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Tunisia at the Crossroad: Religious or Secular Government

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Tunisia politicsBy Hedi BenAicha
Vice President and Assistant Provost, Library and Instructional Resources
American Public University System

Tunisia, called cradle of the Arab Spring, is a North African country the size of New England, squeezed between two giant oil producing countries, Libya to the East and Algeria to the West. The term “squeezed” is intentional: unlike its neighbors, where a very conservative religious ethos prevails, Tunisia has stood out as oasis of modernity in the region and throughout the rest of the Middle East.

The events precipitating what Tunisians call the “Jasmine Revolution” have been widely documented. On Dec. 17, 2010, in the little Tunisian town, Sidi Bouzid a police woman slapped a poor street vendor for lacking a permit. Her conduct epitomized Tunisia’s corrupt and oppressive government. The humiliated and indignant vendor in a final act of defiance set himself on fire in the town square. Thanks to social media, millions in Tunisia and across the world witnessed his self-immolation and set in motion mass protests across the country and in a chain reaction, across much of the Middle East. Unable to quell Tunisian protests and unrest, Tunisian President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali ultimately fled the county in January 2011.

From the start, analysts expected a rejuvenated democracy would emerge in Tunisia, but elsewhere violence darkened the prospects of democratic reform, such as in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. In an Oct. 25, 2014 article entitled “A light unto the Arab nations” , the Economist observed that “The hope that popular protests against Arab dictators in 2011 would bring justice and democracy has given way to despair, chaos and unimaginable bloodletting. Yet the spirit of the Arab spring survives in the country where it all started: Tunisia.”

However, Tunisia’s road to democracy was not without its potholes. After an initial honeymoon among Tunisia’s multiple political factions, political infighting threatened political stability. From 2011 to 2014, Tunisia experienced unprecedented political and social upheaval. During this period the country experienced some violence, mainly at the hands of small extremist groups connected to so-called Islamic radicals elsewhere in the Middle East. But during this same period, Tunisians of all socio-economic levels embarked on a profound self-examination of what they envisioned for their new Tunisia. It seemed that two Tunisian narratives were battling for ascendance: That of a modern, secular nation comfortable negotiating the cultural line between East and West, or a conservative—and I might add imported—brand of political Islam suspicious of science, civil rights and empowered minorities and women.

Immediately after the revolution, Tunisians elected a predominantly Islamist interim government. The electorate soon recoiled from the extremism that came with it and soon ousted what they considered a stifling government fueled by Islamic extremism. In early 2014, Tunisians drafted and adopted a constitution that is widely considered the most progressive and secular in the Middle East. Fast forward to December 2014 when Tunisians democratically elected a national legislature and a new president, both highly secular and committed to upholding the nation’s newly promulgated constitution.

As Tunisia’s story is still unfolding, its people and their Western allies are optimistic about its future. Despite isolated acts of terrorism (such as recent attack on the Tunisian National Museum) most experts believe that politically motivated violence is not in Tunisia’s DNA.

That is for several reasons: Homogeneity characterizes Tunisia’s socio-political tapestry—a strong, educated middle class, and Tunisia’s embrace of modernity as far back as the mid-1700s, predating French colonization from 1881 to 1956. Religious moderation, tolerance and acceptance have been the hallmark of Tunisian identity. Tunisia abolished slavery in 1848, established the first modern war college in the region, wrote the first constitution in 1864 and started modernizing its health and educational system way before the French took over the nation’s treasury and declared it a “Protectorate” (or quasi-colony) of France. Despite French colonial control, Tunisia still managed to establish a modern government that transcended tribal and religious sectarianism and laid the foundation for its relatively bloodless independence movement, led by Habib Bourguiba in 1956.

Elected Tunisia’s first President, Bourguiba set the country on a path to democracy: he abolished polygamy and instituted sweeping new legal codes according women more rights—including reproductive rights—than in many European nations at the time. Over the decades, however, the visionary Bourguiba aged and grew increasingly dictatorial. On Nov. 7, 1987, Ben Ali succeeded Bourguiba, and despite initial hopes for more political openness, Ben Ali became even more dictatorial and added the wholesale graft and cronyism that ultimately sparked the Jasmine Revolution that toppled him.

Under a secular and modern government, Tunisia now faces an opportunity to rekindle its democracy and remains an oasis of political stability across the North Africa and the Middle East.

About the Author
Hedi BenAicha is the VP/Assistant Provost at APUS supporting the library, archives and special collections and course and instructional materials to enrich teaching, learning and research. He earned his BA in History, MA and DEA in Middle East History from University of Paris Sorbonne, and an MLS from the University of Maryland College Park. Hedi is a recognized expert on Tunisia’s history and politics and has presented at such academic institutions as Princeton University and scholarly organizations such as the Middle East Studies Association.

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