Tunisia’s fledgling democracy is evolving in inspiring ways​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​
Hussein Ibish 5 December 2017

My visit to Tunisia this week confirmed that while the country is continuing to develop its fledgling democracy in important and inspiring ways, there is no underestimating the potential dangers ahead. Everyone in the country is naturally delighted that the national football team has qualified for next year’s World Cup in Russia and drawn a relatively weak group with England, Belgium and Panama, which raises the possibility of advancement to the second round.

Otherwise, the most striking constant is the extent to which Tunisian perceptions radically differ, not only about where they think their country should go (a universal manifestation of essentially healthy political differences), but also much more significantly and unusually in their assessment of the national condition. Most of those associated with the political organisations that are benefiting from, and essentially thriving under, the new system, including Ennahda and several major secular parties, are generally upbeat and at least cautiously optimistic. That’s because things are going relatively well for them personally and politically.

But many other close observers are far less sanguine. Profound anxiety, sometimes bordering on alarm, characterises the sceptics’ perspectives. Most concerns focus on the economy, which tends to be the first subject that comes up in almost any conversation about the national condition. In recent years Tunisia has suffered a series of devastating economic blows, including a collapse of foreign investment and the devastation of the tourism industry following two major terrorist attacks against foreigners.

These difficulties exacerbated both a drain of talent due to emigration and of foreign exchange reserves, which have now fallen to a mere 92 days of imports. That places Tunisia in the dangerous category of cash reserve insecurity. Economic woes are particularly acute in the more impoverished south and west, where angry demonstrations are frequent. Another major issue is the chronic unemployment among university graduates throughout the country.

Economic insecurity not only fuels discontent and unrest but also undoubtedly contributes strongly to the appeal of terrorist groups who have been disturbingly successful at recruiting Tunisians, especially in marginalised areas. There are profound fears about the potential impact of returning ISIL extremists now that the group has been driven out of Iraq and Syria. Border regions with Algeria and especially Libya remain lawless and volatile.

Yet there are some positive indicators. Flashes of entrepreneurial success demonstrate what can be accomplished by business start-ups. The tourism sector might be poised for a comeback as memories of terrorist violence fade, assuming there aren’t any additional major extremist attacks.

The de facto junior partner in the governing coalition, Ennahda continues its slow and non-linear process of transforming into a post-Islamist party. The long-term success of this transformation is almost as significant for the future of Arab political culture as is Tunisia’s overall experiment with democracy.

Religious conservatives, after all, are not going to disappear from Arab societies or opt out of politics. Therefore, a legitimate vehicle and political instrument for these sentiments, that is acceptable to the rest of society, must be developed. By working to shed the conspiratorial, subversive, authoritarian and, most importantly, transnational aspects of traditional Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamism, Ennahda is demonstrating what that might look like.

The organisation, though, is wrestling with a three-way split. The first is between a majority who support the changes and a substantial minority who don’t. Among those who supported this reincarnation, there is an obvious divide between those who take it seriously on its own terms and those who see it as purely rhetorical and tactical.

The relative strength of the parties in this second division is much harder to gauge. But to remain politically viable within Tunisia’s democracy, Ennahda knows there is no going back to a political approach that amounts to religiously reactionary Islamist Leninism.

The organisation is quietly confident about its chances in upcoming municipal and local elections, which will test its strength against president Beji Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tunis party. The two have been in an uneasy governing alliance for the past three years but Mr Essebsi has recently been expressing doubts that Ennahda has genuinely transformed from an Islamic identity group into a bona fide civic party, as it claims.

Ennahda is particularly at odds with prime minister Youssef Chahed, who is spearheading a painful and deeply unpopular austerity programme demanded by the International Monetary Fund that involves raising taxes and laying off public employees. When the alliance finally breaks completely, Ennahda is likely to blame Nidaa in general, which could prove a very effective election tactic.

Nidaa and its allies have been pushing back on one of Ennahda’s biggest weaknesses, which is gender discrimination, by promoting the right of women to marry non-Muslims, combating violence against women, mandating equal inheritance for all siblings and similar measures. It’s another crucial area in which Tunisia is blazing an all-important trail for the rest of the Arab world.

Tunisia needs and deserves the greatest possible international and regional support because everyone who cares about the future of the Arab world has a large stake in all the components of the Tunisian experiment – building democracy, Ennahda’s transformation, defeating terrorism, championing women’s rights and the economic recovery on which all that depends.

Published on The National on December 2nd 2017

Credit: Fethi Belaid / AFP