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Tunisia is still at the forefront

January 25, 2014 at 12:39 am

The French Minister of Interior, Manuel Valls, faced sharp and well-deserved criticism following statements he made in the wake of the assassination of opposition politician, Chokri Belaid, last month. Valls asserted that Tunisia was no longer the model country for the Arab Spring as a result of the control exerted by what he called Islamic fascists. He also promised France’s support for those he described as the democrats in Tunisia. The fact of the matter is that Valls, who was described by a French commentator as representing “Socialist racism”, is the embodiment of modern European fascism. As is the likes of Tony Blair, who used progressiveness as a cover to conceal neoconservative ideals.

In reality, Tunisia is still the best example amongst Arab democracies, as it rule as part of a coalition, and neither the Islamists nor any other party can impose a unilateral agenda. The truth is, Tunisia did not swiftly transform into a model state because the Islamists suddenly decided to choose the path of democracy. The Tunisian Islamic movement has always been open and democratic. It is the other prominent sectors of Tunisia’s secular trends that were only later convinced by democracy.

It is funny because the Tunisian Islamic movement was supressed by the secular trends, particularly the leftists, before it was supressed by the state. When I visited the University of Tunisia in the mid-80’s, the memories of violence exercised by some secular trends are still vivid in the minds of their young Islamist victims. The “Liberal” and “Left-wing” trends later joined forces with the Bourguiba regime to subdue and eradicate the Islamists.

After the “success” of Ben Ali’s efforts to exclude the Islamists from the political arena, he turned against his old allies and tortured them severely. This forced some of them to repent and become convinced of the futility, if not immorality, of selective repression. The result of this was that some lent a helping hand to the Islamists to bring down the regime.

This situation led to a democratic alliance which the people rewarded by electing its representatives for the management of the transitional phase, because the people were aware of who stood against the dictatorship, and who hid in its shadows. The people’s instincts do not lie, nor are they tricked by the shrewdness of those who try to be so. This alliance met the people’s expectations, as it worked hard to establish the foundations of a sound democratic system.

The problem in Tunisia, as well as the other Arab Spring countries, is that the parties that lost do not want to play by the rules of the democratic game, i.e. wait their turn to rule, even though the transitional phase is short, and there are only a few months left of it in Tunisia. What is stranger still in Tunisia and Egypt is that the governments who hold authority are rushing to hold elections, while the “democratic” opposition, who should want them to be held quickly, is stalling.

When the Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia were a part of the opposition, the thing they demanded most was that they be allowed the freedom to work, and not be supressed or disrupted. Their opponents’ problem was, and still is, their belief that free competition with the Islamists would not be in their favour. As such, following the failure of direct repression to eliminate the Islamists, a method that limits free competition is being studied.

What differentiates the Tunisian situation is the fact that the Islamic movement, led by Sheikh Rachid Al-Ghannushi, understands their opponents’ concerns and are willing to reach a compromise to calm their fears. It must be noted that there is no conflict over the “Islamic legislations” or liberties in Egypt and Tunisia today. Rather it conflict is in regard to power and who should have it, as well as with regard to the economic and social policies, constitutional principles and electoral rules, which is the case in all democracies.

I would like to point out, once again, that Tunisia is an advanced model of Islamists accepting coalition rule, and their understanding the need for a consensus on the constitution and electoral rules. They have even agreed to give up certain ministries they have the right to hold, first as Tunisians, and secondly as the party elected by the people.  There is no shame in making compromises to serve the greater good. The Islamic movement in Tunisia is an example for all political parties on how to deal with partners in the country.

The others need to learn this lesson and have the necessary flexibility to spread the desired democratic atmosphere through agreeing on the determinants of political work and rules of decision-making. Sheikh Ghannushi expressed this point in a statement in which he asserted that the circulation of power requires agreement on the basic and constant elements in order for a change in the government not to lead to a change in the system.  However, the Islamists cannot be asked to make all the compromises; the others have duties and responsibilities as well.

In all the other countries, we call on the Islamists to be flexible with their partners in the state and to swallow their pride. As for Tunisia, these demands are directed at the secular opposition that thinks it can blackmail and verbally terrorize (it has unfortunately begun to indicate a leaning towards actual terrorism) its way to enforcing a reality different to the one chosen by the majority. This backwards method will lead to chaos and they will be the first victims of it.

The trends in Tunisia that call themselves democratic have a lot to apologize for, including previous actions committed during the dictatorship and hidden in its shadows, as well as their support of the repression.  It should not add new sins to its old ones by adopting escalatory and opportunistic behaviour that will lead to chaos, revert us back to a police state, or both. They must at least realise that the police state they formerly supported, which boasted of having eliminated the Islamists, has come to nothing but ruins, and did not fulfil their desires. It is best for everyone to genuinely cooperate to achieve the democratic path and support Tunisia’s distinguished role as an example for the others.

*The author is Reader in Politics and coordinator of the Democracy and Islam Programme at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, Westminster University. This article is a translation from the Arabic which appeared in Al Quds Al Arabi on 7 March 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.