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How will Tunisia’s Islamic wild card be played?

by Ishac Diwan and Hedi Larbi

Can political Islam be a constructive player in a truly democratic system?

Tunisia is currently trying to answer that question — with implications that extend to the entire Arab world. Indeed, given that no Islamist party has ever governed democratically in an Arab country, Tunisia (together with Egypt) is undertaking an historic experiment.

Several factors improve Tunisia’s chances of achieving a successful democratic transition. There is, for example, the country’s large and educated middle class and the historical moderation of Ez-Zitouna University, one of the oldest universities of Islamic theology. Moreover, an influential part of Tunisia’s ruling party, Ennahda, developed democratic inclinations during its members’ long European exile.

But more than two years after the start of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, there is still doubt about whether Ennahda can oversee the completion of a transition to democracy. Indeed, since winning Tunisia’s first free election in 2011, Ennahda has been unable to choose definitively whether to support a pluralistic or an Islamist state. This ambivalence has led to a high level of polarization between liberals and Islamists — and to political violence.

On one hand, Ennahda wants to unite political Islam under an umbrella of moderation and modernity. On the other hand, as competition from extreme Islamist parties has intensified, Ennahda has been tempted to move to the right to broaden its electoral base.

As a result of these competing pressures, Ennahda has adopted an ambiguous double language, which has ended up alienating radical and moderate constituencies alike, while paralyzing the institutions, such as the National Constituent Assembly, that are supposed to lead Tunisia’s political transition.

Ennahda’s permissive stance toward radical Islamist organizations has encouraged these groups to become increasingly assertive, demanding a more markedly Islamist constitution as they position themselves to compete in the next general election, due to be held at some point before the end of this year.

As a result of this increased radicalization, violence perpetrated by extremist groups has risen. The so-called Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution have intensified their attacks on liberal parties and civil-society groups that dare to criticize Ennahda or the government, trying to muzzle them through bullying and intimidation. In September, the Salafist movement Ansar al-Sharia attacked the American embassy. Five months later, radical Islamists assassinated the secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid. His death — the first political assassination in Tunisia since independence in 1956 — sparked major protests across the country.

Moreover, al-Qaida-linked jihadists based in the area surrounding Mount Chaambi, near the Algerian border, have repeatedly clashed with the Tunisian Army in recent weeks, resulting in a rising death toll. Last month, Ansar al-Sharia ignored a government ban and tried to hold its annual congress in Tunis. When the security forces attempted to cordon off the area, violence erupted.

The timing of the escalation of political violence is no accident. It reflects radical groups’ efforts to shift the public’s attention away from more concrete problems like high unemployment and pervasive insecurity, which are fueling popular discontent with the government. Indeed, recent polls show that the Union for Tunisia, a coalition of liberal parties, could win the next general election.

With both secular and Islamist parties flexing their muscles, drafting a new constitution has been particularly challenging. In April, the body charged with this task, the National Constituent Assembly, which is dominated by the ruling coalition — composed of Ennahda, and two small liberal parties, Ettakatol and Al Moubedra — released a third working version, which satisfied no one.

During the drafting process, the liberal camp has managed to extract from Ennahda’s leadership statements in support of civil rights, including freedom of religion, the secular character of the state, and popular sovereignty — and to exclude mention of Shariah law.

In his recent visit to Washington at the end of May, Rashid al-Ghannushi, Ennahda’s cofounder, reiterated his own commitment to these values.

But many of Ennahda’s members appear unwilling to accept these principles. This is why a subsequent constitutional draft included several new articles, such as one on blasphemy, which could be used to restrict individual freedoms and uphold the state’s Islamic character.

These provisions gave rise to a heated debate in the context of a national dialogue led by Tunisia’s largest trade union. An agreement to amend the new articles was reached, but the Ennahda-dominated Constituent Assembly rejected the agreement a week later — the third time Ennahda’s elected members have refused to honor a commitment made by the party’s leadership.

Recently, as a “final” draft was circulated for discussion, another political crisis erupted over a last-minute modification — in the absence of any consultation — of provisions dealing with the right to strike and freedom of expression.

In response to a strong popular backlash following the recent security breaches, Ennahda leaders have for the first time called on the government to enforce the law regardless of the identity of the offenders. They also announced their full support of the government’s decision to ban Ansar al-Sharia’s congress.

It is not yet clear whether such statements signal a real change in Ennahda’s strategy, aimed at preventing radical Islamists from stripping the government of what little credibility and public trust it may still have, or are merely intended to ease tensions and dispel discontent.

Tunisia has reached a critical point in its political transition. As the process of framing a new constitution reaches its final stages, Ennahda must decide whether to commit fully to a democratic, pluralistic, and open society.

If it does, its leaders must discipline the party’s radical wing and achieve a unified position on the ultimate draft.

Ishac Diwan teaches public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and is the director for Africa and the Middle East at the Center for International Development. Hedi Larbi is a former director for the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank. © 2013 Project Syndicate