Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ennahda under pressure in Tunisia

[Originally posted at NOW, one of a six-part series looking at the Arab Spring two years later]

The second anniversary of the revolution that overthrew Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the former military officer and now convicted criminal who presided over Tunisia for 24 years, was for most citizens an occasion of resentful anger rather than joyous celebration.

In the capital on January 14th, two years to the day after Ben Ali’s exile to Saudi Arabia, some 8,000 demonstrators took to Bourguiba Avenue, the same boulevard they had filled during the revolution, to protest the perceived failures of the new government coalition, led by the Islamist Ennahda party. With riot police standing by, they chanted, “No to religious dictatorship” and “Where is the constitution? Where is democracy?” As against this, only some 2,000 turned up to voice support for the incumbents.

This, however, was but a tame reenactment of the far more heated scenes witnessed elsewhere in the country in preceding weeks. In late November, the rural town of Siliana, about 130km southwest of Tunis, saw unprecedented violence from security forces, who fired shotguns at unarmed demonstrators calling for economic and infrastructural development. Over 220 people were wounded, including journalists, and the government’s conduct earned a public rebuke from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Similar unrest was also witnessed in other impoverished towns south of the coastline, including Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Tunisian revolution and, arguably, the entire “Arab Spring.”

Such pronounced turmoil in these interior regions has largely taken analysts by surprise. Of particular significance is the rapid decline in government support within the former Ennahda bastion. “It’s interesting, if you take the votes from the October 2011 elections, you wouldn’t think these regions would now be up in arms against Ennahda, because most of them in fact had a majority of seats go to Ennahda,” said Dr Mohamed-Salah Omri, a Tunisian professor at Oxford University’s Oriental Institute.

“If you go there now, however, Ennahda is hardly there at all anymore. It’s very significant how people have turned against their representatives there,” he told NOW.

This reversal is fuelled primarily by the lack of economic and corruption-related reforms, says Omri. “The main grievance here is that promises were not fulfilled, and some of the old practices were continuing in terms of appointments of people close to the party, and so on.”

While economic frustration is felt all over the country, in Tunis and other more cosmopolitan areas nearer the coast there are further concerns about threats to human rights and individual liberties emanating from an increasingly muscular Islamist contingent to which the Ennahda party is accused of turning a blind or even quietly approving eye. Recent months have seen a series of moves to prosecute artists, actors, TV producers and journalists for such crimes as “harming public order and morals” following protests, some of them violent, by Salafist activists.

Salafists have also notably attacked Sufi shrines, hotels serving alcohol, and the US embassy, where four were killed in riots against the allegedly blasphemous “Innocence of Muslims” film.

Wafa Ben Hassine, a Tunisian writer, law student and former editor-in-chief of Tunisia Live, believes the ruling coalition is not doing enough to guard against the Salafists’ rise.

“[They] cannot become a threat if the state establishes well-developed institutions that ensure the rule of law. Given that the government isn’t doing the best job at facilitating this process of institution building, the spread of violent narratives may become more commonplace,” she told NOW.

Omri, however, is somewhat more sanguine. “I’m personally not pessimistic because I think so far a certain balance has been kept. Tunisia has a strong civil society and an emboldened and independent media that have been successful in getting the government and the Islamists to climb down on a number of key issues.”

As an example, Omri points to recent amendments to the draft constitution, where Ennahda’s demand to recognize Islamic Sharia as the “source” of legislation was dropped after negotiations.

A Human Rights Watch report issued Wednesday, however, said the new draft constitution continues to “threaten human rights.”

And indeed, the country may soon face an altogether more serious danger from religious extremism. On Monday, security forces arrested 16 suspected members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the town of Kasserine, near the Algerian border, seizing explosives among other materiel. This followed a statement last week by President Moncef Marzouki that “Tunisia is becoming a corridor [for jihadists] between Libya and Mali.”

Omri is inclined to agree. “The news that 11 of the attackers of the gas plant in Algeria [last Wednesday] are from Tunisia, that’s a very high number. Tunisia is a corridor for militants, in the sense that I don’t think they ever managed to control the border with Libya. In fact, I think Tunisia may be the most vulnerable of the nearby countries - in terms of security and the army, it is the weakest link.”

Ben Hassine concurs, emphasizing the “Libyan weaponry that is all over the country,” adding that “security is definitely something that the Tunisian media need to report on more often and on a consistent, more regular basis.”

The AQIM threat aside, however, the average citizen’s primary concerns will continue to be economic, says Omri. As far as Salafist influence goes, he says “the ‘street’ is not with them. And certainly the media and elites aren’t either. So there will be a new re-alignment, I think.”

No comments:

Post a Comment