Thursday, 24 October 2013

TUNISIA: The Political Paralysis

Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring over two years ago. But growing frustration and violence have caused the chasm between secularists and Islamists to widen, leading many to fear political chaos like that gripping Egypt.

Unlike in Egypt, however, Tunisia's army has no political ambitions. But here there is the powerful UGTT trade union, which played a decisive role during the revolution and is exerting pressure on the Islamists in the current conflict.

Thousands of opposition activists have protested in central Tunis, demanding the resignation of Tunisia's Islamist-led government, before a national dialogue aimed at ending months of political deadlock. The Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh on Wednesday confirmed Ennahda was ready to resign, but insisted on the completion of the country's new constitution, the establishment of an electoral commission and a clear election date before handing over power.

Wednesday's demonstration came just hours before the start of a planned national dialogue between the ruling party Ennahda and the opposition, which has now been delayed until Friday. Mediators hope the talks will bring an end to the political paralysis gripping the country since the July killing of opposition MP Mohamed Brahmi and mark a crucial step in the country's democratic transition.

According to a political roadmap drawn up by mediators, the national dialogue will lead within three weeks to the formation of a new caretaker cabinet of technocrats. Negotiators will also have one month to adopt a new constitution, electoral laws and a timetable for fresh elections, key milestones in the democratic transition which has effectively been blocked by wrangling between the Islamists, their coalition allies and the opposition. A coalition of secular opposition parties are demanding the immediate departure of the government, which it accuses of clinging to power.

In a country where the youth created the revolution, it is old men who are now overseeing the transition to democracy. Young people are frustrated that things are taking so long and even developing a sort of nostalgia for the days of the revolution. Hardly anyone knows what is happening in the country, but everyone wants to have a say, and this creates a mixture on the streets of truth and suspicion, hysteria and fear, rumors and anger.

In the eyes of Tunisians, the Islamists are to blame for mounting violence in the country. Ennahda has close ties to Salafists and to the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, the party's opponents say. It's true that some extremists have been set free under the current government, and that the government initially didn't seem like it wanted to take action against radicals.

Many among the opposition deny Ennahda's legitimacy, saying the party's electoral victory was bought from the start, although there is no proof to back up this claim. Others believe the draft constitution's mention of Islam as the "state religion" will lead directly to Sharia law, even though similar phrasing existed in the previous constitution.

The post-revolution drama being played out in the political theaters of Tunisia is not only likely to spread throughout the region, but throughout the entire Muslim world. Though the issue of contention is myopically described as a duel between secularists and Islamists, the real issue—though not in full fruition—is whether or not extreme secularism and extreme Islamism can co-exist.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
African Affairs Expert

Photo-Credit: Reuters-Protesters in Tunis, Tunisia-photo