North Africa, West Asia

Islam and democracy: Tunisia at a crossroads

Ennahda's attempts to institutionalise its power and silence its opposition cannot be condoned. Nevertheless, Tunisia’s stymied liberalisation process must be understood within the broader context of domestic power dynamics, rather than solely through the lens of an ‘anti-democratic’ Islamist regime. 

Genevieve Theodorakis
3 July 2013

A primary driver of the Tunisian revolution was the unanimous call for freedom of expression and mass participation in national politics. With the demise of the Ben Ali regime, Tunisians hoped their liberation would remove controls on freedom of speech and freedom of the press and further expand women’s rights. In theory, journalists were freed up to share information, unhampered by fear of imprisonment or the harassment that characterised press censorship under Ben Ali, while newly empowered citizens exercised their right to vote in Tunisia’s first democratic elections. However, after recent developments, not only are Tunisia’s newfound liberties under threat, but rights previously enjoyed for decades are being eroded in the process.

 In February 2013, Tunisians experienced their first political assassination in decades, sparking a wave of national protests so fierce that some observers prematurely construed it as the start of a second revolution. While the second revolution did not materialise, the murder of government critic and politician Chokri Belaid was one of many events that led Tunisians to question the sincerity of Tunisia’s liberalisation efforts. Since the election of Tunisia’s first Islamist regime led by the Ennahda party, Tunisians critical of the government have been exposed to verbal and physical attacks together with judicial retribution from rogue actors in society and the state itself. Similarly, long-championed rights for women have been questioned by an increasingly vocal and powerful religious vote that seeks a return to a more traditional Islamic role for women in society. The emergence of these phenomena prompt two questions: what is the status of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and women's rights in Tunisia's democracy, and to what extent can the new status quo be attributed to Islamic impositions on democracy?

Freedom of expression

Freedom of expression is advanced as one of the most positive outcomes of the Tunisian revolution, yet in practice, this newfound right is unevenly applied. On one end of the spectrum, members of the political opposition, notably the late Belaid, have routinely received death threats for their criticism of the Ennahda party and were the frequent subject of both verbal and physical abuse in public. A few days before his murder, supporters of Belaid claimed he was attacked for speaking out against the government while at an opposition rally in the northern city of Kef.

Yet there are numerous incidences that reinforce the impression of a lack of disciplinary action against the perpetrators of this violence and verbal abuse. In July 2012, it was reported that religious figures in Tunisian mosques were preaching for the assassination of particular politicians and personalities disparaging Ennahda; a crime which would incur severe punishment had violence been directed at state or religious officials. Yet the culprits received no known condemnation from the government for inciting violence. Indeed, the day before his death, Belaid denounced the “climate of systematic violence” germinating in Tunisia and admonished the ruling coalition for tolerating the radical, anti-modernist demands of hardline Salafists. Thus far, few concrete steps have been taken to ensure that all Tunisians are entitled to the freedom of expression which accords with the most basic principles of law and order. 

Nor is there clear evidence that the Ennahda party intends to fully uphold this commitment. When the government issued a draft constitution in May 2013, Human Rights Watch criticised it for failing to protect freedom of thought through its “broad formulation of permissible limitations to freedom of expression” and freedom of assembly. Contradictions within the draft constitution leave room for discrimination - although Article 6 affirms “all citizens are equal in rights and obligations before the law, without discrimination”, the constitution states that only a Muslim can become president.

Limits also restrict equal protection under the law to Tunisian citizens, which may violate international human rights treaties ratified by the Tunisian government by providing the state with a broad leeway to undermine or restrict human rights through ‘cultural specificities’. Speaking to the press earlier this year, Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, stated, “The NCA should close loopholes in the draft constitution that would allow a future government to crush dissent or limit the basic rights that Tunisians fought hard for.”  

Freedom of the press

Under the rule of Ben Ali, Tunisians were subjected to one of the most oppressive internet censorship regimes in the world, while any journalistic criticism was stymied by media regulations that criminalised defamation, libel, and the disturbance of public order.

Tunisia’s democratic government has sought to reverse this trend by implementing new laws to liberalise restrictions on journalists. Passed in November 2011, decree law No. 2011-115 was designed to protect the rights of journalists to publish without fear of legal retribution and to discipline individuals or groups that partake in physical or verbal assaults directed towards journalists.

