By Michaël Béchir Ayari
Tunisia has entered a new phase in its post-revolutionary development, one characterized by acute polarization. For some, ending this polarization and achieving national unity demands that the influence of the country’s largest political party, Ennahdha, on public and semi-public institutions be reduced. A series of events – the murder of the opposition National Constituent Assembly (NCA) member Mohamed Brahmi, the deadly attacks on Mount Chaambi, bombing attempts in Tunis, the exchange of fire against counter-terrorism units during raids on private homes – have pushed the secular opposition in this direction. Tacitly or overtly, the example of Egypt looms large despite the obvious dangers of following such a path.
Every episode of violence involving, directly or indirectly, “Islamist extremists” had already pushed part of Tunisian society to demand the return of national unity and consensual politics. In this narrative, these were shattered after the success of Ennahdha in the October 2011 elections, when the Islamist party chose to govern the country directly rather than allow a technocratic cabinet to take the helm of the state, and decided to turn the NCA into a legislative body.
After the Abdelia riots of June 2012, the attack on the US embassy of September 2012, and the assassination of Chokri Belaid in February 2013, the idea of putting Tunisia’s political battles on hold for the greater national interest was raised by a number of secular parties and trade unions. Critics argued these outbursts of violence were a sign that the country was no longer functioning normally, that its institutions were in disarray and that the governing coalition was more or less responsible – whether because of its laxity, incompetence or complicity. The idea of establishing a national unity, or ‘salvation,’ government of technocrats or competent personalities that would govern by decree (like that of former prime-minister-turned-opposition-leader Beji Caid Essebsi in April 2011-December 2012) was presented by the opposition as a solution to insecurity, low economic growth, and other problems facing Tunisia.
While it is true that Rached Ghannouchi’s party has not shown much originality, one can question the democratic credentials of elements of the current opposition. This opposition has now gone further than demanding a new government by calling for the dissolution of the NCA, a symbolic institution that emerged through the ballot box, while relying on anti-Islamism and inciting fear about the collapse of the state and a descent into violence.
Like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahdha’s achievements while in power have hardly been noteworthy. The party frequently confuses corporatist resistance to its policies (by professional associations, the civil service, etc.) as the manifestation of a nefarious deep state; refuses accountability to the public and to minority parties on the pretext of majority rule; rewards partisan commitment over professional competence at the detriment of governance and security; appears incapable of overcoming regional and clan divisions; and often indulges in nepotism and clientelism.
Nonetheless, the security, political, and corporatist problems raised by the opposition amount a laundry list of popular grievances and demands that have popular resonance, even if Ennahdha’s responsibility for them varies. Elements of the security services and business circles are now hoping to use these grievances, as in Egypt, to impose their own authoritarian vision of society.
Those secularists and Islamists who define themselves as defenders of the revolution, of freedom, and of dignity would do well to fight their natural inclination towards polarization and separate, among themselves, the wheat from the chaff. The two camps are far from internally homogeneous, even if the populist staging of their confrontation can give them a monolithic appearance. Each side has its non-democratic factions, one rejecting the plurality of values and lifestyles that have long existed in Tunisia, the other eager to reimpose the old order that imposed consensus through repression.
Avoiding the Egyptian scenario – if that still remains desirable by most actors today – demands that Islamists and non-Islamists go beyond polarization by setting their own houses in order, and dissociate their political disputes and ideological struggles from the security agencies and counter-terrorism efforts. Most of all, they must avoid the temptation of a strategy of weakness: relying on a “counter-revolutionary” ally to unseat their opponent.
In that respect, let us hope that the opposition believes it is strong enough to do without the support of the police, armed forces, and corrupt businessmen; and that Ennahdha remains confident enough to avoid resorting to the militia-like forces that, in places, have evolved in its shadow.
Michaël Béchir Ayari is the Senior Tunisia Analyst for International Crisis Group. This post reflects the opinions of the author and not of Tunisia Live as a publication.