tunisia has not done too badly. There is political and security turmoil in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Libya. The specter of a Sunni – Shia conflict in the Gulf remains frighteningly real. The USA’s General Dempsey has warned that conflict and instability in the region could last for as long as ten years.

The Quartet, including traditional opponents such as the UGTT and UTICA, have come together with leading political parties in an attempt to resolve the political deadlock in Tunisia. This is the only example of civil society successfully working with political parties to resolve the political deadlock between Islamists and moderate secularists in the Arab World, and Tunisia should be proud of this. The deadlock, with its devastating effects on the economy, could not go on. Investors and leading commentators are looking favorably at Tunisia again, and not before time.

As it is, an election is a year away. Despite considerable success in combating terrorism, the threat remains serious. There have been defections by politicians from both Nida Tounes and the Ennhadha party.

History is full of conflicts between two different ideologies; fascism and communism in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the West and NATO against communism, the war against terrorism, the West against Islam. These conflicts and divisions do not last forever and different alliances reform, break up and change. Perhaps the divisions between Islamists and moderate Islamic secularists will gradually soften and the Sunni -Shia divide which has lasted so long can be resolved. Economic reality, if nothing else, should encourage a return to normality in Tunisia.

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