Skip to content

The Amilcar Notes – 2 …Tunisia, emerging democracy…or just the frills?

December 6, 2011

Beja, in the west of Tunisia near the Algerian border...far from crowds of Tunis. photo credit: Free Tunisia

(This is the second of a series which I expect will include 4-5 installments. It ran on ZNET)

The Amilcar Notes – 1

The Amilcar Notes – 3

The Amilcar Notes – 4

The Amilcar Notes – 5

The Amilcar Notes – 6

The Amilcar Notes – 7

The Amilcar Notes – 8 

The Amilcar Notes – 9

The Amilcar Notes – 10


Have `les jours de gloire’ arrived in Tunisia and we just didn’t know it?

From the point of view of public relations, Rachid Ghannouchi’s unofficial trip to the United States appears to have been modestly successful. Ghannouchi opposed putting criticisms of Israel in the Tunisian constitution which appeared on some of the legislative drafts. Both Congress and AIPAC – it’s hard to distinguish between the two these days – breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever his inner thoughts on the subject, good relations with the United States trumped pushing Tunisian support for the Palestinians (which is pervasive) too far at the moment. Call it principle or a tactical decision, or simply the fact that Ghannouchi has too much on his plate back home, he moved on to other subjects quite quickly.

Ghannouchi promised a Tunisian coalition government in which the two secular parties with whom his Ennahdha Party is in coalition would be respected, again calming the waters. Sounded good to Washington ears. This reassurance came after one of his spokespeople called Ennahdha’s October 23 election victory the beginning of `the 6th caliphate’ –suggesting that Tunisia is heading in a much more religious fundamentalist direction. That gem came from Hamadi Jbeli, Ennadha Party chair and a possible choice to become Tunisia’s prime minister during a speech in Sousse just after the October 23 national elections here for a constituent assembly.

How much money he was able to raise in Washington, if any, I don’t know, but if Tunisia hopes to continue to play the United States off against France, as it has with considerable acumen since the 1940s – with the possible exception of the Ben Ali years –  Ghannouchi’s performance was both necessary and within the traditional framework of U.S. – Tunisian relations. If he and his party don’t make too many dumb mistakes, it is pretty clear that the Obama Administration is willing to work with them.

Both Hillary Clinton and the current U.S Ambassador to Tunisia, Gordon Gray, have said as much. This support will give Ghannouchi important diplomatic legitimacy and room to maneuver both in Tunisia and the Arab World at large. But he’s got to keep a lid on his less moderate elements within his party. It is becoming evident that while Ghannouchi’s statements are generally moderate that Ennahdha includes some elements that are less so. There seems to be something of a divide between a number of Ennahdha’s more cosmopolitan and moderate Islamic intellectuals that can talk  inclusion, women’s rights and respect for freedom of speech on the one hand, and the more fundamentalist elements at the party’s base who talk Shari’a on the other. This seeming dichotomy is nothing new by the way; it has marked Ennahdha’s style of work for the past thirty years.

Ghannouchi talked a good game in Washington. Does he and Ennahdha have the moxy and the political acumen to finesse what is already a difficult transition from the Ben Ali years to….whatever. Will he be able to use his political capital to bring the Tunisian people together, or will he divide them further? To build unity and keep his foreign allies happy Ennahdha will need to show more flexibility.Even more central, will the new government find the ways and means not just to revive the economy but to transform it so that Tunisia’s economic future can match its human potential?  This is not just to please investors and the business class which is waiting and watching, but to keep the country moving together in one direction without reverting to the methods of the old system.

True, some of the news reports of the some of the proposed themes for the new constitution are encouraging. There are commitments on paper at least to write eliminating the death penalty into the new document, to preserving existing woman’s rights in the country – and even of extending them, enshrining free speech rights, etc. In a bid to stop the continued collapse of tourism, Ennahdha is committed to let European tourists continue to have their nude beaches (to which Tunisians, however will be prohibited).

Combine that with a new openness towards demonstrations – including a big one shaping up today at the Tunisian Parliament in Bardo – and Tunisia certainly appears a different place than it was a year ago when Mohammed Bouazizi lit the match that ended his and ignited the Arab Spring.

