Marc Lynch

Tunisia’s political turmoil

Tunisia’s political turmoil

Last month’s frightening scenes of mobs attacking the American Embassy and an American school in Tunisia  should focus Washington’s attention on the birthplace of the Arab uprising.  President Moncef Marzouki has made great efforts to apologize for the attacks, to emphasize his government’s commitment to democracy, and to crack down on what they clearly label an extremist minority. But concerns over the emerging salafi challenge should not distract attention from the deeper issues confronting one of the most hopeful of the Arab transitions.   The protests themselves were rooted in a deeply contentious political arena facing rising polarization around the role of Islam, anxiety about the drafting of the constitution, and the failure of the transitional government to effectively respond to a deep jobs crisis.

A new public opinion survey released by the International Republican Institute shows that Tunisians  have a grim view of their future. They remain overwhelmingly focused on a disastrous economy rather than on Islamist cultural issues.  But they are also exceedingly keen to see the drafting of a new Constitution completed — and by a spread of 52%-41%, Tunisians said they would prefer a democratic Tunisia which was unstable and insecure over a non-democratic system which was prosperous and secure. This latest snapshot of public attitudes demonstrates again both how Tunisia’s revolution has stalled.. and why there is still reason for hope.

The headline of an IRI survey which found 67% of Tunisians saying that the country is going in the wrong direction — the highest since IRI began polling in March 2011 — might be "it’s the economy, stupid."  Large majorities identify economic issues as their primary concern: 60% describe the economy as bad or very bad, while 81% mention jobs as one of their top three issues, followed by "Developing the economy" (51%) and "Living Standards" (49%).  85% say that unemployment is the top problem facing the country, followed by economic crisis (63%). A rather stunning 57% of respondents say that they are not currently employed. 

Their concerns are warranted.  The 2013 World Development Report, as Erik Churchill points out, is full of horrifying statistics about Tunisia’s jobs crisis.  This ongoing economic and jobs crisis threatening Tunisia’s transition only highlights the foolishness of the Congressional decision to deny funding to the State Department’s new program for economic assistance to transitional Arab governments.  Meaningful economic assistance seems far more important than democracy assistance or military cooperation for supporting a democratic future for Tunisia.  It is pure folly to cut such assistance programs now.   

If the economy is the overwhelming background issue for  Tunisians, politics also seems to matter.  A massive 86% majority say that "completing the Constitution" is important or very important to them, and 73% want it put to a popular referendum rather than simply approved by the Constituent Assembly.   There is still strong support for democracy, even admidst crisis, as noted above.   But enthusiasm for popular mobilization may be fading:  a sizable minority (30%) describes "strikes and sit-ins" as one of the top problems facing the country, and another 28% complain about  violence and vandalism.

Looking ahead to the next elections, Ennahda remains by far the strongest political party in the IRI survey, with 27% saying they intend to vote for the Islamist party in the next election and no other party exceeding 6%.   But there’s a lot of volatility.  41% say they don’t know who they will vote for.  Only 59% now say that they voted correctly in the previous election, down from 89% at the beginning of 2012, and only 39% say they intend to vote for the same party this time. 

What about secularism?  50% now say that they would accept the Tunisian government being secular — the highest number recorded in an IRI survey. But 64% would prefer a strongly or moderately Islamist government — down 15 points from January, but still a strong majority.  This is useful context for the renewed attention to the salafist or jihadist challenges. Where Tunisia initially managed to avoid the worst forms of polarization around religion, over the last year Islamist conservatism and especially the role of women and attempts to criminalize blasphemy have become highly sensitive issues in constitutional debates and in public life.  The outrageous charging of a woman raped by the police with indecency has drawn appropriate international condemnation, as well as protests on her behalf which have predictably received far less Western attention than the YouTube protests did.

The escalating battles over Islam in Tunisia’s public sphere have raised the temperature at a time of great uncertainty.  But despite the raw angers and fears which these issues raise, it isn’t all bad. That public contention has made it ever more difficult for Ennahda to maintain its carefully cultivated ambiguity.  It forces them to confront the divergent demands of governing and popular mobilization, and to decide whether to play to the conservative street or seek the calmer middle.  In other words, the very polarization and hot contention which is raising the political temperature and causing such worry may actually be a sign that an open public sphere and the prospect of elections is working as it should.   As in Egypt, actually putting a legitimate constitution in place and resolving the deep uncertainty about basic rules and principles would go a long way towards cooling these conflicts –a point clearly recognized by the 86% of Tunisians who view completing the Constitution as a top priority. 

It’s worth looking through the IRI survey for a snapshot of current Tunisian attitudes and trends since the revolution.  The mixture of anger and hope among Tunisians, and their deeply divided views on core constitutional issues, shines through the numbers. Nobody ever thought these transitions would be easy.  But the sheer fact of real politics in countries such as Tunisia, with open contention and elections whose outcome is not known in advance, remains a fundamental change which should be nurtured and supported.