Tunisia Is No Exception

February 15, 2013 Topic: Democracy Region: Northern AfricaTunisia

Tunisia Is No Exception

Ordinary people are beginning to think the social fiber itself is deteriorating.

This month’s assassination in the Tunisian capital of a senior opposition leader, Chokri Belaid, was regarded by some outside observers as a departure, of sorts, from the country’s recent political trajectory. Tunisia had been viewed as a “bright spot,” relatively speaking, among the post-revolutionary republics—more likely than Egypt or Libya to advance toward sustainable democracy without major reversals or a regression to violence. But for other researchers and observers, the “writing was on the wall” over the past year. For them, and for us, it is questionable in this season of setbacks whether continuing U.S. advocacy for democratization projects in the region is advisable at this time.

Belaid’s killing was not the first assassination in Tunisia in recent memory. Rather, it was indicative of a broader and trend that began to manifest last year and continues to grow: The little progress that had been made before the revolutions toward building civil society and its institutions—the sine qua non for stable democracies—is being weakened, instead of built on, making prospects for democratic development in the foreseeable future less likely. In addition to attacking peaceful political opposition to the new Islamist establishment, violent elements in the country have targeted the labor movement as well as members of the community of moderate religious leaders who once were prominent in the country’s mosques.

Of the latter campaign, the first lethal instance was last year’s assassination of Sheikh Lutfi ‘l-Qallal, a beloved mosque preacher from a quietist movement known as Jama’at al-Tabligh wa ‘l-Da’wah that evinces no political aspirations whatsoever. Though Salafis are suspected of the crime, to date the Islamist Ennahda-led government has made no arrests. Islamist militants are widely suspected. The killing was, at the time, merely the most violent manifestation of a purge of mosques across the country. Among the outcomes of Ben Ali’s tyranny was an all-out clampdown on political Islam in the country, and tolerance for the likes of Al-Tabligh wa ‘l-Da’wah which the regime regarded as non-threatening.

But now the militants’ campaign to remove such preachers from the country’s mosques is nearly complete. Regular worshippers with whom we have spoken in various parts of the country say they have stopped attending Friday prayer because they are unable to find a mosque in which they can feel comfortable. This trend is a blow to civil society: It diminishes the opportunity for ordinary people seeking civil peace to draw inspiration from the torchbearers of their faith.

Meanwhile, Islamists identifying as Salafis and supporters of Ennahda have perpetrated numerous attacks on the UGTT, the country’s trade-union federation and a bastion of continuity and civil society dating back to Tunisia’s struggle for independence in 1956. Last summer, three regional offices of the institution were firebombed. Violent attacks on peaceful union demonstrations by self-identified Islamist groups have continued over the fall and into the winter. It bears noting that Islamists were largely absent from the 2010-2011 demonstrations that led to the ouster of former president Ben Ali; after initially spontaneous protests, it was the union leadership that added crucial muscle to the nonviolent campaign. Whether the UGTT is weakened or strengthened in the long run for being under attack, present realities indicate that the federation is on the defensive, and many union members are afraid to participate in its public activities.

Thus Tunisia is not an exception to the clear trend of reversals which the post-revolutionary Arab republics have witnessed over the past year. It is, instead, a microcosm of the situation in Egypt. And in both countries, while political and institutional regressions capture international attention, the larger, more intimate effects are barely noticed in the West. On visits to the two countries, we have repeatedly heard ordinary people conveying the sense that the social fiber itself is deteriorating: The community social ethos has grown more coarse. Amid growing distrust of neighbors and strangers, households are increasingly taking advantage of the proliferation of weapons in the two countries to arm themselves. Drug addiction rates among youth, according to the few rehabilitation facilities in the two countries, have grown considerably. In short, the relatively brief revolutionary euphoria of 2011 has fallen off, and Tunisian, Libyan, and Egyptian nationals regard their countries as increasingly undesirable to live in.

The climate is different in most of the region’s monarchies and emirates, all of which have thus far survived the revolutionary upheavals. In Morocco, the democratic space has been gradually expanded since Mohammed VI's accession to the throne, a trend further advanced last year by a new constitution. An elected Islamist chief of government now shares power with the king. Political change continues to advance, albeit slowly, and there is virtual consensus among the population that incremental reforms are far preferable than violent upheaval. One of the reasons why is that the king, who maintains his position as the country’s highest religious authority, serves to block any efforts at religious radicalization and protect the cherished traditions of tolerant Islam that have long reigned in Morocco.

Morocco also has a deep historical bond with the Jewish people: the king's grandfather Mohammed V protected 200,000 Moroccan Jews from the Nazis during World War II, and nearly one million Israelis have Moroccan roots. The inauguration this week, after restoration of Fez Alfassiyine Synagogue, is a "lesson from Morocco to the 21st century" according to the Islamist head of government of Morocco.

And while the Moroccan kingdom has often been touted as an “exception” to broader regional trends, it has much in common with other Arab dynasties today. In several Gulf states which we have recently visited, native citizens tend to share the feeling of relief that they were spared the upheavals of the past two years. (This trend may not apply to increasingly polarized Bahrain, home to the bloodiest monarchical clampdown on protests thus far and still a place of widespread tension and discontent.) In Saudi Arabia, by far the most religiously conservative of the monarchies, a new liberal stream is emerging and making itself heard—the opposite of the situation in Tunisia and Egypt. In Jordan as well, where Westerners began to foretell that a revolution was imminent during new protests toward the end of last year, civil peace largely reigns. Following last month’s parliamentary elections, the widely discussed “horse-trading” among political parties is indicative of a popular engagement with the political process.

Why, then, do calls for new Arab democratic projects continue to emanate from the West? In Washington in recent months, conferences have convened in support of “prospects for democracy in the Gulf” and other parts of the region. They sometimes spotlight opposition figures from these countries who do not necessarily speak for the broader population. Americans generally lack sufficient contact with the region to gauge the pulse of the body politic—as evidenced by the fact that few expected the wave of revolutions that began in Tunisia. Going forward, more should be done to take majority views into account.

Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur and president of MED Radio, a national broadcast network in Morocco, MEDTV network and chairman of the board of Al-Ahdath al-Maghrebiya Arabic daily newspaper. As an expert on Morocco and North Africa, he sits on the Board of Trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He is a member of The National Interest's Advisory Council.

Joseph Braude, a Middle East specialist, is author, most recently, of The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World (Random House, 2011). His Arabic-language commentary, "Letter from New York" ("Risalat New York"), airs weekly in Morocco on MED Radio.

Image: Flickr/scossargilbert. CC BY 2.0.