What has changed?

Doubtless some things have changed…

A tyrant – (actually two, gotta throw in the` Mrs’ here) – `un salaud’ as the Tunisians now refer to Ben Ali, having both outlived his usefulness to foreign interests and oppressed his own people, was deposed. The Tunisian social movement that unseated Ben Ali gave birth to a regional uprising, the Arab Spring, the Second Arab Revolt, what have you. The Tunisian people are proud of both as well they should be. The big prize that has been won, and now is cherished, is freedom of speech.  Yes, freedom is in the air. `Sweet Freedom’ as the song goes.

Oh yes, and the election held here for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution unfolded without violence, bringing into power a block of 3 parties. The biggest winner was Ennahdha, which portrays itself as the bearer of a moderate Islamic approach, willing to find common ground with secularists compatible with Western values. It takes much inspiration from Turkish Islamic politics which talks democracy while arresting dissident journalists. In the past, Ennahdha has made efforts to separate itself and its image from the more fundamentalist Salafist elements.

Ennahdha’s two coalition partners are the more secular Congress pour la Republique or CPR and Ettakotal. But without a doubt Ennahdha is stronger of the three and able to exert its will over them, which it does. The CPR, actually is hardly a party; it was pretty much scraped together when the Tunisian election process was announced less than a year ago.

It lacks a coherent program, really there is none, and seems to have mostly been a vehicle for Moncek Marzouki to reach for the Tunisian presidency, which appears likely to happen. But it creates a problem when a political party is little more than a hollow shell with no program even if led by a national hero.  Ennahdha has successfully lobbied for legislation that essentially strips Marzouki of virtually all of his powers, making his little  more than a symbolic presidency. Instead, powers previously held by Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president and then Ben Ali, will be transferred to the country’s prime minister and the parliament. That post will go to an Ennahdha person, or if they are more clever, to an Ennahdha appointee close to but not run by the party.

It was odd (to me), but Marzouki really didn’t put up much of a fight for the loss of his perogatives (real lines of power) and seems to want to be president regardless of the terms, a troubling sign in my view, making him open to easily manipulated by Ennahdha and/or foreign elements whomever they may be. He is popular both in the U.S. and France

Ettakotal, the third party in the 3 party coalition dominating ahe Constituent Assembly, is not much better. They are a mix of secular and moderate Islamic elements, more of a party than the CPR. To this party has gone the presidency of the Constituent Assembly, a post also stripped of real powers that is also largely ceremonial and is held by the party leader, Mustafa Ben Jaafar.

Although more program oriented, and with the possibility over time of building into something more substantial Ettakotal’s most striking limitation appears to be its class base or lack thereof. As one Tunisian related, yes they area out there demonstrating (at the Bardo, Tunisian parliament) but so many of them are wearing the gucchi sunglasses and tailored clothes, suggesting that they are somewhat distant and too French speaking for the Tunisian mainstream. Still, overtime it is looks more possible for Ettakotal to build a bigger constituency within Tunisian society, but that will take time, perhaps a little help from their friends and a strategy that touches at the heart of the crisis of the Tunisian people.

If this synopsis is close to being correct, it suggests that in reality, the Islamic based Ennahdha will be the force running the country from behind the scenes and that the three party coalition is less of a coalition than an Ennahdha generated political motor in tandem with two political shell that are more moderate but have very little actual clout in Tunisian life. I’m do not appear to be alone in coming to this conclusion; this logic is driving both U.S. a little more enthusiastically and France, a little less, to understand that they’ll both have to find a way to work with Ennahdha if they want to have influence here

Warning signs…Is it all frosting with no cake?

Still, it all sounds a bit too rosy. Maybe not yet Nirvana, but Nirvana is just a few steps away, around the corner perhaps? (My mother’s wisdom comes to mind; most things that sound too good to be true…are just that)?

