Tunisians, in effect, have reached the point in their democracy where Syria’s opposition wants to be after that country’s civil war, where Libyans want to be after they build a post-
Gaddafi state and where secular Egyptians want to be if and when an effective opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood arises.
“This is a laboratory,” said Manar Skandrani, a former activist in the ruling Islamist Ennahda party who has pulled away to try to form a party calling for dialogue between the secular-minded and the fundamentalists.
The political choices are particularly clear-cut in Tunisia, partly because of a large, activist middle class that has long looked toward France, the former colonial power, for much of its inspiration. Moreover, Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s revered independence leader, promoted secular traditions and a relaxed Islam during a reign that lasted until senility overtook him in 1987 and he was pushed aside by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, a colorless general who became a dictator.
But in the eyes of many Tunisians, the Western-oriented middle class and its secular traditions were “polluted” during Ben Ali’s nearly quarter-century of corruption and repression, according to Amor Shabou, who heads a secular political party, the Free Destourian Movement. As a result, after Ben Ali’s overthrow in January 2011, elections for a constituent assembly brought to power Ennahda, whose leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, had returned from exile and many of whose members were freshly released from Ben Ali’s jails.
With its record of battling Ben Ali, Ennahda was regarded as most likely to purify politics. But since the new government and constituent assembly took over in October 2011, the revolution has bogged down in endless disputes, mostly over the role of Islam in the future constitution but also over presidential powers.
Ennahda was determined to base the constitution on the sharia, a code of Islamic principles. But after prolonged squabbling with the secular minority, a formula saying that the country’s law is based on “Islamic teachings” was agreed on recently, though tentatively.
A draft of the new constitution was introduced this month, behind schedule, but many of its articles are still contested. The document must be approved by a two-thirds majority, promising more lengthy debates ahead. As a result, political figures predicted that fresh elections, which were supposed to take place this year, probably would be postponed to 2014 or even 2015, aggravating a sense of drift that dismays even Ennahda supporters.