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Tunisia: One Year After The Spring

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Tunisia: One Year After The Spring

The country that gave the world what has come to be known as the Arab Spring has seen one year go by since Mohamed Bouaziz, the fruit seller, set himself ablaze and unwittingly ignited a revolution that has swept through the Arab world. So what is the position in Tunisia one year after Bouazizi’s immolation?

A huge blank white space looms above. “Pictures of Ben Ali used to be everywhere,” says Raja, a female student from Tunis. Along Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Tunis’ main street, sprawls of graffiti read “Tunisia is democratic and free” and “How beautiful without Ben Ali and 40 thieves”.

Tunisia, the fuse for the Arab Spring, now has what the locals call “democracy” (although Raja dislikes the term Arab Spring “because it refers to a season that does not last, whereas we want to build on this”).

In Tunisia’s recent democratic elections, Ennahda, a moderate Islamic party, won the most votes – one of the first times in the Arab world that this has been allowed to happen.

Tunisia has always been Muslim, but secular. Yet since the Arab Spring, there has been a rise of political Islam. Which raises the question of whether democracy and Islamism can work together.

“Ideologically, Islam and democracy can’t work, but in practice they can,” according to Lorenzo Kluzer, an EU representative in Tunis.

“Those who voted Ennahda want democracy,” he continues. Tunisia, however, is different from the surrounding copycat revolutions – and it looks to be the exception, not the norm.”  

At least ex-President Ben Ali’s departure and the elections went smoothly – a far cry from Libya and Egypt, where democracy faces the challenge of the military.

“Tunisia is more liberal than its Arab neighbours, with an educated society and relatively advanced women’s rights, left over from President Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first leader after independence. It is also religiously homogeneous, with no ethnic differences,” Abdelkader, my Tunis host, says. Raja, however, believes that religion and politics should be separate. “Islam bans a lot of things which democracy does not,” she says. “And religion is based on dogma.”

Either way, Islam is undoubtedly now a player in the democratic game. But whether Islam and democracy link hands in Tunisia hinges on whether Ennahda becomes modern or conservative. “The problem is there are many variations of Islam depending on how the lawmakers interpret the Koran,” Abdelkader explains.

Some Tunisians argue that an Islamic Enlightenment is needed. “We should interpret the Koran according to the 21st  century,” Abdelkader says. “I am a believer, but having lived with the religion, I know it is hard for Islam to be moderate unless there are reforms.”

You may ask whether we are already seeing the birth of an Islamic Enlightenment because Ennahda – like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood – was voted in by reformers and women. Yet it was not reform of the religion that the voters wanted. “It wasn’t about Islam but young people craving freedom, work, and dignity,” Raja explains.  

Raja has a degree, speaks five languages fluently; yet cannot find a job. This is common in Tunisia. Ennahda won because they worked the populist angle and went into poor areas – the Islamic strongholds. As the Islamic festival, Eid, was approaching, the party tactically gave away presents of sheep to voters to win their votes. “Byzantine methods were used, telling people they were a bad Muslim if they didn’t vote for them,” Raja says.

Ennahda has also, however, been busy promoting religion: they see themselves as the Renaissance of Islam; campaigning that only a return to Muslim values can repair society. Some of their comments are more extreme than others – and with their double language it is unclear which way they are heading.   

A local TV channel showed young people talking in front of a mosque, saying how Tunisians had lost their religion and roots. They perceive Islam as the solution to their problems. “Tunis has a liberal elite, but the rest of the country is more conservative,” Raja says.

So will Ennahda find a balance between modernity and Islam as they claim? So far they have shown signs of being moderate: forming a coalition with two secularist parties, having female representatives in the assembly, and affirming they will not interfere in people’s personal lives.  

“We believe in a moderate vision of Islam which can be compatible with democracy,” one Ennahda  spokesman has said. Perhaps Ennahda will resemble the Turkish model of moderate, democratic Islam. And there have been regional trends of other Islamic parties – like in Morocco – claiming to be moderate. “Ennahda will stay moderate, because they are only a part of the government and the other two parties will hold them to account,” Boubaker says, sitting in a Tunis café. “The opposition parties are working hard to keep a secular dialogue and are busy getting united for the next elections, which will make Ennahda weaker,” he continues. Since the country’s newfound democracy many parties have sprung up, so Ennahda now needs to survive among many.

After years of imprisonment some pray that “Tunisia is a test case for moderate Islam”, Essia, a journalist for the local paper Assabah, says.

William Hopkinson from the British embassy in Tunis backs this up. “We want Tunisia to succeed because this will disprove the myth that democracy and the Arab world cannot mix – and as our neighbour we have an interest in them being prosperous and stable,” he says.  

Tunisia is certainly a moderate country – for now. I ask people I meet whether they think this modern way will continue. “We have had independence from the French and now from dictatorship. There is no way we will allow religious dictatorship,” Mohamed says. His friend agrees: “The hardest thing was to start the revolution. Now we are no longer afraid to fight for what we want.”   

There have, however, been worrying signs, such as protests over a film seen as blasphemous and against a ban on women wearing the niqab enrolling in university. “These protests were by Tahrir, a more fanatical Salafist movement, and not Ennahda. But it is believed they are linked,” Essia says. “Ennahda did nothing to prevent them.”

The effect outside influences will have on Ennahda is unknown. Qatar, situated in the most conservative corner of the anti-democratic Gulf region, has been funding the region’s Islamic movements. “Ennahda returned from exile to suddenly have offices all over the country. The money comes from Qatar,” Abdelkader says.

“The Arab world has oil and gas, and Israel must remain safe, so Qatar is an important US ally,” he continues.

Since the revolution’s first birthday, fresh protests have broken out throughout the country. People are becoming increasingly frustrated that poverty and a lack of jobs persists. And that the government just seems to be making promises, yet delivering nothing concrete.

But it has only been a year since the revolution – and change takes time. The next year, during which a new constitution should be written (although there is still no fixed deadline), will be crucial. Much depends on what it looks like, and whether Islam and democracy work

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