Tunisia could long be considered an example of stability, equality and tolerance in North Africa and Middle East. Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba ensured that women were given equal rights and encouraged the secularization of Tunisian society. His successor Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali struck a more religious tone, but ensured that radical Islamism could not rear its ugly head in Tunisia. The Tunisians enjoyed little political freedom under both presidents, but only economic distress like rising food prices and unemployment could motivate ordinary Tunisians to take to the streets and demand change. In 2011, this led to the downfall of Ben Ali and the start of a new period of political freedom. However, some Tunisians fear that (radical) Islamists are using this freedom to limit the freedoms of others and destabilize their country.
Tunisia has always has its share of Islamists as it is home to the oldest and fourth holiest mosque in Kairouan and one of the oldest Islamic universities in North Africa, Al-Zaitouna in Tunis. The rise of political Islam in Tunisia, however, started at the end of the ‘70s, when Islamists societies inspired by the political ideas of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood sought to reislamize the under president Bourguiba secularized Tunisian society. The most important group was the Mouvement de la Tendence Islamique (MTI) led by Rachid Ghannouchi. The movement opposed the Code Personnel du Statut, which gave men and women equal rights in family matters, as it excluded the sharia (Islamic law) as source of legislation and forbade polygamy. However, the government could tempt the movement time after time into accepting these and other secular laws and into toning down its Islamist rhetoric by promising the legalization of the movement as a political party. However, all legalization attempts failed and only after the 2011 revolution the Ennahdha Movement, as the MTI called itself since 1988, was legalized.
Tunisia has had also its share of violent Islamism. In the ‘80s several terrorist attacks were carried out by radical Islamists against tourist resorts, for which the MTI was (according to them unjustly) blamed and persecuted. After a short détente following the coup d’état of Ben Ali, the Ennahdha Movement was again persecuted in 1990 and 1991 for infiltrating the Tunisian army and destroying an office of the government party in Bab Souika in Tunis, killing two people. The start of the civil war in Algeria in 1991, where armed Islamist groups fought the Algerian military government, persuaded the Tunisian government of the necessity to root out any Islamist opposition in their own country. Although sporadic terrorist attacks did happen (like the one by Al-Qaeda on the synagogue in Djerba in 2002), radical Islamists kept a low profile in Tunisia until the 2011 revolution.
After the revolution, Tunisians witnessed a growing influence of Islamists in Tunisian daily and political life. The Ennahdha Movement won, thanks to ample campaign funds, 89 of the 217 available seats in Tunisia’s first free parliamentarian election. It formed a coalition with two leftist parties, Congrès pour la République (CPR) and Ettakol, in which Ennahdha’s Hamadi Jebali became the new prime minister. Around the same time, Tunisia witnessed a row of violent protests and attacks by radical Islamists against universities, embassies, brothels and TV stations and growing harassment of women for not being dressed appropriately or walking around without a male guardian. Some Tunisians accused the Ennahdha Movement of participating in, or at least condoning, these attacks. They feared that the Ennahdha Movement would agree with the demand of these radical Islamists that the sharia should be mentioned in Tunisia’s post-revolutionary constitution as only source of legislation.
Although the first draft of this constitution contained stipulations that could be seen as illiberal (like describing women as subservient to their husbands and outlawing Zionism), the final version turned out to be more acceptable. Women and men remained not only equal before law and the rights and protection of women were for the first time enshrined in the new constitution. Furthermore, political parties were under the new constitution no longer explicitly obliged to accept the Code Personnel du Statut (only the constitution and laws in general) and it was no longer illegal to establish a party based on religion, race or region. Finally, the new 2014 constitution did not mention the sharia as source of legislation as the Ennahdha Movement decided under public pressure that the explicit mention of the sharia was not necessary. Rachid Ghannouchi explained in March 2012 that the mention of the Islam in the constitution as state religion already implied that the sharia was a source of law. This decision led to a fallout between the dissatisfied radical Islamists and the Ennahdha Movement. The vice-president of Ennahdha’s executive bureau was beaten up by radical Islamists in August 2012 during a conference.
