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Tunisia and the divided Arab Spring

Mutual fear may prevail and the use of force be felt necessary. Exactly this plays into the hands of the parasites inside the apparatus who are busy transforming themselves into a self-governing body within the state (especially the Interior Ministry) that can exploit, if not directly manipulate, such contradictions.

Fabio Merone
9 August 2013

On July 25, Mohamed Brahimi, the Nasserist leader of the opposition party ‘The People’ (chaab) was assassinated. He is the second Tunisian political leader to be killed after the removal of former dictator Ben Ali. It happened in the environs of the capital city, Tunis, near his house and with the same weapon used to kill Chokri Belaid, the first victim of such a terrorist act. According to the initial security communiqué this was planned and carried out in a similar manner to the previous one, six months before. If the first assassination on February 6 left many questions hanging in the air, this time it left a strong feeling that someone was calculatedly planning such actions with a specific political strategy in mind. This was if anything confirmed by later events, in which eight soldiers were killed in an ambush during their patrol in the frontier region of Mountain Chaambi.

Since the beginning of July, in the aftermath of the deposing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, tension has risen amongst Tunisia’s governing parties, fearing an attempt to sabotage the only ‘successful Arab spring democratic transition’. The opposition has been trying since then to replicate the Egyptian scenario. The Popular Front, the Marxist-Pan-Arabist alliance to which Chokri Belaid belonged, demanded an immediate and total dissolution of the government and the Constituency Assembly, working together with the newly-created group of Tamarrod Tunisia (inspired by the anonymous group that triggered the mobilization in Egypt). After some holding of its breath, the governmental camp was initially reassured by the reaction from Tunisian society at large, which seemed skeptical about the Egyptian scenario.

The many differences between Tunisia and Egypt are significant: since the beginning, a constitutional path has been chosen in Tunisia, which created an elected Constitutional Assembly in order to draft a new constitution; in this assembly the Islamist party procured 41% of the members and so needed a larger coalition in order to run the government; the Islamist party elected, Ennahda, chose to work in coalition with the two main secular parties (CPR and Ettakatol). Despite this important difference, in Tunisia as in the rest of the Arab world, a new era of conflict was ushered in by the Arab Spring; a huge hegemonic change is under way with the coming to power of Islamic parties and the marginalization of both the former nationalist parties and the democratic secular camp.

Tunisia went through its highest point of tension six months ago, before the dramatic developments unfolded in Egypt. In the aftermath of the assassination of the leftist leader, Belaid, an emotional  wave of spontaneous demonstrations packed the public spaces throughout this country. It appeared to many, even those not much engaged in politics, that the Ennahda party must have had some responsibility. The crisis was survived though, and the ruling troika showed great flexibility in accepting change in all the strategic ministries - Interior, Justice and Foreign Affairs – with the introduction of neutral technocrats in top positions. From those in power the political message was: “we are ready to make concessions” on condition that the legitimacy of the elected government will be respected. They made it clear that any move aimed at overthrowing elected institutions and the constitutional transition process would be considered a coup d’etat.

However, in successive months, criticism of the government has continued. The main preoccupation has become the security situation of the country and the threat of terrorism. Heightened tensions returned between April and May when several mines exploded in the Chaambi mountain, on the border with Algeria (the same area where eight soldiers were killed last week). The reaction of the security apparatus was amateurish, giving contradictory statements and showing the IDs of alleged suspects later identified by the press as individuals who had died years ago. These developments provoked increasing unease in some Tunisians, and in others, further skepticism at the elite power play known to be occurring in certain spheres.