Are Tunisians experiencing only `the frills’ of social change or `the real thing’? Is this Tunisia’s version of France 1789, Eastern Europe 1989 now being repeated in Tunisia in 2011? Did the revolution end when Zine Ben Ali and his dear and tender wife Leila stepped on the airplane to Saudi Arabia on Jan 17, 2011? Is the revolution still in an early stage, hardly off the ground and quite fragile all in all. Or is it, as some already fear, a kind of political spring cleaning in which the house remains essentially the same minus a few cobwebs and bad odors? Is it too early to tell?

Well, there’s a lot of frosting on this Tunisian cake…but the cake itself needs some work, a lot of work. Tunisians might have their hard earned freedom of speech, but little else.

The biggest problem that Ennahdha – and all of Tunisia – faces, is its slowness to address the country’s socio-economic crisis which has only deepened in the past year despite Ben Ali’s welcomed departure. It was this crisis – the high unemployment especially among youth, decades of repressed wages and of course the pervasive repression that triggered the national uprising that deposed Ben Ali. How much patience will the Tunisian people show the current government before they explode once again?

Nero might have fiddled while Rome burned. Tunisians are arguing over the relevance of the niqab (full veil) and whether male and female university students should be separated (come on now!) while the economy bleeds jobs.While Ennahdha dithers over pressure from more Islamic fundamentalists to its right on cultural questions, Tunisia is unraveling on several fronts:

The economy is in trouble, the legitimacy of the new government fragile and once outside of Tunis, the security of the state quite unstable. Rather than addressing these more pressing issues, the country has been side tracked into magnifying the country’s religious-secular divide.

Truth is there is no economic program at the moment. 

The seriousness of the economic crisis was addressed today (December 6, 2011) head on in a major article in the `’ (business newspaper written in Arabic) by none other than the head of Tunisia’s Central Bank Governor Mustapha Kamel Nabli. Concerned with the deteriorating political situation and political tensions developing in parliament, he paints of dire picture of Tunisia’s economy.

Among the more disturbing aspects:

  • Some 120 foreign companies have left Tunisia since the beginning of the year, many moving to Morocco where the political climate is more stable
  • It is expected that this year the Tunisian economy will shrink by 3.3%
  • The number of unemployed has grown by more than 50% since the beginning of the year (from approximately 500,000 to 800,000; every month the numbers of those joining the unemployed jumps by more than 10,000 with no end in sight)
  • The poverty rate has jumped in the same period from 13-18.6%
  • While Tunisia’s private health clinics do a booming business doing cosmetic surgery on the boobs, faces, buttocks and who knows! how many other body parts of French women for rock bottom prices, Tunisia’s public health system is in shambles.
  • Doctors report spikes in patients victims of crime, violence of all kinds, against women, against the elderly
  • In the worst hit areas of the country, the interior (west) and the south, literally nothing has changed. No private or public investment. Nada. Youth unemployment in these parts of the country is still going through the roof; that white anger which stared down Ben Ali’s security police and burnt down rural police stations has not cooled.
Ca commence mal…mais ce n’est pas encore trop tard

During the election campaign anger was enflamed in Islamic circles over a cartoon movie that

Demonstration outside of the Tunisian Parliament for jobs, liberty and national dignity

portrayed God as an old man. The movie had actually played in Tunisia prior to that and while perhaps Moslem fundamentalists were not happy and criticized the film in their media, this time it was something different. Virtually the whole election campaign fixated around the film. The goal posts shifted dramatically from how the country might emerge from its socio-economic crisis to the question of defending or defaming the film.

Shifting the dialogue to these religious questions probably benefited Ennahdha’s election possibilities as it shifted the emphasis on the basic qualities of Tunisian citizenship to a more religious basis (on which it has not up until now been based). In so doing the `new dialogue’ mostly over religion and religiosity discredited the less religious Moslems, vilified the more secular elements and created a more fearful environment that continues up until the present. Ennahdha bears some of responsibility for widening the secular-religious gap in Tunisia.

Ennahdha has emerged as the more powerful political force in the country. It is a party that emanates from an Islamic social movement it has existed for thirty years and has gone through many trials, tests of fire and has sacrificed much It is a hardened (in the good sense of the term) political party with a genuine mass base as the recent election demonstrated. The two more secular parties that make up the power triangle, CPR and Ettakotal, are really not political parties in the same sense. Scraped together to participate in the election, they have little experience and a much narrower social base. Their leaders are acknowledged personalities in Tunisian life, but at least up until now they have been rather unimpressive. Marzouki seems glued to becoming Tunisia’s president at all costs and Ben Jaafar at least so far, has not inspired much confidence even from his supporters, some of whom are already splitting of from the movement. Neither has offered anything substantial to address the socio-economic crisis to date.

