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Unlike secularists, 'Islamists' in Tunisia were weak but not undemocratic

Supporters of Ennahda Movement in Tunis, Tunisia, on 27 February 2021. [Yassine Gaidi - Anadolu Agency]
Supporters of Ennahda Movement in Tunis, Tunisia, on 27 February 2021. [Yassine Gaidi - Anadolu Agency]

When the Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the country's government a week ago, everyone knew it would be a turning point in the North African state's history, just not in what way.

Announcing that "We have taken these decisions…until social peace returns to Tunisia and until we save the state," Saied invoked the constitution in efforts to justify his actions, insisting that he is determined not to cause bloodshed in what many describe as a coup.

A flurry of mixed reactions emerged immediately. While some in the country certainly see it as a positive move – claiming that ten years have been wasted since the revolution of 2011 and that the political deadlock needs a radical change to improve the situation – many others see the spectre of dictatorship returning to the country once again.

That is a hard point to argue against. Indeed, all of the actions taken by the Tunisian authorities show authoritarian attributes so far. Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, for example, was prevented from entering the governmental building by the military and several figures have been arrested since Saied's announcement. Above all, Saied appointed himself as the country's attorney-general, allowing him to seize all executive and legislative powers.

On the first day following the announcement, the offices of the Qatar-based media outlet Al Jazeera were also raided by Tunisian security forces. And a coup is never really complete, of course, if Al Jazeera is not raided or suppressed in some way.

It also bears remarkable similarities to the military coup in Egypt in 2013, led by current President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi against the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood which had been in power for only a year. What followed was bloodshed, the massacre of thousands of protestors by the military, and the return of authoritarianism.

These coups – or, rather, counter-revolutions – have the backing of foreign powers; with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reportedly planning and carrying out Al-Sisi's mission in Egypt and with the Emirates being suspected of orchestrating Saied's in Tunisia.

It is made all the more eerie seeing that Saied had a phone call with Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan four days prior to the incident, and that a day later the UAE's Deputy Chief of Police and General Security, Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, expressed "good news" on Twitter that a strong blow is "coming to the Brotherhood".

That Brotherhood Khalfan reference is, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood – that label which states, far-right pundits, and secular authoritarians alike all use for any party with even a hint of religious, Islamic conservatism. It raises a core and controversial theme of the coup: the constantly emerging struggle between the religious and the secular in many states throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

READ: Tunisia slips into a dangerous pitfall

It should first be noted that for the vast majority of Tunisians, the dissatisfaction with the government and political situation was due to factors far removed from any ideological debate. Governmental dysfunction, corruption, unemployment and economic hardships are the most motivating factors.

The long-brewing dissatisfaction with the prominent "Muslim democratic" Ennahda party, through its political and economic blunders over the years, has given its many secular opponents in Tunisia politics opportunity to blame it for the lack of progress in achieving the hopes Tunisians had.

Some of those opponents include the head of the secular Free Destour Movement Abir Moussi, who raided the office of Islamic scholars along with party members back in March and who was known to have opposed the overthrow of the former dictator Zine El Abedine Ben Ali. Many of the remnants of Ben Ali's party now inhabit Moussi's party, which has been a significant concern of believers in the revolution and proponents of democracy.

To many religious and conservative Muslims in Tunisia, the return of a secular-leaning regime and system of governance, where religiosity is side-lined and the religious conservatives are made out to seem dangerous, is a return to Ben Ali's rule where many facets of Islam in public life were repressed and those who were even remotely religious were viewed as a threat to the state.

Security forces take security measures around parliament building as supporters of Ennahda Movement stage protest against suspending parliament, assuming executive powers by Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia on 26 July 2021. [Nacer Talel – Anadolu Agency ]

Scenes of the hijab being banned and young men followed and arrested for attending prayers at the mosque could once again show themselves, religious conservatives and democracy supporters fear. Supporters of secularism in the country, for their part, claim that they themselves fear a gradual transition to Islamic rule under the guise of democracy practiced by Ennahda.

The fact is, however, that Ennahda was hardly an Islamist movement at all towards the end of the latest government. The party continuously watered down any connection with religiosity over the years, making concession upon concession in order to maintain its image as a legitimate political party.

It wholeheartedly supported the closure of at least 80 mosques and the limitation of thousands of others throughout the country in 2015 following the terror attacks on tourists, for example, and the following year it banned religious preachers from running for office and the party's head Ghannouchi publicly announced its distancing from political Islam.

It also made numerous political concessions that countered the very principles it became popular for in 2011, such as allowing members of the old regime of Ben Ali to participate in politics and its support for the reconciliation bill in 2017, which dismissed the corruption cases against former political figures of that regime in return for handing back stolen wealth.

READ: State-imposed secularism will never work in the Middle East

Despite all those concessions, Ennahda's representation in government dipped over the past few years, and when such reconciliation reforms were being passed in 2017, the party only had three ministers in the 26-minister cabinet – a representation of just 11.5 per cent.

Ennahda's problem was largely one of weakness, infirmity of principles, and an identity crisis which hindered its success in the long-term. Despite granting it a lifeline of legitimacy in the eyes of the secular populace and the international community, its efforts to act as a political chameleon did not stop its popularity from waning, and the secular opposition maintained that it was a threat to democracy in Tunisia.

President Saied, who now holds overall power, began his term as a remarkably neutral figure, an independent who belonged to none of the political parties. He has now come to represent and be supported by the secular base in Tunisian politics and secularists abroad who have yet to condemn the alleged coup.

He has also furthered the effects of the reconciliation law of 2017, last week offering penal settlements for corrupt businessmen who stole wealth during Ben Ali's era.

Right now, though, the coup is still an alleged one, as Saied claims he has a period of 30 days before he is obliged by the constitution to reinstate the democratic process. It seems we will truly see if this is an authoritarian power grab in line with the old regime or a sincere effort to improve Tunisian democracy by the end of August.

One thing is clear, however: what Saied and secularists may lack in democratic action, they make up for in decisiveness and firm actions. Perhaps the solution to the failures of Ennahda and other "Islamist" parties is to be more Machiavellian?

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

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