Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

InReview: “Tunisia Strikes Back”

In late September, Tunisia’s election commission announced 27 candidates for the country’s presidential election to be held in November 2014. In a glimmer of hope for Tunisia and perhaps the tumultuous region writ large, among the candidates is a female Judge, Kalthoum Kannou, a secular politician Beji Caid Essebsi, and human rights activist Dr. Moncef Marzouki. As a country that set off the “Arab Spring,” Tunisia’s internal dynamics seem to be among the more promising in the region. However, the rise of Salafists and the spillover from a profoundly unstable Libya together make for a very tenuous situation.

Beginning first with some background on the country’s progress since the 2011 uprising, Al Jazeera reported in January 2014, “Tunisia Signs New Constitution into Law”:

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki and the head of the National Assembly have signed the country’s new constitution, officially adopting a charter that is one of the last steps to full democracy after a 2011 uprising.

“With the birth of this text, we confirm our victory over dictatorship,” Marzouki said in a speech to the assembly on 27 January 2014, before signing the document which he embraced, waving the victory sign.

“Much work remains to make the values of our constitution a part of our culture,” he added.

The country’s national assembly had on 26 January 2014 approved the new constitution, three years after the overthrow of the North African country’s long-time ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

The vote by an overwhelming majority of assembly members marks another crucial step to getting the democratic transition back on track in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

It came close on the heels of an announcement by Mehdi Jomaa, the prime minister, of a new caretaker cabinet to govern the country until elections.

The new constitution, seen as one of the most progressive in the region, guarantees equal rights for men and women.

It also demands that the state protect the environment and tackle corruption.

Executive power is divided between the prime minister, who will have the dominant role, and the president, who retains important prerogatives, notably in defence and foreign affairs.

Islam is not mentioned as a source of legislation, although it is recognised as the nation’s religion and the state is committed to “prohibiting any attacks on the sacred”, while freedom of conscience is guaranteed.

Earlier, members of parliament amended three articles in the draft text, before ratifying changes to the rules of the assembly’s confidence vote, to facilitate the appointment of the caretaker cabinet which must win parliamentary backing.

But there has been criticism that the constitution has not banned the death penalty. There are also restrictions on freedom of speech, and attacking religion and accusing people of being nonbelievers is illegal.

(Al Jazeera)

In response to the new constitution, Al Monitor provided an excellent synopsis of “The Best and Worst of Tunisia’s New Constitution”:

The elected representatives in Tunisia took two years, three months and three days to complete the drafting of the new constitution. From Oct. 23, 2011, when the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) was elected, until Jan. 26, 2014, the constitution was being written word by word, article by article. This occurred under the watchful eyes of observers and civil society, under the spotlight of the media and commentators and sometimes under pressure from the street and the echoes of public opinion.
The constitution was finally adopted in its entirety on Jan. 26, 2014, marking a historic event in the process of democratic transition. But, the drafting of this constitution has not always been easy and the NCA plenary sessions have not always been smooth. There were clashes, tears, fits of laughter, sleepiness, restlessness, compliments and insults. In short, the NCA has seen it all. On Jan. 14, 2012, the process of drafting the articles of the constitution was kicked off. During committee meetings and plenary sessions, articles succeeded one another, giving birth on Dec. 14, 2012, to the first draft of the new constitution.


The scope of the constitution articles itself was the source of stormy discussions and intellectual tug-of-war between different ideologies and political affiliations. The first article, for example, was at the heart of a great debate about the relation between the state, religion and language, which is a matter of identity par excellence. Article 6, which stipulates, “The state protects religion, guarantees freedom of belief, conscience and religious practices, protects sanctities, and ensures the neutrality of mosques and places of worship,” also created controversy.


Another example of a controversial article is Article 33, concerning parity in representation of women in elected assemblies. In this context, we all remember the violent clash between two women, MP Karima Souid and the assembly’s Vice-President Meheriza Labidi.

Furthermore, Article 38 of the constitution is also “problematic.” The article talked about constitutionalizing the Arabization of education. Again, the debate was heated between those who advocate the preservation of the Arab-Muslim identity and those who denounce an insistence on only teaching Arabic as an intellectual autism.

In spite of all the disputes and clashes, the NCA deliberations to draft a new constitution continued, marked by occasional friendly and humorous interactions between the participants.

(Al Monitor, emphasis added)

Adding specific insight to “The Problem with Tunisia’s New Constitution ,” Tunisian journalist Asma Ghribi explains the country’s battle between secularism and the rooted role of religion through the lens of deliberations and controversy over Article 6 of the new Constitution:

International observers have praised a provision in the draft Tunisian constitution known as Article 6, which grants freedom of conscience. But many have failed to notice that the article has a significant flaw. The second clause of Article 6 stipulates that the state has a duty to protect religion, paving the way for future laws prohibiting blasphemy and curbing freedom of expression.

Article 6 has been made even worse by Tunisia’s secular opposition, which pushed for a revision to prohibit takfir, the act of declaring a Muslim to be a kafir, an “infidel” or apostate. Apostasy is taken seriously in Muslim societies, many of which deem it a crime worthy of death. Declaring their enemies to be apostates is thus a convenient way for religious extremists to justify their assassination.

The clause to prohibit takfir was endorsed by opposition members of parliament after Habib Ellouz, an NCA member affiliated with the Ennahda party (the moderate Islamist party that swept Tunisia’s first post revolution election), called MP Mongi Rahoui an “enemy of Islam.” Rahoui, a member of a populist opposition party, had spoken out against Article 6, which initially established Islam as the religion of the state. (The photo above shows Rahoui voting during an NCA session on Jan. 8.)

Ellouz, the Islamist politician, told a local radio station that Rahoui’s alleged anti-Islamic ideas were a product of secular thinking: “The word Islam makes [Rahoui] nervous. He wishes the constitution did not include any reference to Islam or religion.”


Constitutional expert Slim Loghmani said that Tunisia does not need to criminalize apostasy because incitement to violence is already banned in the Tunisian penal code. Instead, he said, NCA members should seek to strengthen those sections of the draft that guarantee rights, liberties, and checks and balances.


The secular opposition has always felt targeted and demonized by its rivals for advocating separation of religion and state. Tunisia’s relatively conservative society still confuses secularism and atheism, and a sheikh can easily turn the public against the opposition by interpreting secularism as “an enmity to Islam.”

This incident proves that Tunisia still has a long way to go to before it can openly discuss the relationship between religion and state. Religion still plays a prominent role in public life in Tunisia; faith is almost never considered a private matter. The first article of the constitution enshrines Islam as the religion of the country, and the newly passed provision establishes the state as the protector of the sacred realm. Even though the new constitution grants the freedom of religion and conscience, secular politicians still feel compelled to announce their adherence to Islam just to avoid being labeled an “enemy of Islam.” The debate over the proper role of religion in Tunisian society is central, and reveals, like few other issues do, just how polarized Tunisian society remains.

(Foreign Policy)

One of the most salient issues in a post-Arab Spring world is the division between “moderate” democrats and violent “extremists.” At least in the Western simplification of a moderate/extremist binary, this division seems to be quite stark. A repeated issue in Tunisian politics is the blurring of these lines, which further complicates matters for U.S. policy-makers. In a speech, at the Atlantic Council, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki made the case for U.S. support, “If You Don’t Bet on Tunisia… You Can Say Goodbye to Democracy in the Arab World”:

“The West gave more support to the dictatorship, because of so-called stability,” than it now is giving to Tunisia’s democratizing government, said Marzouki, a medical doctor and human rights leader who has been guiding his country through its transition following fifty-five years as a one-party state.

Western governments should stop seeing the world’s Islamist movements all in one color, Marzouki said. They should welcome Tunisia’s political inclusion of its Islamist moderates, and provide helicopter gunships to fight its Islamist extremists.


On the West’s need – and hesitation – to embrace moderate Islamists in democratic transitions. “Sometimes I wonder” whether the limited support of Western governments for Tunisia’s transition is “because we have [had] … in the government the Islamist Ennahda party,” Marzouki said. “What we have to explain to our friends [is] that” Islamist movements are not all the same. “We have to consider that Islamism is a wide spectrum, and part of this spectrum, we have to have it on board with us as democrats, and to isolate the extremists,” he said. “The terrorists, sure, they are Islamists, but they are mostly extremists.” They are dangerous “not because they are Islamist, it’s because they are extremist.  This was the most difficult thing to explain to our French friends. I have had a lot of problems” in making them understand “that we have to gain a part of the spectrum [of] Islamists and to take it on board and to be with us against the extremists,” he said. “The Tunisian model [of transition] is based on this very specific and very simple idea that we cannot have a national consensus [and] civil peace without having both … parts of the society – [moderate] Islamists and secularists. … Otherwise, it will be confrontation, bipolarization. This is what’s happening in Egypt now.”

(The Atlantic Council, emphasis added)

The question that immediately comes to mind, especially in the midst of debate surrounding U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict and parsing through various opposition groups, is whether there is a clear line that divides the moderate and the Islamist? Perhaps in certain contexts, the division is actually quite clear. For example, in an excellent article in The Atlantic, Thomas Bass explains, “How Tunisia is Turning into a Salafist Battleground”:

After a trial lasting more than a year, on May 2 Habib Kazdaghli, dean of the faculty of letters, arts, and humanities at the University of Manouba, outside Tunis, was acquitted of charges that he slapped a veiled female student. He had faced a five-year jail term. Instead, the court found guilty the two women who had invaded Kazdaghli’s office and thrown his books and papers on the floor. The women claimed to be protesting their suspension from the university for refusing to remove their full-face coverings, known as niqabs, during class lectures and exams.

The court sentenced the women to suspended four-month and two-month jail sentences for damaging property and interfering with a public servant carrying out his duties. Their lawyer said the women would appeal, and Tunisia’s minister of higher education — overruling Kazdaghli and setting him up for another round of conflict — announced that veiled students would be allowed to take their final exams.

The Kazdaghli affair, a cause célèbre with more than 230,000 Google results, is part of a larger struggle for power in post-revolutionary Tunisia. After the uprising that toppled dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 — sparking the onset of the Arab Spring — the University of Manouba became a battleground between fundamentalist Muslims intent on turning Tunisia into an Islamic state and secular forces trying to maintain the country’s existing constitutional rights and legal system.

Closed for almost two months in the spring of 2012, the University was rocked by strikes and pitched battles between progressive students and the ultra-conservative Sunni Muslims known as salafists. The lobby in Kazdaghli’s building was turned into a prayer room. Protesters camped in front of his door for a month. “This was meant to intimidate me, but also to catch me in a kind of trap,” says Kazdaghli. “You are not supposed to walk through a room where someone is praying.” So every time he entered or left his office, Kazdaghli was demonstrating his lack of faith.

Among the salafists targeting the University was Abu Iyad, nom de guerre of former Afghani jihadist Seifallah Ben Hassine. Abu Iyad heads Ansar al-Sharia, sister organization to the Libyan group believed to have killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other people in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. Abu Iyad is also thought to have led the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, three days after the murder of Stevens, when four attackers were killed and the neighboring American Cooperative School of Tunis was destroyed. Still at large, Abu Iyad may also have been involved in the murder of Tunisian opposition figure and lawyer Chokri Belaid in January 2013.


Kazdaghli wrote his dissertation on the history of the Communist Party in Tunisia. He also studies Tunisia’s Sephardic Jews, most of whom have left the country for France or Israel. “The salafists believe that if you study Jews you must be a Zionist. If you study Communists, you must be a Communist. These are the beliefs of people who are impoverished, materially and intellectually,” he says.

As news of Kazdaghli’s legal victory spread across the Manouba campus, students and faculty gathered in an assembly hall to celebrate. The meeting opened with the singing of Tunisia’s national anthem. “Attempts at attacking the modernity of the university have failed,” said Kazdaghli. One of the teachers in the room shouted, “We have won a battle, but the war continues.”

Kazdaghli knows that his verdict, which took so long to reach because of pressure on the judiciary by Ennahda, the Islamist party currently heading Tunisia’s coalition government, is a small step forward in a country rapidly sliding in the opposite direction. Before being assassinated, Chokri Belaid was one of the 40 lawyers defending Kazdaghli. “I’m number two on the list of people to be assassinated,” Kazdaghli told me, when we last spoke at the university in April. A salafist enemy “blacklist,” posted on their Facebook page, showed Kazdaghli’s photo directly beneath that of Belaid.

Why is a rumpled, bespectacled professor of modern Tunisian history with a toothy grin and mop of silver hair being featured on a Muslim “blacklist”? (Although we are speaking in French, Kazdaghli uses the word in English.) He begins by explaining that money and influence are pouring into Tunisia from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These patriarchal countries regard the secular traditions of Tunisia as a threat to their fundamentalist, Wahhabist strain of Islam.

“Tunisia is the only country in the Muslim world where women have the same rights as men to ask for a divorce,” he says. “We don’t practice polygamy. Tunisia is a special case. It is a counter model, which is why they want to get rid of it. Without Tunisia, they can say that certain customs are practiced only in the West. They are embarrassed that we, as Muslims, have the same equality between men and women as one finds in the land of the ‘nonbelievers.'”

The pressure on Tunisia from the Gulf states is taking its toll, says Kazdaghli. “Political instability makes us ripe for their work. The salafists are the instruments for applying these policies. We are resisting, but every day the resistance grows weaker. At the university, we no longer have police defending our buildings. They have been removed, as the suspicion grows that we are no longer ‘good Muslims.'”


Lately, Tunisia’s salafists have begun recruiting young women for what they call “sexual jihad.” As documented by investigative reporter Hanène Zbiss, girls as young as fourteen are being sent to Syria to service the sexual needs of the rebel soldiers.


Kazdaghli is steadfast in his resistance to segregating women at the university and forcing them to wear the niqab. This beetle-black bag, covering everything but a woman’s eyes, is foreign to Tunisia, he says. It is an import from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. In a joking reference to these outside influences, a book about the pitched battles at the University of Manouba (with an introduction by Kazdaghli) is called The Chronicles of Manoubistan.


“My generation witnessed women unveiling themselves, and now history is working in reverse,” says the 58-year-old Kazdaghli. “The niqab, the full-face veil, arrived in Tunisia only after the revolution in 2011. It is a custom borrowed from Wahhabism. This is the retrograde version of Islam, the puritanical Islam of the desert.” He repeats the word desert three times, to emphasize the alien nature of the beliefs currently flowing westward into Libya, Mali, Tunisia, and other Mediterranean countries.


“Wahhabism is trying to restore male authority,” says Kazdaghli. “When people speak of Al-Qaeda leaders, do you ever hear them name a woman? They need women, but subservient women. This is why they have introduced sexual jihad. They have given a religious name, jihad nikah, to something that is nothing more than prostitution. This is why I call it a masculine, misogynist ideology.”

Kazdaghli believes that women professing to love their veiled state and clamoring for a segregated campus have been enlisted as pawns in a political chess game. Victims of false consciousness, they are ignorant about the nature of Tunisian culture and salafist violence, he thinks. “The people demanding a mosque on campus were the ones who had resorted to violence,” says Kazdaghli. “I had no guarantee that this mosque wouldn’t be used to attack the university.”