As for Ennahdha,  they are now power but still acting as if they were still in the opposition, agitating for their positions rather than showing a concern for the whole of the country that they govern. Political power requires a certain magnanimity which at the moments, all Ghannouchi’s good words aside, seems somewhat lacking. Admittedly after thirty years of repression it is difficult to change gears, but that is what it appears necessary to hold the country together and move forward to address the problems at hand

Further, since the elections while claiming to work in coalition and consensus, there are signs that Ennahdha is using the current situation to concentrate as much p0wer as possible in its own hands at the expense of its coalition allies and in so doing undermining Tunisian democracy. In the name of weakening the presidency given Ben Ali’s excesses they are attempting to concentrate similar powers in the position of the prime minister, giving that position something approaching unlimited control over the political process. At the same time, if the current trend continues the position of president of the republic (which Ben Ali and Bourguiba held) become little more than ceremonial posts. A needed balance  of power is lost to what appears to be plain and simply a not particularly subtle power grab. Needless to say, the prime minister will be an Ennahdha appointee.

There are also fears that the transitional government might seek to extend its mandate beyond its mandate of one year by stalling promised elections. There is a long history of promised but postponed elections in the Middle East that have undermined democratic processes. Such maneuvers were common in the Ben Ali era. Finally some of the key Ennahdha appointments do not sit well. The fact that Ennahdha has appointed the husband of Ghannouchi’s daughter as foreign minister, a man with no foreign policy experience to speak of, remind Tunisians of the nepotism in the Ben Ali era. In a country whose political posture has long been based upon a clever, if not shrewd regional and international foreign policy, this rubs many people the wrong way

It is not too late to close the gap, to build the confidence necessary to pursue a national agenda. These cultural questions need to be laid aside, a change in course that addresses the socio-economic crisis emphasizied. And it needs to be done soon, before the gap is too great, the trust is broken and the good will Ennahdha has earned through its anti-Ben Ali struggles is dissipated and the coalition collapses which it could.

In the last days, violence has broken out between pro and anti-nijab supporters at the University of Tunis taking tensions to a new level. Today a dean was beaten and an assistant administrator sent to the hospital after being beaten by Salafist (Islamic fundamentalist radicals) elements. As a result of what has been weeks of intimidation and lack of any government intervention the university closed its doors until security could be re-assured. While Ennahdha claims uninvolvement, on a day that rocks were thrown at the more secular camp of demonstrators, several of their members of parliament were identified in the Salafist crowd widening the gap that much further. While Ennahdha talks unity, most of the signs are that it is engaged in a power grab at which it could win the battle but lose the war, the war being over the future of Tunisia. Ca commence mal. It’s one thing to `talk the talk’ of national unity, ah…but walking the walk, that appears to be a bit harder.

Keeping the social movement alive, the same one that overthrew Ben Ali and that said `no’ to the first to post Ben Ali governments – and forced the government to concede – is needed now more than ever. And they are still there pushing Tunisia, once again, out of the darkness and towards the light, the nation’s conscience.

All the more important as the country once again seems headed for uncharted and darker waters. It’s not too late, but the clock is ticking and the younger generation in Le Kef, Kasserine, Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid are watching. Their demonstrations have a somewhat different tone than those of Tunis….


14 Comments leave one →
  1. Laura Lazowski permalink
    December 8, 2011 7:53 pm

    Thanks again for an informative piece.
    Learned that I should spell Muslims, “Moslems.”

    Religion and politics.. they seem to start some good
    changes in old systems, but need to be thrown out after the changes…

  2. Adam permalink
    December 19, 2011 1:19 pm

    It is true that it could be spelled anyway you would like. However, pronoucing it muZlems like some do in the American media (or some extreme religious people in some southern states) is it not always is even offensive to some of us American Muslims for reasons too long to get into ;)
    So I am glad you learned the difference, it matter to some of us more than other but more importantly it is the correct way of saying it :) muSlims, it even sounds better, doesn’t it?

