Bridging the Two Tunisias

So far Tunisia's revolution has managed to bridge the gap between secularists and Islamists. But can that precarious accord make it through election season?


This fall, Tunisia will vote in national elections in national parliamentary and presidential elections — marking the second and third vote since former dictator Ben Ali was driven from power during the first Arab Spring uprising. When voters cast their ballots, they will have to choose between two competing visions for the future of their divided society. One vision is devoutly religious, conservative, and more rural, turning its gaze east toward Tunisia’s co-religionists in the Middle East. The other sees a secular, liberal, and urban Tunisia, yearning to emulate Europe rather than far away desert kingdoms.

Luckily, the two big-tent parties that dominate Tunisian politics seem to be putting the country before ideological divides, hoping to build a Tunisia that has as much room for the sacrosanctity of the Quran as it does for democracy, human rights, and individual liberties. On the right is Ennahda, a moderate Islamist coalition that was created in 1989 and was outlawed and persecuted heavily under Ben Ali’s reign. On the left is Nidaa Tounes, or "Call for Tunisia," a hodgepodge of secular leftists, progressive liberals, and moderate pragmatists that were previously affiliated with Ben Ali’s former Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party. 

Rather than doing what politicians do best — exploiting national divides for personal and political gain — both sides have made a conscious choice to seek consensus. Last week, for example, Ennahda announced that it would not field a presidential candidate in the upcoming November election, because its leaders do not want to expand its considerable power over the state. Such profound symbols of pragmatic reconciliation are a bold attempt to build a bridge between the two Tunisias.

That being said, these admirable efforts haven’t gone over well with everyone. Groups like Ansar al-Sharia have made clear that they intend to destroy anything but a firmly conservative country, turning to violence rather than reconciliation and putting ideology before national prosperity. Tunisians that flocked to Islamic State (IS) bases in Iraq and Syria may attempt to return for the vote, an explosive risk to Tunisia’s fragile democracy. Spillover violence from Libya’s low-level civil war is also a grave risk.

But even if terrorists don’t derail the elections, internal political rivalries could. After a generation of brutal dictatorship, the country is divided over whether former members of Ben Ali’s regime should be allowed to stand as candidates in the upcoming vote. That debate is a political minefield, especially for Ennahda. Many of its current members were dedicated to the Islamist cause from the early days, only to end up rotting and tortured in jails during Ben Ali’s dictatorship. In 1991 alone, Ben Ali jailed as many as 25,000 Ennahdha members. Put simply, they want revenge. Other members were able to flee before the crackdown, escaping to exile in Europe. When Ben Ali was deposed, they returned.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, Islamists with both experiences found themselves in the same party once more. Unsurprisingly, the formerly jailed members resented those who had been strolling the streets of Paris and London. The former exiles also tend to be more moderate, talking the talk of a sort of "Islamism-lite" that European diplomats could support. In other words, even within the Islamist party, the divide of two Tunisias is apparent.

Ultimately, the internal battle played out as conservative members of Ennahda (partnering with hardliners from the Wafa Movement) backed a full purge of anyone who had previously been a member of Ben Ali’s regime. Moderates backed inclusion in the spirit of putting the past behind Tunisia. The moderates won the debate; in June, the Tunisian Assembly rejected the conservative push to put exclusion and vengeance over inclusion and reconciliation.

As a result, the upcoming elections will be inclusive, and to put the icing on this consensus-building cake, moderate members of Ennahda are now suggesting a grand bargain with Nidaa Tounes — a party led by a man that would have been excluded under the political exclusion law. Even Kemal Morjane, a former defense minister and minister of foreign affairs under Ben Ali, announced last Saturday that he would be a candidate in the elections.

Another stumbling block is the furious debate over the role of women in politics, which has driven a wedge between moderates and conservatives particularly within Ennahdha, with the conservatives far more hesitant to support female politicians. Again, the moderates won that debate. In the 2011 elections, 50 percent of candidates were women. Even though women won only 31 percent of the seats in 2011, that is still an impressive proportion — after all, women comprise only 18.5 percent of the United States Congress. Perhaps more surprisingly, of the 67 seats won by women in 2011, 42 came from the Islamist Ennahdha party. Ennahdha only accounted for 39 percent of the overall vote share in the 2011 election, but delivered 63 percent of the elected female politicians.

This was due in part to the triumph of the party’s moderates, who have managed to be both inclusive toward the old guard and toward women. This is good for Tunisia’s long-term politics, but poses a short-term threat to peace and stability. Extremists sidelined from Ennahda’s decision-making are now going underground, trying to derail the democratic process with violence. Last year, two high-profile assassinations of prominent secular politicians and two failed suicide bombings caused the shutdown of parliament and a near collapse of the government. There have been frequent ongoing attacks targeting soldiers, launched from the Chaambi Mountains, near the Algerian border. (The photo above shows the Tunisian military band performing at a funeral for soliders killed near Mount Chaambi.) Less than three weeks ago, terrorists attacked a secular liberal member of parliament at his house. He fled, leaping from his roof, and barely escaped with his life.

If the birthplace of the Arab Spring is to bridge its internal divides and create one stable, peaceful Tunisia, the October and November elections must go smoothly. Elections are not a panacea, but clean and peaceful elections will offer a rebuke to Islamist extremists. They must not be marred by violence and terrorist attacks.

The West can and should help. In late August, the United States announced that it would send $60 million in new military aid to Tunisia to help it fight its terror threat. In mid-August, Tunisia’s government announced that it would be calling up reservists, attempting to field a ragtag group of 30,000 soldiers — many of them reservists — so that those on active duty can continue hunting terror cells. These are excellent first steps.

But the United States and other international partners can still do more to help shore up security before, during, and after Tunisia’s elections. The fragile Tunisian government could use more military advisers and logistical support. Drone surveillance should be used to help stem the threat of cross-border terrorism from Libya.

In addition to these military sticks, donors should offer carrots in the form of increased financial aid. They should hinge future aid on the condition that the country’s leaders form an inclusive elected government and that all parties abide by election results. Italy should help by converting some of Tunisia’s debt into a special fund used for internal development projects — a step that the Tunisian President, Moncef Marzouki, requested last week.

If these elections proceed peacefully, Tunisia could serve as a beacon of hope for the Middle East, exemplifying a successful transition from ruthless dictatorship to hybrid Islamist democracy — all while maintaining multi-party elections, human rights, and a thoughtful, consensus-driven political dialogue. 

If they do not, and Tunisia’s extremists are able to hijack the elections by creating chaos, then Tunisia’s budding democracy will collapse under the weight of two competing visions. Yet another Arab Spring country will wither, wilt, and collapse, following in the bloody footsteps of Libya and Syria.

Brian Klaas is an assistant professor of global politics at University College, London and the co-author of How to Rig An Election. Twitter: @brianklaas

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