The new law was also envisioned to uphold the privacy of writers’ sources while eliminating prior laws that contradict the articles of Law 115. While the full implementation of Law 115 represents a major break from the past, the principles of the law are not being adequately defended, resulting in what Reporters without Borders have called an “unprecedented campaign of death threats against journalists, writers and media workers critical of the ruling Ennahda Party and its handling of recent events”.

Incidences of violence and death threats directed against journalists from across the media spectrum have only increased since the assassination of Belaid. Indeed, his very funeral was the site of a number of violent assaults on journalists and other members of civil society paying tribute to the politician, while several Tunisian journalists received death threats for their coverage of Belaid’s burial.

Tunisian journalists speaking out against the murder of Belaid and the activities of the Ennahda party have also been the target of anti-media rhetoric emanating from several religious leaders from around the country for allegedly “insulting Islam” or “hindering the work of the Ennahda party”, earning journalists critical of the government verbal and physical hostility.

Furthermore, journalists are not the sole victims of the country’s oppressive media laws. In late March, a blogger and a university professor were accused of defaming the minister of foreign affairs and the general rapporteur of the constitution at the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), a charge which could be punished by a prison sentence of two years. Participants in a rap video that questioned the morals and activities of the Tunisian police were also sentenced to six months of imprisonment in March for defamation and protesting against officials. The video’s rapper, Ala Yaakoubi, has not yet been located by police but was convicted of hate speech and incitement to violence and murder in absentia and sentenced to two years in prison. 

Women’s freedoms

Tunisia’s uncertain transition process sparked a nationwide debate concerning the rights of women in society, economics, and politics. Regarded as arguably the most liberal Arab state concerning women’s rights by westerners, Tunisia boasts a long history of expanding the rights enjoyed by women, beginning with the passage of laws assuring women the right to education and gender equality after the country’s independence from France in 1956.

As part of a campaign to secularise Tunisian society, government authorities went so far as to ban the wearing of the veil in universities and public buildings in 1981. Women were also permitted to divorce their husbands on equal terms, while polygamy was banned during a time when men were able to take up to four wives in many other Muslim countries. 

New political freedoms introduced following the exit of the Ben Ali regime have arguably altered the country’s trend towards secularisation, with Tunisia’s new government pursuing an Islamic reawakening in the North African country. Under Ben Ali, even the hijab was forbidden, but his departure has left women free to express their Islamic identity, with an increasing number of Tunisian women wearing the hijab and the niqab.

As a result, although the Ennahda party has made no real move to limit women’s rights in marriage, observers and Tunisians alike fear an increasing infringement on the rights of women in the workplace, in universities, and in society by the growing power of ultra religious actors in politics.

The war for women’s place in the new Tunisia is exemplified by a recent controversy sparked by the feminist protest of a 19-year-old Tunisian student who posted a topless photo of herself on the Internet with the words “my body is mine, not somebody’s honour” scrawled on her chest. Critics of the FEMEN-inspired protest argued that Amina’s interpretation of ‘women’s rights’ denied Tunisian women the agency to decide for themselves whether or not they would wear the niqab.

While this is an important discussion, the legitimate debate for women’s religious expression runs in danger of being overshadowed by a tide of extremism seeking to impose religion on society, summed up by the public declaration of a prominent Salafist cleric to the effect that Amina deserved to be flogged and stoned to death for exposing herself. Nor is Amina alone; increasing numbers of female secularists have become subjects of verbal and physical intimidation by hard-line Islamists who reject the secular elements of the 2011 revolution. It is the growing role of extremist Islamist groups that has increasingly divided Tunisian society, pitting secularists, who fear the widespread imposition of religion at the political and social level, against the religious, some of whom perceive Salafist groups as rare providers of morality and poverty alleviation during an uncertain transition.

The record is certainly mixed; while radical groups like Ansar al-Sharia have become popular in poor areas by distributing food, clothing, and medication, the group also aspires to implement Sharia law and was accused of attacking the American embassy in Tunis in September 2012. 