In 2013 and 2014, it became painfully clear to Tunisians that the growing influence and violence of radical Islamists had to be contained. Armed radical groups, like Ansar Sharia, had set up base in the mountains near the Algerian border, from which they carried out armed attacks against Tunisian military posts. The Tunisian army carried out several counterattacks with the help of the more experienced and better equipped Algerian army, but these terrorist groups in the mountains proved hard to dislodge thanks to the failure to effectively disrupt their support networks in the cities and countryside. The groups also profited from the smuggle trade between Algeria, Tunisia and Libya and the post-revolutionary chaos in Libya. This chaos made it easier for them to procure weapons and send new fighters to places like Derna in Libya to receive armed training from local Islamist militias.
Tunisian was in 2013 shook up by the assassinations of two critics of the Ennahdha Movement: Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi. The government identified Ansar Sharia and Boubakr al Hakim, a radical Islamist who grew up in the banlieus of Paris, spent some time in Syria and at the time smuggled guns from Libya, as main suspects of the murder. The murders led to a political crisis and the installation of a technocratic government. However, this government is severely criticized for acting to slow and doing too little against Tunisia’s growing terrorism and influence of radical Islamists. The murder of 14 Tunisian soldiers by Ansar Sharia during Ramadan 2014 made it painful clear that terrorism remained a big problem in Tunisia. As response, the army carried out several large anti-terrorist operations in the mountains and the government closed several unauthorized Quranic kindergartens and discharged several imams who had not been appointed by the state and who had declared fallen Tunisian soldiers thagout (enemies of the Islam) and refused to bury them according to Islamic rites.
Given the above, Tunisia’s future seems to be bleak. The growing influence of Islamists in the government and the inability (or, according to dark tongues, the unwillingness) of this government to counter Islamist violence and terrorism does not seem to bode well for the future of Tunisia tolerant and open society. However, this does not mean that Tunisia is slowing falling in the hands of radical Islamists. Radical groups, like Ansar Sharia, abuse the continuing economic crisis in Tunisia to win dissatisfied Tunisians for their cause through ideology and hard cold cash, but they and their actions can count on little sympathy amongst the general population. Their influence remains limited to the mountains near the Algerian border and to the poor neighborhoods in Tunisia’s cities.
Also, the fear for the growing Islamist influence in politics may be overblown. Although the Ennahdha Movement held illiberal views in the past, and may still hold them in secret, they seem to be willing to tone their rhetoric down and make concessions if this keeps them in power. Moreover, they explicitly acknowledge in their current election program (like in their 2011 program) the equality of men and women and 46% of their candidates is woman. This move is inspired by the stipulation in the new Tunisian constitution that men and women should be equally represented in parliament. This may change the Tunisian political landscape in general as the leadership of most Tunisian political parties, including Ennahdha’s, is almost exclusively male. Only one Tunisian political party is now led by a woman – the Party Républicain led by Maya Jibri -, but this may change thanks to the new Tunisian constitution. One can only conclude that tolerance is alive and kicking in Tunisia, but that the fall of Ben Ali and the Tunisian economic crisis have released dark forces which Tunisia’s government should work to contain.
Online sources and further reading
1959 Tunisian Constitution – jurisitetunisie.com
2014 Tunisian Constitution – jurisitetunisie.com
Website Ennahdha Movement – ennahdha.tn
Tunisan daily Al-Chourouk – alchourouk.com
Tunisian weekly Al-Moussawar – almoussawar.com
Tunisian daily As-Sabah – assabah.com.tn
Tunisian daily As-Sarih – assarih.tn
Tunisian newssite GlobalNet – Gnet.com
Dunn, M.C., The Al-Nahda movement in Tunisia: from renaissance to revolution, in Ruedy, J. (ed.), Islamism and Secularism in North Africa, 1994
Hermassi, A., The rise and fall of the Islamist movement in Tunisia, in Guazzone, L. (ed.), The Islamist dilemma, 1995
Labat, S., Les Islamistes Tunisiens, 2013