In Tunisia, Islamist government paralyzed by middle-class backlash and extremist violence

September 17, 2013

From her protest tent outside the shuttered national parliament building, high school sociology teacher Neila Zoghlami wants to bring down the Tunisian government.

She said the Islamist politicians elected after the country’s 2011 popular revolution, which touched off the Arab Spring revolts across the Middle East, are trying to destroy traditions she holds dear: a secular society, women’s rights and zero tolerance for radical Islamist violence.

“The revolution became religious,” said Zoghlami, 44, who wears Western-style clothes and her hair uncovered. “We as women don’t want to lose the things we gained in the past. We want to smoke, drink, dance, stay out late if we want to. We want to live our lives.”

Once considered a model of post-Arab Spring stability, Tunisia has become paralyzed by a growing backlash against its Islamist authorities and rising extremist violence. The increasing anger echoes the public dissatisfaction that led the military in neighboring Egypt to forcibly remove its democratically elected Islamist government in July.

Thousands of Tunisian protesters, largely led by young people and the middle class, regularly jam the streets, demanding that the government resign. Parliament has been suspended indefinitely since early August. Opinion polls show the ruling party’s popularity sinking sharply as political opponents accuse the Islamists of trying to introduce Islamic law and roll back a half-
century of tolerant, European-
influenced society.

Protesters interviewed in the streets say the government has turned a blind eye to radicals who have stormed art exhibits and burned a warehouse filled with alcoholic drinks. But they are most angry about even more extreme violence, including the assassinations of two popular opposition politicians, the killings of 10 Tunisian soldiers and last year’s mob attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis that left four people dead but never resulted in a trial or conviction.

“We now have terrorism in Tunisia, and it’s the result of the government not being strict enough. They let this happen,” said Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia’s main opposition leader. “They encourage violence without saying they do.”

Many of the same complaints heard in Egypt — incompetence, a too-severe brand of Islam, political drift — are fueling the turmoil here.

The ruling Ennahda party portrays itself as more moderate than the Muslim Brotherhood-
affiliated government that was ousted in Egypt. But like its larger neighbor, Tunisia is caught in an increasingly violent struggle between two competing views of Islam’s role in government and daily life. And it faces the same questions: Can Islamist regimes thrive in Muslim countries with long traditions of social tolerance and openness? And can they control their more radical and violent supporters?

“Whatever the government does, we are criticized,” Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader, said in an interview. “We are either being too lax with these people, or we are confronting them with political motivations. You never win.”

He said the government was determined to arrest the extremists: “I don’t think they represent a serious threat to Tunisia’s democratic transition.”

Ghannouchi, 72, a soft-spoken man with a neatly trimmed gray beard, said his government is not as radical as his political opponents claim and can’t be blamed for violence by Salafists, the religious hard-liners who espouse a return to a 7th-century style of Islam.

The party leader said his foes should not be inspired by events in Egypt, where the military has led a bloody crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood. “The first few weeks after the coup in Egypt, the opposition groups here were happy and their hopes were raised,” he said. “But then the Egyptian scenario became an Egyptian nightmare after the massacres. I think the Tunisian people are scared of such a scenario.”

Since its independence from France in 1956, Tunisia has been an oasis of moderate Islam, where French-speaking Tunisians and European tourists mingle easily in cafes and on white-sand Mediterranean beaches. Even today, women in bikinis swim alongside women in what are commonly referred to as “burkinis,” full-length black robes and hijab head-coverings, outside luxury hotels on the Tunis shoreline.

Corruption, repression and increasingly miserable economic conditions drove Tunisians to revolt against longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and chase him into exile in January 2011.

Ennahda was the biggest winner in elections held later that year, taking 89 of the 217 seats in the newly created parliament. The government was given a one-year mandate to enact a new constitution and new electoral laws, after which elections would be held. None of that has happened.

Much of Tunisia, particularly the middle class, was skeptical about the idea of an Islamist government, and their fears were quickly realized. While considering a new constitution, the Ennahda government called for imposition of sharia law and said women in Tunisia would be “complementary” to men, not equal to them.

The government withdrew those proposals in the face of public outrage, but many Tunisians believed they reflected Ennahda’s true colors.

“For 50 years, we have had a society that is for progress and tolerance,” said Caid Essebsi, 86, the main opposition leader. “They want to change the way we live.”

Public dissatisfaction with the government rose dramatically with the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a popular opposition politician, whose funeral in February drew hundreds of thousands of mourners in a country of 11 million.

When a second opposition figure, Mohammed Brahmi, was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle July 25 — in a killing almost identical to Belaid’s — the country erupted. Thousands took to the streets to protest, and scores of members of the parliament withdrew in protest, forcing the body’s suspension.

On Aug. 27, the government declared Ansar al-Sharia, a radical Islamist group, a terrorist organization and started arresting its members. The government said the group, whose name means “Partisans of Sharia,” had been involved in the political assassinations and the killings of eight Tunisian soldiers hunting militants in the mountains near the Algerian border four days after Brahmi’s death.

“It’s clear that they have a secretive military wing that is involved in smuggling weapons, storing them and training people in their use,” Ghannouchi said.

Opponents charge that Ennahda’s crackdown on Ansar al-
Sharia is too little, too late, and may create more violence.

“It’s not the time — you could push them underground and radicalize them,” said Manar Skandrani, a former Ennahda activist who has left the party to form a new one that embraces both secular and Islamist Tunisians.

U.S. officials have long branded Ansar al-Sharia a terror organization that operates in at least a half-dozen countries from Morocco to Yemen. But in Tunisia, the group has long been far better known for its charitable works than for violence. In many poor neighborhoods, the group is beloved for delivering food and clothes to the poor and unemployed.

Ansar al-Sharia’s followers no longer admit their membership publicly, fearing arrest. Spokesmen who used to talk to the media do not answer their phones. The group communicates strictly through statements on its Facebook page, where, on Sept. 4, it said that the government’s ban would “drag this country into a bloodbath.”

Fabio Merone, a political analyst who has lived in Tunisia for more than a decade, said the government’s prohibition on the group does “not make sense politically.”

“What’s next?” he said. “Do they arrest them all? You would have a war. They are popular. The people in the neighborhoods, they have a feeling of belonging with these guys.”

Outside the closed parliament, the protests against the government continue daily. Security forces have laid out coils of concertina wire to keep the protesters away from the building. The protesters have set up tents; vendors sell popcorn and cigarettes. Children run around draped in the bright red Tunisian flag as passing cars toot their horns in support.

Zoghlami, the teacher, said she had been beaten by police during protests. But she said she and the other protesters would remain on the streets until the government resigned.

“Ennahda needs to see what happened to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” Zoghlami said. “We don’t want to put them in jail. We just want the main goals of the revolution: social justice, dignity and freedom.”

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