Islam and democracy 

Viewed from abroad, Tunisia’s difficulties may result from an inevitable struggle between democracy and Islam, posing the oft-reiterated question, “Is Islam compatible with democracy?” Indeed, as the Islamic world’s primary example of an “Islamist” democracy besmirches its reputation in Taksim Square and elsewhere, it is tempting to attribute authoritarian tendencies to all such Islamist perpetrators.

However, to restrict the debate over a perceived increase in authoritarianism to Islam is perhaps to miss out on the broader forces at play in the region. Though Islamists have long influenced the policymaking of Arab leaders, it is only since December 2010 that popular Islam has been provided with a first chance to directly dictate regional politics. Yet censorship, vicious retribution against government critics, and restrictions on women’s rights have nevertheless characterised the policies of many secular Arab regimes from Morocco to Jordan since independence.

Under the rule of heavyweights such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser and Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba, the state was defined by a strictly secular agenda that silenced the voice of Islam in the name of modernisation. Though women were traditionally allotted more rights within these regimes, during this time, religion was perceived as an obstacle to economic development, and this justified the enforcement of strict censorship laws over self-expression and the press.

Nor were such restrictive practices limited to the Middle East and North Africa, for it is arguable that the majority of developing countries denied their women equal rights and their societies civil liberties, irrespective of religious orientation. Critically, it appears that even 'bastions of democracy' within the west are unable to resist the urge to monitor citizens' behaviour and regulate activism.

Consequently, attempts to understand the sluggish efforts to promote 'democratic' values on the part of Ennahda cannot be limited to a discussion of the relationship between Islam and democracy. Rather, what is necessary is a broader understanding of power conflicts within society, particularly in nascent democracies: who are the bearers of power, and how did they obtain the mandate to rule? Which segments of society provide support to the regime, and which segments threaten to challenge its authority? What tools are available to the regime to exercise its power, and how do these tools differ from those available to its predecessor?

In this context, the Ennahda party has been given a mandate to rule that is not legitimate in the long run. Operating only with the power to oversee the writing of the constitution and the ruling of the country until legitimate, long-term elections can be held, an Ennahda-led government has what is potentially an expiry date, prompting fears of a loss of power among individuals long excluded from decision-making and formerly persecuted for their beliefs under Ben Ali.

Increasingly reliant on the religious vote, Ennahda's attempts to institutionalise its power, to promote the interests of its supporters, and to silence its opposition cannot be condoned. Nevertheless, these efforts are arguably best understood within the context of the party’s insecurity, as opposed to its identity as an Islamist party.

Moreover, the party has good reason to be insecure when considering the difficult transition period it must oversee. Charged with the task of keeping the ship afloat until Tunisians select their new captain, Ennahda has been hard pressed to combat rising inflation as the Tunisian dinar continues to depreciate.

Coupled with global increases in food prices, the devalued dinar has led to inflation of up to 300% in the case of certain foodstuffs, representing a significant deterioration in living standards in a country where food purchases constituted 35.5% of household final consumption expenditures in 2011, in comparison to 6.7% in the US and 9.4% in the UK.

Rising food prices deliver a serious economic blow in conjunction with growing unemployment; in 2012, Tunisia’s female unemployment rate represented one of the highest unemployment rates for women in the world in 2012 at 26.9% against a global average of 6.5%. Moreover, a third of the country’s unemployed are university graduates, and with estimates of 100,000 new graduates entering the job force each year by 2015, job creation fails to keep up with domestic employment demand.

Although there are signs that foreign investment is slowly returning, a full economic recovery will not be likely to happen until the country is securely in the hands of a long-term government that can ensure political, and therefore economic, stability.

Faced with the difficulty of meeting the economic and political expectations of Tunisians, Ennahda has proven ill-suited to managing the transition period. In the midst of growing societal discontent for and against its rule, the regime has been either unable or unwilling to exercise full control over actors that overstep the laws, nor has it prioritised the protection of civil liberties as promised during its election.

Yet despite its shortcomings, it is important nevertheless to examine the party’s behaviour beyond the boundaries of its Islamist identity. In attributing authoritarian characteristics solely to Islam, we not only risk misunderstanding the problem, but also relinquish the opportunity to be part of the solution.


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