The assassination of Mohamed Brahimi was interpreted by many as resulting from the same political strategies and splits that were behind Chokri Belaid’s assassination. The Nasserist leader had been a strong supporter of the ‘Egyptian solution’, speaking out loud publically and even engaging in polemics with his own party when it disagreed with some of his declarations. He denounced ‘the infiltration’ of Islamic elements in his party. The political process became destabilized as a result of this loss of common ground and the clash of conflicting ideological orientations that ensued. For the opposition there was clear responsibility on the part of the government; many suspect the direct implication of Ennahda, accused of creating a ‘parallel apparatus’ inside the security system aimed at dealing with their political opponents. For the government camp the responsibility belongs to the ‘deep state’ motivated by a counter-revolutionary strategy and supported by prominent ‘liberal’ and ‘leftist’ secular leaders, bitter about their marginal role in the elected government. Yet others have accused the salafist-jihadis, though their direct responsibility has yet to be established. For all parties, this is a ‘terrorist attack’, but attributed by the press and the Interior Minister to an ‘isolated takfirist group’ with foreign involvement. Interestingly, there is common ground between the salafist and secular opposition analyses, both of whom berate the government for scapegoating and instrumentalizing the salafi component as a way of avoiding exposing the truth behind the assassinations.

These opposing views of the political situation are key to understanding the evolution of the political situation in Tunisia. The main contenders (Islamist and anti-Islamists) don’t trust each other, and the suspicions may turn into open conflict if events further exacerbate this divide.

The political situation could evolve in either of two directions. One option is that a new form of mediation is found, but that the institutions created by the transition process (the Assembly and the three presidencies - of parliament, of the Republic and the government) are preserved in order to finish the drawing up of the constitution in the next three to four weeks. In this case a new road map must be decided in common with the opposition parties and a precise date for the election must be assigned before the end of the year, as well as giving convincing guarantees to the opposition that such a clear electoral process is under way. Alternatively, tension may grow and further terrorist acts may lead to chaos with the dissolution of the assembly, the cessation of the transition process and the creation of a Salvation government led by a special committee of technocrats committed to a new draft of the constitution. This would be a scenario very similar to the Egyptian one, with the significant difference that, at least until now, the Tunisian opposition has looked unlikely to have the strength to bring an important mass of protesters onto the street.

The evolution of the political situation therefore in a sense depends upon the degree of trust that the process is able to generate between the various actors. Three factors may be the most influential in determining the direction this takes: the first is the willingness of Ennahda to share power; the second is the social and economic situation; and the third, the regional and geopolitical context.

Where Ennahda draws the line

The most common complaint lodged by the opposition camp against Ennahda and the coalition in power (Troika) is their unwillingness to share power. Ennahda and its allies have as their sole aim the ‘monopoly’ of power, they aver; and even the way the Government resists a government of ‘technocrats’ is proof that the only thing they care about is staying in power for as long as it takes to  eventually enforce a new authoritarian political system. For their part Ennahda insists that it is willing to share power, pointing for proof to the formation of its coalition government with two secular parties, including a large majority in the Assembly. They do reject the prospect of a technocratic government because they interpret it as an attempt by the opposition to outmanoeuvre a government that fully respects the political balance determined by the electoral outcome. They agree on the need to form a larger coalition including all the parties in the assembly, each  contributing according to their electoral weight. Yet they point to the stonewalling of the opposition parties in relation to their overtures to this end.

If Ennahda’s argument is to be believed, this still does not entirely explain the capacity the opposition have had until now to threaten its stability and question its legitimacy. This has to be explained more in terms of the struggle for hegemony that has been taking place than on the election result. The modern state of Tunisia was, more than the other states in the region, founded on the basis of a radical secular vision of modernity. Its middle class, educated by an educational programme that lauded the rational virtues of the western heritage and minimized the importance of achieving compatibility between modernity and the religious and Arab patrimoine. This framing of national identity has not taken hold to the same extent for the popular masses of the people. The proof is that on average Tunisians were willing to vote in a party that referred to Islam as the basis for its principles.

However, Tunisian ‘laicité’ is an ideology firmly rooted in the apparatus of the state, first of all in the bureaucracy that constituted the backbone of the former Bourghibian party (those who propagate Tunisian nationalism – Tunisianité - and constitute a clear political and sociological interest group). The same middle class also produced critics of this model - not in its basic principles, but in its acceptance of the authoritarian regime. Those belonging to the first category today are divided between Nidaa Tunis, led by the Bourghibian Caied Essebsi, and isolated groups of interests that still exist inside the state apparatus and feel themselves threatened by the new ‘revolutionary’ scenario. The first group is often defined as the ‘Bourghibians’, meaning the ones who believed in the national modernist project, who are ready to fight to prevent the country falling in the hands of a ‘backwards’ Islamic vision of the world. The second element consists of the ex-regime parasites who exploited power under Ben Ali’s regime through the opportunistic system of patronage. The critics of authoritarianism, also stemming from the same middle class, are however more ‘democratic’ and have developed over recent decades a secular appreciation leading to their opposition to dictatorship. But they share the same vision of modernity and may be willing to support a repressive action in order to deal with what they consider the ultimate threat, Islamists.