  3. December 28, 2011 10:51 pm

    I came across this blog while sifting through the web for info on Tunisia (home land) and was really amazed at how the article has brilliantly dissected the current situation in the country where most local journalists fail to analyze with such pragmatic and non-partisan viewpoints. I agree with most of what have been said and the country is in a critical crossroad at the moment and it would be difficult to foresee where it’s going. Decades of power grab by former regimes left a colossal void in the political arena where most competencies were either alienated due to their old ties with the former regime or simply left the country for better horizons. The current crop of new elects have probably suffered or fought hard enough but are by no means capable of steering the country into the right direction in my humble opinion.
    The emergence of radical Muslim habits is relatively new to the country which has been for the most part fairly moderate and it clearly highlights failure of western and local governments fighting radical Islam. Years of oppression have only amplified resentment amongst the population which has been aiming for progressive values since independence but lost that drive now and turned back to their heritage trying to reinforce their religious and ethnic identities. The article left the door open for some hope, however, I’m afraid the country will spend time experiencing with religious proximity and affinity instead of focus on addressing urgent economic concerns. Again, great piece of work, Rob, I wish our journalists can have a minimum of clairvoyance.

  4. Mahmoud Bédoui permalink
    January 13, 2012 10:29 pm

    par Mahmoud Bédoui, samedi 14 janvier 2012, 07:20
    Pour la situation actuelle en Tunisie, elle est véritablement alarmante. LA NAHDHA DU SALAFISME et non pas la Nhadha tout court et qui veut dire “la renaissance”, s’en donne à coeur joie et tisse sa toile pour une véritable dictature islamiste. Curieusement, les médias occidentaux font encore une fois la sourde oreille. Motus total aussi de la part de toutes les chancelleries, tétanisées par une probable réaction violente de ces gens dits “modérés”.

    Ce qu’on continue dangereusement à appeler la révolution du “Jasmin” ou la révolution de “la Dignité, de la Liberté et de la Démocratie”est en fait à nuancer fortement. Elle n’a duré que deux semaines après le 14 janvier 2011 et depuis, c’est une véritable contre-révolution qui est en train d’être mise en place graduellement. Ce n’est point une contre-révolution islamiste modéré mais bel et bien extrémiste salafiste machiavéliquement mise en place par cette NAHDHA DU SALAFISME.

    En effet, de la joie de voir naître une révolution populaire menée par une jeunesse survoltée, à la mise en place une chape de plomb va couvrir le pays le jour où Rached GHANNOUCHI a été imposé par les Américains au premier gouvernement post-révolutionnaire, avec ordre de lui permettre d’officialiser son parti religieux, afin d’expérimenter l’islamisme modéré en Tunisie puis le greffer aux autres pays voisins, oubliant qu’il est condamné
    à perpétuité par contumace et que les partis religieux sont interdits en Tunisie. Il rentre au pays en héros et ne passera jamais devant un tribunal même formellement. Et en deux semaines le pays va reculer de dix siècles, c’est-à-dire depuis la victoire de l’Islam des Ténèbres sur l’Islam des Lumières. L’Europe n’a fait que suivre le diktat de l’administration américaine. Ce sinistre complot contre notre pays commence à se dévoiler de jour en jour. Quelques regrets peut-être et des larmes de Chimène plus tard, mais c’est déjà trop tard pour l’ensemble des Tunisiens.

    Par contre, une question se pose d’elle-même. Quelle mouche a piqué les Américains pour imposer à un pays qui a des milliers d’années d’histoire
    d’un peuple paisible et connu pour sa modération légendaire pour le pousser en enfer ?

