Pro-Ennahda protesers demonstrate in 2011
c Amine Ghrabi

Tunisia: What happened to secularism?

Not long ago, Tunisia was considered a shining example of the secular Arabic state. But since the Arab Spring, it is now the governing Islamic party which is oscillating between the secular opposition and its own more radical members.

The Islamic party Ennahda, which has been in government since the elections of 23rd October 2011, has brought the country to a standstill. The problem is the balancing act, which the party is trying: satisfying the more secular opposition on the one hand, and the more radical Islamists on the other. But what happened to the secular, moderate state that was? And how do people think about the party one year on?

Long time no pray
When president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali assumed office in 1987, he made sweeping reforms, allowing new political parties and movements. However, all parties were prohibited, that were based on “religious, linguistic, racial or regional criteria”.

In the effectual dictatorial system and the powerful ruling elite, Ben Ali had created a strategy that would let him rule Tunisia for many years.

But not all Tunisians were enthusiastic about this form of the much-vaunted secularism. Tahar Ben Jelloun, one of the most influential francophone authors from the Maghreb region, describes it in his book The Arab Spring.

“When I came to Tunisia in 2005, female students complained in a low voice that they could not wear veils over their hair without being harassed by the police. They were not bomb-planting fanatics, they just wanted to practice their religion without being suspected as resistance fighters against the authoritarian regime Ben Ali.”

In 2010, the revolution finally broke out and people went on the street in the fight against the economic conditions and the corruption, but also to stand up for freedom of speech and the participation of the civil society.

Rise after the revolution
On 1st March 2011, after the secularist dictatorship of Ben Ali collapsed in the wake of the Tunisian revolution, Tunisia’s interim government granted Ennahda permission to form a political party. Since then it has become the biggest and most well-organized party in Tunisia, so far outdistancing its more secular competitors.

Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University describes his impression during his journey in 2011: “I emerged impressed with Ennahda’s organizational strength, democratic rhetoric, political energy, and by their determined efforts to engage with their political rivals and reassure their critics.”

Ennahda had the advantage that it had no relation with the hated old regime, and could claim an attractive mantle of principled resistance and clean hands. It went on to win the election.

Defending the achievements
But once the party was in office, it began to restrain the liberties its electors had fought for. One and a half year after Ennahda’s election, the Tunisians are no longer satisfied with their choice.

Mustapha Ben Ahmed of the Center Party says: “The Islamists have won the elections, but they face the opposition of the Tunisian society that wants to defend the civilian achievements – the freedom, women’s rights, the modern education system, an open culture.

“Within the Islamist movement, there are different currents, but they have found a common ground. What matters to them is the introduction of the Sharia. On the opposite side, there is the secular camp, which ranges from the extreme left to the liberals. It is the hope for a democratic, secular society, a civil instead of a religious republic that unites them.”

Talking to the youth of Tunisia, one gets the impression that the fight is far from being over. For them, it is now all about opposing the governing party that is not willing to give up its power so quickly.

For Wajdi Mahouechi, a young journalist from Tunis, the situation is clear: “The Ennahda is responsible for all these acts of violence that happened after the revolution. The Tunisians are a pacifistic people, and they will not elect this party again. That is why Ennahda does not want to fix a date for the elections.

“These last years and up to today, I have been fighting against dictatorship and I still do. And I will continue fighting to prove that all the sacrifices we made were worth it – for freedom, democracy and for the dignity of our mother Tunisia.”

Ines Bresler

Ines Bresler is a young journalist based in Germany. She has a degree in Roman languages and European studies. Ines works in a press office and writes for several intenational media. Spending some time in France, she discovered her interest in European-African relations.

2 comments on “Tunisia: What happened to secularism?

  1. FreeTunisian on said:

    It is clear that you have no idea what is going on in Tunisia since two years now.

    The “international crisis group” has published a report some time ago where they made an analysis of the situation in Tunisia which went a little deeper than the superficial analysis in this article.

    In Tunisia there is a “cold war” between the old regime’s mafia network which had and still have the money with which it still controls most of the country : from the economy to the media, to the workers unions to the justices unions to the lawyers unions to the security unions etc etc … that mafia lost only one thing during the revolution … the presidency and the government … other than that it still controls everything else …

    Nahdha being the winner of the west supervised elections … is a threat to that mafia and is the only thing standing between them and going back to power in Tunisia … so being the islamic conservative party that it is … ousting Enahdha became quite easy : it will suffice to use thir mafia media and paint Ennahdha as oppressive to freedoms … while every tunisian will tell you that under ennahdha regime we are enjoying freedoms we have enjoyed before …

    The only reason why some Tunisians .. who are not part of the old mafia .. are genuinely dissatisfied with Ennahdha … is because Ennahdha was too smooth on that mafia … Ennahdha did not opt for frontal confrontation with … and the People do not like that

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