These positions can all be traced back to the beginning of the 1990’s, when Ben Ali started a repressive campaign against Islamists, carried out with the support of a large part of this ‘modernist’ and ‘democratic’ middle class. The main challenge for any Islamic party nowadays is not only to win elections, but to convince this core state constituency that they have a stake in and may be integrated into the construction of a post-revolution nation, without threatening its highest values. Trust between these two highly contrasted social and political components can only be generated through each assuring the other of its good intentions. This trust-building exercise is especially vital in such a transition from dictatorship to democracy, a period in which it is only natural that the loser thinks that the winner will not give them another chance. This is an obligatory step if democracy is to be achieved. However, if the split gets more profound, the mutual fear may prevail and the use of force may be felt to be necessary. Exactly this latter recourse plays into the hands of the parasites inside the apparatus who are busy transforming themselves into a self-governing body within the state (especially within the Interior Ministry) that can exploit, if not directly manipulate, such contradictions.

Social and economic demands

When it comes to the second consideration, the social and economic situation, it is quite surprising how little attention this aspect receives from the analysts and commentators. The truth is that what is being analyzed in terms of ‘political events’ is largely down to the narrow categorisation of a small political elite. But participation in politics, up to the present day, is in fact quite marginal. There are practically no new political leaders thrown up by the revolution, and even the participation in the elections was pretty low (51%), and for many not exactly representative of a general public opinion (because of the ‘apolitical’ orientation of most of the voters). This means that the political struggle, as it might be understood in the sense of a liberal transition process from an authoritarian power to a democracy, is reliant on the same middle class we have just discussed, with the addition of the conservatives represented from this new power of Ennahdha.

While the elite contenders are struggling to gain hegemony or recognition from one another, trying to draw up a new shared social contract, most of the rest of the entire population is concerned with day-to-day realities, including the dramatic economic situation. The deep discontent which drives the situation is coming from an apolitical population that is desperately frustrated because of the deterioration in their standard of living. These social and economic problems were the reason why the former system collapsed, and it has already bequeathed to the successor nation a large section of society profoundly alienated from the country’s future development. As a result a generation of apolitical, but nonetheless actively engaged, youth has engaged in what has been called ‘street politics’. Amongst the most visible of these movements is the Ultras, the football supporters, organized in groups very popular among young people. This movement never misses an occasion to confront the police and to be a destabilizing element in an open conflict between the two political blocs, with the sole qualification that they themselves are more comfortable on whichever side can be considered at any one time as more anti-system.

Another important element in the self-expression of this disenfranchised youth is the jihadi-salafi movement. Though the movement is large (thousands of young people) - not all are really participating in the political struggle, with many so far concentrating on preaching or proselytizing  to others (dawa). It is still the case that this movement, especially in its jihadi version, is very attractive to young people who have lost all their reference points (beginning with any chance of economic and social integration). That is why jihadi terrorism still has a chance to flourish in any situation in which the political transition leaves an institutional vacuum. Though there has not been until now any proof of the infiltration of terrorist groups into the Tunisian salafist movement, at each moment of tension the Interior Minister becomes increasingly shrill in voicing his suspicions and conspiracy theories. What is more important is that a factor such as the economic frustration of large segments of the people, may become an accomplice if the split in the political class deteriorates into outright confrontation, so that people’s desperation in the face of economic decline is transformed into a political consensus to overthrow the institutional process, such as has happened now in Egypt.

