international analysis and commentary

Tunisia’s democratic revolution and its uncertain future


The implications of the revolutions that swept over Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in 2011 are of such magnitude that the Arab world will never be the same again. They caused the fall of the presidents of Tunisia in January 2011, of Egypt in February, of Libya in August and of Yemen in February, followed by a wave of popular uprisings covering Bahrain, Morocco, Syria, Jordan, Mauritania and other countries. The Tunisian revolution was the focal point that started the “Arab Spring”. The world “was inspired by Tunisia’s demands for democracy, freedom and dignity,” according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The revolts in the Middle East and North Africa reflected a yearning for democracy by Arabs seeking to regain their long-suppressed national pride and dignity. The struggles that gave birth to each demonstration, occupation or revolution were separate and yet connected; part of a collective roar from young people who, for the first time in modern history, faced a future in which they would be worse off than their parents.

Let us look at the key players and at the role  they may play in this post-revolutionary era:

The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT): this is historically a major social force and a key interlocutor of the government in the organization and management of social affairs. It has traditionally mediated in social conflicts but has also played a rallying role at historic moments in the country’s history, such as during the independence period. Later it became the main countervailing force to the one-party system under both Bourguiba and Ben Ali.

In the revolt that started in December 2010, it was the union rank and file, as opposed to the leadership, who mobilized the different sections and structured the movement in its early days. It developed with leftist parties the slogans, orchestrated the strikes in different cities, managed the demonstrations and negotiated with the army. However, last October the UGTT called for a general strike in reaction to the series of violence targeting unionists and civil society activists and political players in the country. The strike was canceled at the last moment after guarantees given by the governing coalition led by the Ennahdha party. The UGTT called again for a general strike and a day of national mourning, following the assassination of activist and politician Chokri Belaid, Secretary-General of the Unified Democratic Patriotic Party on February 6, 2013.

Civil society: together with the labor union, Tunisia’s professional associations, students, university professors and human rights organizations all played an instrumental role in casting a civic face on the revolt. The Tunisian League for Human Rights, along with a whole host of human rights activists and opposition journalists, are now well-known among the public as a result of their dramatic protests, primarily hunger strikes. Women’s movements were particularly vocal and confident. Lawyers and judges’ unions, whose members felt that their profession had been stripped of its credibility under Ben Ali, were also prominent.

Civil society’s influence has continued post-revolt. Three national commissions were established in the week after the fall of Ben Ali. Beyond their specific missions, these commissions represented an interesting model of the new structures of governance that flank the traditional branches of power and seem designed to compensate for the weakness of the political parties in the first months after the revolution.

The particularity of Tunisia among Arab countries is the legal status of women, the protection of their personal rights, equality on the workplace and representation in public institutions. All enjoy a strong consensus among the political, economic and intellectual elites, as well as within significant portions of the middle class. Some analysts foresaw that the Ennahdha will evolve towards the model of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), by softening its discourse and positions to adapt to mainstream Tunisians, who have a fairly clear consensus on the social model and values they want. But after winning in the last elections as the first party (with 39.5%), the Ennahdha party is leading society to a polarized state between Islamism and secularism.

The military: in Egypt and Tunisia, the armies proved to be the supreme political forces, easing unpopular leaders Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali from office in part due to their reluctance to fire on protesters. Libya was very different, however.

In Tunisia the army has been popular during the revolt and described as patriotic by the public. It came out in support of the demonstrators, refusing to shoot at the population and seeking to protect civilians from repression by the security forces. Having refused to comply with Ben Ali’s orders to suppress the protests, the army’s role in the revolt was therefore clearly political in that it made the decision not to protect Ben Ali’s regime any longer. 

The main ideologies: at the beginning of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and around the region, the calls for change were less and less linked to a particular ideology like Islamism. Instead, analysts and activists say the forces that brought people to the streets in Tunisia and excited passions across the Middle East were far more fundamental and unifying: concrete demands to end government corruption, institute the rule of law and ease economic suffering.

In 1979, the Iranian revolution introduced the Muslim world to the force of political Islam, which frightened entrenched leaders, as well as the West. That ideology still has a powerful hold on people’s imaginations across the region, which continues to feed fighters to jihadist movements. But like Arabism and socialism before it, the political Islam of Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran and the radicalized ideology of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden have failed to deliver in practical ways for the millions of people across the Middle East who lived in bastions of autocratic rule.

Now, ideology has receded in the background, giving room for the political class to address the thorny question of reform. Yet the leaders of the Ennahdha party has been focusing  only about its survival, avoiding confrontation in the name of a reformed state.

But, after months of reassuring secularist critics, Islamist politicians in Tunisia have begun to lay down markers about how Muslim their state should be – and first signs show they want more religion than previously admitted. With political deadlines looming, the Tunisian coalition led by the Islamist Ennahdha party made statements revealing a stronger emphasis on Islam in government. Thedraft constitution defined  Islam as “the principle source of legislation” – a phrase denoting laws based on Shari’a.

The Secularists: they warned voters against trusting the Islamists, and the subtle changes being introduced in the core principles of the Tunisian state could have come straight from a secularist playbook on how Islamists would gradually insert more religion into the political and legal systems. Ennahdha leader Rachid Ghannouchi once again attempted to reassure secularists  by agreeing with them that the first article of Tunisia’s constitution should remain unchanged. The article, which states Tunisia’s language is Arabic and its religion is Islam, was “just a description of reality (…) without any legal implications”, he said last November. And “There will be no other references to religion in the constitution”. 

However, in the draft constitution, it is stated that “Islam is Tunisia’s religion and the principal source of its legislation”. It is also stated that “Using Islamic Shari’a as a principle source of legislation will guarantee freedom, justice, social equality, consultation, human rights and the dignity of all its people, men and women”. Mentioning Shari’a means all laws must be consistent with Islam, a condition found in many constitutions in Muslim countries. This can be interpreted broadly, or strictly if those vetting the legislation impose a narrow reading.

The political parties: a major concern for Tunisians after the fall of Ben Ali was to ensure that not only he disappears but that his system is dismantled. The main cleavage has been between those who called for conciliation and those who advocated for the eradication of all remnants of Ben Ali’s regime and the dismantling of the ruling party. Before the revolt, the political system in Tunisia was entirely structured by the ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally. Other small parties were brought in to present a semblance of pluralism, except the PDP (Parti democrate progressiste) who was under close surveillance and kept outside the parliament.

In conclusion, the 2011 revolutions are post-Islamist in the sense that they are driven not by young Muslims seeking to escape from perceived Western humiliation through political identification with Islam — as in Tehran in 1979 — but by young Muslims (not Islamists) demanding freedom, representation and the rule of law.

These are Western values. But the revolutions are also anti-Western, as they seek to escape from a Western “trap” – the trap of telling Arabs that the only option open to them if they were not to be controlled by radical Islamists was to be suppressed by Western-backed despots. This binary definition of the Arab world, more than 30 years after the eruption of Islamism, had become a shameful artifice.

At this point, no one knows how one of the most critical chapters in the history of the modern Arab world will end, as the region pivots from a movement against dictatorship toward a movement for something that is proving far more ambiguous, as Antony Chedid said before dying (*). Will the generation shaped by jail, exile and repression and bound by faith and alliances years in the making, have the greatest say in determining what emerges?

(*) Anthony Shadid: Islamists’ Ideas on Democracy and Faith Face Test in Tunisia, February 17, 2012