Tunisia – an Exception to the Rule?

12.11.2014 Author: Pogos Anastasov

6966664The parliamentary elections held in Tunisia on 26 October provide some food for thought concerning what tendencies might prevail in the internal political life of several Arab states in coming years. It was precisely in this small Mediterranean country with a population of only 11 million that the “Arab Spring” started in December 2010 (with the student Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire), which turned out to be a total disaster for the entire Middle East.

As happened in other Arab countries, Tunisia was the first to go through the mill of political Islam, although this was done by completely democratic means – through elections in 2011, after the former leader Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia for almost 23 years, fled the country and ran to his friends in Saudi Arabia (not forgetting to grab the gold reserve). Full of enthusiasm, the people elected the An-Nahda party, which for the past twenty years had been headed by the “moderate Islamist” Rashid al-Ghannushi in exile in London.

However, the last three years of Islamist rule have shown that the most cosmopolitan and well educated Arab country in the Mediterranean has been unable to digest the dense “old testament” Islam which was sold to it in the guise of an extremely modernised and almost secular form similar to the Turkish version, and now wishes to live according to modern political standards. Three years of economic chaos, political assassinations and terrorism under Islamist slogans have undermined radical Islam.

As the last parliamentary elections of 26 October have shown, An-Nahda has lost its leading positions within society, receiving just 31.34% of the votes.

The elections were won by the Nidā’ Tūnis party (Call of Tunisia), which basically comprises open and covert supporters of former president Ben Ali. It is headed by the 88-year-old Beji Caid el-Sebsi, former advisor to the first President of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba. Yes, this young (in spite of the age of its leader) party, which was only established in 2012, has not succeeded in gaining a sufficient majority of seats in the parliament to form its own government and, with its 38.24% (83 seats out of 217), is forced to look for allies among the country’s other secularist parties.

But the fact is obvious – political Islam is losing its position in places where people, once they have voted for it, have had the opportunity to taste all its charms in the form of aggressive indoctrination and religious norms in all areas of life – from universities to restaurants. It’s clear that, just as in Egypt and Syria, by the end of 2014 the charm of the Islamist radicals in Tunisia has very much faded, and their promises of justice and the rapid redistribution of public goods for the benefit of the underprivileged strata of society by introducing Islamic norms have ceased to be viewed as a working recipe. And the very motto “Islam is the solution”, thrown about by the Muslim Brotherhood, to which An-Nahda belongs, no longer inspires anyone. And this has to be reckoned with.

But there’s another side to the process in which large swathes of the population are becoming disappointed with the Islamists. Having lost their faith in Islam at home, many young people don’t turn away from political Islam but, on the contrary, become radicalised. It’s precisely Tunisia that has provided the highest number of fighters, who have gone off to fight in Syria and Iraq for the ideals of the Quran and joined the ranks of Al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, Islamic State and other terrorist organisations. According to Le Monde, their number varies between 2,400 and 3,000 thousand. It has taken all of Europe to provide the Middle East with a similar number of fighters. Those who return from Syria and Iraq (around 400 people) often join the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb group. A fresh example of their activities is the attack on an army convoy in the north-west of the country near the Algerian border on 5 November. As a result of the attack, four soldiers were killed, another 12 were injured and 8 military lorries were damaged.

In these conditions, An-Nahda, positioning itself as a moderate party, is losing supporters, some of whom migrate to secularist parties, and others join Al-Qaeda. Its leader is not likely to win the presidential elections that are due to be held on the 23 November. In all probability, the favourite will be Beji Caid el-Sebsi. He is most likely to form the government, which will be made up of smaller democratic parties, such as Afek Tounes, and probably At-Takattul, Congress for the Republic of President Mohamed Moncef Marzouki or Union for Tunisia. There is a variant in which Nidaa Tounes will propose an alliance with Slim Riahi’s Free Patriotic Union or with Hamma Hammami’s leftist Popular Front. The creation of a government of national unity including An-Nahda, who are proposing this scheme, is hardly flattering for Nidā’ Tūnis, which emerged in first place precisely because of their anti-Islamist slogans.

In other words, we are seeing a completely European battle for the formation of party coalitions from leftist, right-wing, social-democrat, liberal or conservative parties. A familiar landscape. From this we can conclude that Tunisia is on the democratic road to development.

So why has the Syrian or Libyan scenario not repeated itself here? There are two parts to the answer. First, during the years of French colonialism, and then under Bourguiba and Ben Ali, Tunisia received a high dose of secularist political culture. Hundreds of thousands of Tunisian students study or have studied in France or other European countries, which have strong Tunisian communities, and maintain close links with their homeland, and European standards are relayed back home.

Second, this country is of no great interest to the USA or the Anglo-Saxon community in general, which has devoted a lot of time preparing “democratic coups” in Arab states. Tunisia does not occupy a dominant geopolitical position in the region, it has hardly any oil (there is just enough to meet its own needs) and it is unable to influence the strategic set-up in the region. Thus, the “curators” of the Arab Spring have not shown any strong support for the leader of An-Nahda, Rashid al-Ghannushi, whom they carefully sheltered in England during his years of exile. He has had his time, and you can be sure that he’ll soon be led off the political arena as a useless and discredited player…

Pogos Anastasov, Political Expert, Orientalist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.