Regional moves and a divided spring

The third point concerns the new regional developments and its influence on the process. To understand this very crucial determinant it is first of all necessary to point out how the definition of the Arab Spring has changed and how it has become part of a rhetoric solely the preserve of the Islamists. The Islamists, and the part of the secular political class still in coalition with them, are the only ones who invoke the rhetoric of ‘freedom’. For them revolution still represents the sole  opportunity for freedom and for democratization - a transition process driven by elections constituting the necessary means. To them, the new opportunities witnessed in Tunisian society today, whereby most people can show off their Islamic faith and their sense of belonging without inhibition (described by those who have taken fright at this as the ‘Islamization’ of Tunisia), is a precious step towards a new free society.

The opposition camp, consolidating its position in the light of the growing complications of the Syrian conflict and role of Tunisian jihadis within it, is built on a familiar Arab nationalist foundation, but also operates on the logic that ‘the enemy of my enemies are my friends’ - the enemies being those who oppose the ‘Islamization’ of the political and social process. They oppose the ‘occupation’ of public spaces by religious symbols and practice as a threat. They believe that Islamists in power within the institutions, and salafists gaining ground in the social sphere, are part and parcel of one strategy, aiming to establish a new backwards Islamic authoritarian system. They interpret the support of Qatar, Turkey, France and US for the Arab Spring as a big plot to keep the Arab countries enslaved to the west and avoid a true emancipation.  They point to examples of a US administration that is harsh towards secular Arab nationalist presidents, while providing unconditional support to the Zionists (the Israeli state). Islamists in their Muslim Brotherhood version are, for them, the new ‘servants of the West’, with Qatar serving as the big puppet/proxy in the region, and Turkey as a neo-Ottoman imperialist country.

This explains in part why it is feasible that salafists and Arab nationalists may find themselves on the same side against the ‘Muslim Brotherhood plot’, as was the case in Egypt. When the struggle is anti-imperialist, they may form a concerted bloc. In the case of Tunisia, though, because the radical leftist anti-MB camp is comprised of a different political and social composition which is not especially anti-western or anti-Zionist, but rather primarily anti-Islamic, this coalition is less viable an option.

The landscape of the Arab Spring’s countries has increasingly divided into two very visible political orientations: Islamic and anti-Islamic. Both camps are made up of two ‘parties’ adopting a different degree of radicalism toward the anti-imperialist cause. The Islamist camp contains an appreciably greater range of animosity towards anti-imperialist causes, in also embracing those who cite Palestine and Algeria and argue that the west was never remotely interested in working with Islamists, or allowing any real democracy. But indeed we can safely say that that all these political parties or ideological orientations are wary of a certain western policy in the Middle East, especially when it comes to the Palestinian cause. On that subject alone, you will find no division between these two camps.

What is true, though, is that we may distinguish between a ‘moderate’ attitude on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood and the modernist camp in Tunisia; and a ‘radical’ stance on the part of  salafists and Arab nationalists alike. And it is here that the geopolitical framework has played its part in providing each of these sides with a perceived ‘common enemy’. On the one hand, Qatar has become, since the beginning of 2000, an important centre for the propagation of the so-called ‘wasatiyya’. The famous Egyptian clerk, Youssef Qaradawi, has been living there for long time as a refugee, and has been given both academic and TV space (as the special host of Al-Jazeera’s religious programme shariaa wa hayat for some years) to ‘propagate’ the new idea of a moderate Islam (the word wasat in Arabic means centre, taken from a basic Koranic concept explaining that Islam is the religion of the centre, interpreted as ‘moderation’). This was in part prompted as a response to the terrible reputation Islam had acquired in the west after Bin Laden’s decade of terrorist acts, and in part by the larger geopolitical imperative on the part of the Al-Thani royal family to introduce a new policy of modernization (closer to that of the west). This was supported by the US, of course, until Qatar became - even militarily - a new strategic pawn in the regional policy of the US.

