Tunisian secularists nervous over slow change, concerned about Islamists

July 13, 2011

(Protests in Tunis July 7, 2011 after Islamists attacked a cinema to protest a controversial film called "Neither God nor master"/Zoubeir Souissi)

Secularists hope Tunisia’s gradual approach for moving to an open political system from a police state will help box in Islamists but it has created a political and security vacuum that could end up helping them. Tunisians forced out president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali via street protests in December and January, and over 90 political parties have sprung up in the newly freed public space.

Secular parties, policy-makers and Western powers are preparing for a future where the leading Islamist party Ennahda, driven abroad and underground by Ben Ali, is a key force in the North African country but working out how to limit its impact.

“There are colossal suspicions about Ennahda. No one believes their commitment to democracy and pluralism. Their discourse in Arabic is very different to their discourse in French, particularly in rural areas,” said George Joffe, a politics professor at Cambridge University. He said the fear was not just of its Islamist platform but of a gradual slip into the one-party authoritarianism of the previous era if one better-organized group dominates.

It is partly because of these concerns that Tunisia is taking its time before getting to any elections. Elections for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution have been delayed to October, and there is no timeframe for parliamentary and presidential elections that follow.

“There is a reasonable chance Ennahda will emerge the strongest party but not having a majority. The best guess is there will be a secular-center left majority in parliament,” a Western diplomat said.

The incumbent political class, divided between those who accommodated and those who challenged Ben Ali’s corrupt government, hope Ennahda will not gain more than a quarter of the vote, said economist Marouane Abassi. “Ennahda could get around 25 percent which is manageable, but more than that would be difficult for Tunisia,” he said.

Read the full analysis here.


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