At the turn of the year 2010 to 2011, the world was surprised by a wave of nationwide riots and protests in Tunisia, leading to the escape of President Zine Abedine Ben Ali on 14 January, 2011. Tens of thousands of Tunisians protested against high unemployment and for civil liberties and refused to bow down any longer to intimidation by police and intelligence services. After the downfall of the regime, an interim government of non-party experts was established, which led the country until the elections were to be held for a constitutional national assembly on 23 October, 2011. The goal was the adoption of a democratic constitution and the holding of new elections by the end of 2013.
In 2010, Tunisia presented itself as a stable country with a relatively modern economic and social structure. A high standard of education and a high productivity level made the country attractive for foreign investors, and tourists from around the world came to see the country. So what led to the political revolution which, in turn, consequently triggered the “Arab Spring” in Egypt, Libya and other countries of the region? As it soon became evident, the Ben Ali regime presented a modern façade to the outside world, but inside the country it pursued a highly repressive policy towards dissenters and oppressed any freedom of expression as well as political opposition activities. The justification was in particular to avoid an impending power grab by the Islamists, which was quite often accepted by the European countries with a tacit agreement.
After the downfall of Ben Ali, a range of representatives of the Tunisian opposition returned from exile or was released from imprisonment, some after many years. These included representatives of the Islamic “Ennahda” party, liberal civil rights activists and left-wing activists. Within a short time, around 100 political parties were formed, competing for 217 seats in the constitutional assembly. Although the Islamic Ennahda clearly won the elections with a 40 per cent margin, the party depended on two secular coalition partners in order to reach the majority. Ennahda’s General Secretary Hamadi Jebali became Prime Minister of the new interim government.
In 2012, the secular parties tried to bundle their fragmented forces in order to be able to provide a stronger alternative against Ennahda in the upcoming elections. Beji Caid Essebsi, Prime Minister of the interim government of 2011, formed the “Nida Tunis” party, which came close to Ennahda according to opinion polls. Along with that, there still are several smaller parties of the liberal and socialist spectrum. It has become clear that the Tunisian society is split into two nearly equally strong camps with divergent views on the future of shaping the society.
On the one hand, broad conservative classes in the countryside, but also in the cities, strongly orientate themselves towards traditional Islamic values and ways of life, thus finding themselves politically represented by Ennahda. On the other hand, many Tunisians, particularly the middle class in big cities, perceive this social Islamisation as a threat to their lifestyle, which is geared towards liberal European patterns, and fear the creeping establishment of theocracy. The previous dictatorship had oppressed any political Islamic movements and thus preserved the liberal lifestyle. Now, radical preachers and Salafist players appear in Tunisia who do not shy away from violent protests and intimidations of artists and journalists. How can the split be described?
Habib Bourguiba, the first President of independent Tunisia, implemented a thorough cultural modernisation of his country in the fifties and the sixties – also against conservative Islamic resistance. Since then, Tunisia has preserved, for example, the laws defining the civil status of persons, ensuring a unique progressive status for women in the Arab world. However, after the revolution of 2011 it became clear that these modern lifestyles did not reach the entire Tunisian population. While Bourguiba still wanted to repress Islam as an obstacle for the modernisation by trying to relativise fasting during the month of Ramadan, today, an increasing number of Tunisians confidently commit to the Islamic traditions.
After the revolution, the governing Ennahda party was able to prove that it is willing to find compromises in the interest of the country’s unity and explicitly renounced the anchoring of an Islamic Sharia law in the constitution. In addition, all political forces in the national assembly agreed on laying down women’s rights. For the oppositional secular parties, the constitutive process was not moving fast enough, fearing that Ennahda was deliberately trying to delay the upcoming new elections in order to anchor the party in important power and administrative positions in the meantime. They also accused the government of not pursuing violent Salafists with sufficient resolve and tolerating Islamic militias that tried to intimidate oppositional representatives.
The murder of the oppositional politician Choukri Belaid on 6 February, 2013 led to mass protests and the demand for the Ennahda government’s resignation. To regain the population’s trust, Prime Minister Jebali attempted to form a new government consisting of non-party experts but was not able to carry this out in his own party. After his resignation on 19 February, 2013, Ali Larayedh, who at the time was Minister of the Interior, formed a new government with the involvement of previous coalition partners and occupied key ministries and departments, such as home, justice, foreign, defence, industry and development cooperation, with non-party experts. On 13 March, 2013 this government gained the trust of nearly two thirds of the constitutional assembly.
After this government crisis demanding a lot of time and energy from everyone involved, the members of the constitutional assembly have to quickly agree on the adoption of a new constitution and electoral law so that new elections for a parliament and the president of the state can be held soon. Wider audiences in Tunisia place great hopes on these new elections. For the first time, the election campaign will enable an evaluation of each party according to its performance so far, whether in the government or in the opposition. Along with that, traditional beliefs will play a major role regarding which party voters will ultimately vote for.
Due to the social split, which became obvious after the Tunisian revolution of 2011, a decisive factor for further peaceful development of the country will be that both the religious and the secular side encourage mutual tolerance. Neither side should outvote the other on the fundamental aspects of the social structure, independent from the majority conditions of the future parliament. This mutual respect is anchored in the tradition of the Tunisian people and we can hope that they will find the path to democracy in spite of all obstacles.
The author was born in Eutin, Germany in 1967 and is the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany in Tunis. He studied law and political science in Hamburg, Bordeaux and Paris, starting his diplomatic career in 1994 at the German Federal Foreign Office in Berlin. From 2009 to 2012, he fulfilled his duty as ambassador in Sri Lanka.