Qatar’s geopolitical pursuits must themselves be read in the wider context of the Arabic peninsula, in which Saudi Arabia is the biggest super-power, with Qatar historically feeling encircled. So this small country elaborated an intelligent policy to gain a larger piece of the action under the shadow of its big brother. Saudi Arabia, on the contrary was and still is very uncomfortable with this new bid for power, especially since it was based on an ideological-religious theorem seen as very dangerous to the survival of the Saudi royal family. The new ideology arose from the ‘democratic’ shift that occurred within the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. One must not forget that Saud’s family was very seriously under threat in the 1990’s from a reformist Islamic movement largely influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The new scenario created in the Arab Spring seemed to justify Qatar and certain American Democrat circles, which had placed their bet on a democratic evolution of Islamism which might be integrated into the larger democratization scenario of the region as a whole. Yet what was a victory for Qatar was a threat for Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was very much on the defensive in the first year following the Arab Spring uprisings. This changed when it appeared that they could still find an ally in the region to balance against the overwhelming presence of the MB: the salafists. Salafism in its Wahhabist version of course (and not jihadi), were supported everywhere, even in Tunisia, in the classic manner; the financing of charitable and Koranic Wahhabit associations.

A further geopolitical actor, with an important influence on events in Tunisia, is Algeria (increasingly important since regional developments that included the French intervention in the northern regions of Mali and the supposed expansion of jihadi towards Libya). From Tunisia’s point of view there cannot be any solid base for its process of transition without having the solid support of its two Arab neighbours. This geopolitical factor emerged clearly enough during Libya’s rebellion against Gaddafi, supported logistically and politically by the new Tunisian Government.

From the perspective of Algeria, these evolving events appeared quite different. The Algerian government remained highly suspicious of the hidden intentions of the new Tunisian ‘revolutionary’ government: the Algerians feared a knock-on effect. Their skepticism only deepened when the Islamic party, Ennahda, took power, which seemed a real nightmare to them. Rached Ghannouchi (the Tunisian Islamic leader) was at the time of the civil war in the 1990’s in fact a good ‘friend’ of the Algerian Islamic FIS.

But after almost two years since those revolutionary events, the political climate has changed again, and now it is the fear of external interference that is largely mutual. Despite the exchange of official visits, the Islamic Tunisian party continues to suspect Algerian infiltration of conspiring to overthrow the Ennahda-led government, encouraged by regional developments in Egypt. Bouteflika, the Algerian president, could take advantage of the new Arab nationalist feeling abroad in the region and in Tunisia as well. He has come to be represented, in a line with Assad and the new strongman in Egypt, Sisi, as resistant to the western plot to overthrow the Arab nationalist governments. At the same time he has come to be seen as a saviour against the Islamist wave, and the one who ‘knows how to deal with terrorists’ (because of the experience of the civil war of the 1990’s). It has been pointed out many times in Tunisian public debate how important the Algerian experience was in the struggle against terrorism.

The Algerian press often intervenes in Tunisian debate to underline the Islamic danger coming from this side of the border. It is very likely that those in power in Algeria, especially at this sensitive systemic moment, in which the country is preoccupied with the imminent post Bouteflika transition, are concerned about jihadi or salafi infiltration. The fear on the Algerian side is of a repetition of the Syrian scenario. There are enough elements here coming together to make one take very seriously the role of this important neighbour, and its influence on the process going on in Tunisia.

The outcome of this most recent Tunisian crisis may tell us much about the future of the so called ‘Arab Spring’ and the democratization process of the country. If it is able to emerge from this dangerous minefield by relying on the institutional tools already in existence, this will be an important step forward. The consequence will be the development of a system that will start to believe in itself and be more confident in future conflicts in relying on the mechanism of state institutions. That is why it is so important that the state, with its apparatuses and institutions, ‘plays by the rules of the game’.

The transitional process in Tunisia has been until now exemplary, and despite the tensions and the social and economic crisis, it has shown itself well-suited to the country and its traditions. The Islamic option is still perceived as a threat by many, and Ennahda is still lacking a political hegemony (in the sense of conquering the elites). But what has emerged from the recent dramatic events, exacerbated by all the latest regional developments, is that obscure forces are trying to divert the accomplishments of the transition and crush all remaining elements of the myth of ‘The Arab Spring’. This is the moment for Tunisia to reveal itself as a true exception, and a model for the future of the other countries in the region. 

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