(The Atlantic, emphasis added)

While these situations clearly demarcate the distinction between the moderates and the not-so-moderates, there is a hesitancy regarding the large, moderate Islamist party known as Ennahda (renaissance). Shortly after their emergence from obscurity under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorial banning of the group, the New York Times reported on how “Tunisia is Uneasy Over Party of Islamists.” And while there have been rumblings of the superficial “moderate” characterization of the group that hides a more fundamentalist interpretation of political Islam, the general consensus describes the group as moderate. And in perhaps a good will gesture toward Tunisia’s secular opposition, the Ennahda party, which currently occupies 89 of the 217 assembly seats, announced in mid-September that “it will not compete in the upcoming presidential election because it is unwilling to extend its dominance over more state institutions.” (Middle East Monitor)

Beyond the potentially hopeful political progress within the country, Tunisia’s place in the region leaves it open to threats to its stability writ large. Specifically, the spill-over effect of the mess in “Libya Threatens Tunisia Stability”:

Tunisia’s foreign minister has warned that turmoil in neighbouring Libya threatens to undermine his country’s still fragile democratic transition ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections.

“The instability of Libya has profound repercussions on the economic, security and political affairs of Tunisia,” said Mongi Hamdi, the foreign minister for Tunisia’s caretaker interim government. “We are in the process of building a new house, a new democracy, and there is a fire next door.”

The fighting between pro-government forces in Libya and a coalition of Islamist militias has continued even as representatives of the two sides meet for preliminary talks. The instability poses the greatest threat to the only post-Arab Spring country that has managed to balance competing political forces through a democratic process.

The violence has displaced about one out of every five Libyans into Tunisia — 1.5 million people — straining the country’s already in crisis economy, according to Mr Hamdi. Islamist militants and arms flow over Libya’s porous border with Tunisia. At the same time, the proxy battle between regional powers supporting the competing groups in Libya has fuelled polarisation on all sides of the political divide in Tunisia.

Mr Hamdi said Tunisia maintains relations with all sides in the conflict because “the Libyan problem will remain with us for many years and we don’t want to lose our credibility”. Coordinating a strategy with Egypt, which supports pro-government forces, is especially important, he added. “We both face the same challenge and we both need to talk to each other, consult — we have to trust each other.”

Three years of transition in Tunisia was marred by Islamist violence, assassinations of leftist leaders and unrest as the government failed to even begin to fix the deep-rooted economic pathologies that helped spark the Arab Spring.

The competing political factions were able to craft a widely praised constitution and the Islamist Ennahda party, which had dominated the previous election, agreed to cede power to a caretaker government amid the unrest. But the distrust and polarisation between the parties and within Tunisian society remains, and the dynamics in Libya and elsewhere in the region could make the pragmatic political compromises of Tunisia’s recent past more difficult to recreate after parliamentary elections later this month and a first round of presidential polls in November.

“In the Arab countries whoever wins thinks he has a green light to do whatever he wants,” Mr Hamdi said, speaking on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. “But power has to be shared inclusively, if they don’t want problems. Even if a big party wins, that party must involve other parties in power-sharing.”

Ennahda is expected to win the most seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The party has said it will not put forward a presidential candidate.

Key question are the nature of the unity government it will seek to form and what economic policies are likely to follow, said William Lawrence, director for Middle East and North Africa at the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.


Tunisia’s strategy is to avoid taking sides in the Gulf, where a split has emerged between Doha, which supports Islamists, and Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, which see them as a destabilising force. “We cannot afford to have enemies,” Mr Hamdi said.

Seeking investments from a range of Gulf countries “could potentially have a neutralising effect on the influence of any one … country on Tunisia”, Mr Lawrence said. In Tunisia’s political atmosphere, where perceptions can be more significant than reality, balancing the competing regional countries is key.

But even such investments will not offer a panacea for the still unanswered question of how to balance long-term structural reform that reduces the subsidy-based economy, with the short-term government spending crucial for stability, Mr Lawrence added.

The economic issue, however, has become overshadowed by the threat of violence. Earlier this year, analysts said that the $500 million in loan guarantees given to Tunisia by the Obama administration, and April state visit, were partly a signal to Egypt that political compromise would be rewarded.

But in the following months, the metastasising violence across the Arab region has shifted the focus away from democratic transition to reinforcing stability and security.

(The National, emphasis added)


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