    La réponse est simple, voire simpliste. Comme pour l’affaire des ADM irakiens sous Sadam Hussein, tissée par ses ennemis et qui se sont présentés aux Américains comme de véritables démocrates, La NAHDHA DU SALAFISME a été présentée comme un mouvement islamiste modéré à l’image de la Turquie actuelle, ce qui d’ailleurs n’est point une fleur, loin de là. Des contacts entre des associations islamistes aux USA, infiltrées par des salafistes notoires et bien connus par les services secrets américains et l’administration de ces derniers vont présenter Rached Ghannouchi comme la carte idéale pour expérimenter l’Islamise modéré dans tous les pays arabes qui entament leur “printemps démocratique”. On semble oublier qu’il n’y a et n’y aura jamais d’islamisme modéré car ce courant veille avant tout à installer la charia avec des méthodes différentes. On semble oublier le passé de ce “nouveau modéré” d’extrémiste notoire, coupable de différents crimes, ni le fait qu’il était Emir d’un Califat au Soudan ou surtout ses écrits dignes des plus grands penseurs salafistes. Tout cela a été gommé par les Américains croyant avoir découvert le vaccin anti-QaÏda. Mais très vite , comme pour l’Irak et partout ailleurs, ils vont vite le regretter car chaque jour qui passe et depuis des mois le véritable visage hideux du salafisme apparaît un peu partout en Tunisie. Il serait inutile de détailler les agressions quotidiennes contres les artistes, les cinéastes, les journalistes, les professeurs surtout les femmes., ni le honteux accueil du hors-la-loi Hénia présenté comme le premier ministre des Palestiniens sous les cris de MORT AUX JUIFS devant Ghannouchi et l’ensemble du gouvernement. Quelques jours après, on nous dira que ces cris ont été lancés par des inconnus, mais aucune poursuite judiciaire n’a vu le jour. Maintenant les milices para-militaires de la Nahdha du salafisme paradent partout. Quand aux salafistes, ils terrorisent l’ensemble des régions au vu de la police et ils ont occupé une faculté de Lettres à 10 kilomètres de Tunis, faculté qui a fermé ses portes à plus de 7.000 étudiants et réouverte après plus de 5 semaines, puis réoccupée quatre jours plus tard sans que le gouvernement pipe un mot. Ghannouchi est aux anges.
    Ces gens pratiquement venus des grottes et des cavernes afghanes ont aussi installé deux califats dans deux bourgades. Juste de quoi s’entraîner, sous le regard coupable du gouvernement malgré le branle-bas de combat de la société civile et des partis politiques de l’opposition. Dégagés mais ils reviendront car ce n’est qu’un simple entrainement pour eux et pour la NAHDHA DU SALAFISME. Détail piquant démocratiquement, le gouvernement a mis sous sa coupe les médias publics et cherche à briser toute résistance des journalistes. La démocratie islamiste rêvée par OBAMA fonctionne comme sur des gourdins et des armes blanches de ces pas un jour qui passe sans qu’on voit cette chape de plomb s’étendre. Jusqu’où ? Faut-il une guerre civile ou une deuxième révolution pour ouvrir les yeux des Américains, Obama en tête ?


  1. The Amilcar Notes – 3… Tunisia – the forgotten socio-economic crisis « Rob Prince's Blog
  2. The Amilcar Notes – 4…Tunisia and the `New’ Islamic Politics « Rob Prince's Blog
  3. The Amilcar Notes – 1…Zine al Abedine Ben Ali’s Sorry Legacy: Repression, Torture and Death « Rob Prince's Blog
  4. The Amilcar Notes – 5: The U.S. Tunisian Experiment: New Direction For U.S. Middle East Foreign Policy? « Rob Prince's Blog
  5. The Amilcar Notes – 6..Tunisia installs a new government, the constituent assembly « Rob Prince's Blog
  6. The Amilcar Notes – 7 : Tunisia’s Jews, `Now’ and `Then’ (Part One) « Rob Prince's Blog
  7. The Amilcar Notes – 8: Tunisia’s Jews ‘Now’ and ‘Then’…(Part Two) « Rob Prince's Blog
  8. The Amilcar Notes – 9: Little Country – Big U.S. Embassy: Tunisia’s Place in U.S. Strategy Toward North Africa…. « Rob Prince's Blog
  9. The Amilcar Notes 10 …Remembering Farhat Hached: An Afternoon with `We Love Kerkennah’ « Rob Prince's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: