Tunisia’s democratic transition got a shot in the arm this weekend when more than twenty democracies and the World Bank made strong commitments to providing assistance, as a merger of the country’s secular parties signaled a new effort to counter the growing influence of political Islam and rally civil society against radical Salafist groups.
The United States will provide $5 million to support priorities emerging from the Community of Democracies Tunisia Task Force, which held its inaugural meeting in Tunis on February 9-10, while the World Bank expressed strong support for the transition, including financial and technical assistance to aid economic recovery, strengthen governance, and promote social and economic inclusion.
Tunisia’s interim president, Moncef Marzouki (right), today expressed support for the legalization of Hizb ut Tahrir, a radical Salafi group which aims to establish a global caliphate, on the grounds that it will force the party to demonstrate its democratic credentials.
”I am for its legalisation because it holds a license [for political activities], he told the BBC’s Arabic channel. ”The party’s supporters will have to show whether or not they are part of the democratic process.”
Meanwhile, five secular parties merged last Saturday in an effort to provide a coherent alternative to Ennahda, the Islamist party that took more than 40 percent of seats in October’s constituent assembly elections. While the Islamist group attracted conservative and religious votes, the secular vote was divided between a proliferation of liberal and leftist parties.
The new yet-to-be-named grouping comprises several secular parties, including the Progressive Democratic Party, Afek Tunis, and the Republican Party.
“This initiative to combine the modernist centrist parties aims to create a balance of power and to prepare us better for future elections,” PDP leader Nejib Chebbi told Reuters. “But bringing together the largest number of forces is not enough. We must also develop our message and reach all deprived groups.”
Secular forces recently rallied to protest recent incidents of Islamist intimidation, including a university sit-in against mixed-sex classes and an assault by Salafi militants on two journalists associated with the broadcast of Persepolis, an animated film about a young girl’s experience in Iran’s Islamic Republic.
“This is civil society and political parties coming together to defend a pluralist Tunisia,” said PDP secretary general Maya Jribi.
Civil society coalitions are also emerging in response to Ennahda’s failure to honor its pledge to adopt a collaborative approach to governance.
The powerful Tunisian General Labor Union, the Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts and business associations for tourism, agriculture, engineering and banking, are opposing the Islamists’ politicization of economic reform, writes Amine Ghali, program director of the Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center (KADEM):
Because the current government will be in charge for only 12 to 18 months – which is roughly the time it will take to develop a new constitution – their best chance for success in improving the economy is through inclusion. This means bringing together the key players in Tunisia – state economic structures, political parties, trade associations, unions, civil society, universities and academia – with traditional international partners for a participatory approach to solving this crucial challenge…. Engaging all of these partners will be possible only if the new decision-makers in government decide to take an inclusive approach and build on the massive democratic momentum that Tunisia now enjoys.
“Improving Tunisia’s economy should not be a partisan issue. All national stakeholders…should be consulted and participate,” he argues. The Islamists “should begin dialogues with them to collaboratively solve economic problems, which will allow leaders to develop solutions,” he says. “Similarly, these stakeholders must be willing to engage with Ennahda.”
But the party’s spiritual leader insists that it espouses a tolerant, pluralist form of political Islam that is consistent with democratic values.
“The type of state we want is one that doesn’t interfere in people’s private lives,” says Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi. “The state should not have anything to do with imposing or telling people what to wear, what to eat and drink, what they believe in, what they should believe in.”
The party has no plans to ban bikinis on beaches or the sale of alcohol, he says in a detailed interview for the BBC’s ideas series, Analysis. “I would prefer it if people didn’t do this, but it is up to them.”
But secular Tunisians accuse Ghannouchi of double-talk, and Ennahda has been criticized for its ambivalence towards the Salafist attacks.
“He’s just playing on words,” says a Tunisian feminist. “The danger is that yes, they say you can go to the beach in a bikini. But at the same time when women on the beach are attacked [by Islamists], they are doing nothing to protect them,” she says.
Yet Ghannouchi insists that fears of Islamic rule are exaggerated and that Sharia law is simply a form of justice.
“We consider that a state is more Muslim, more Islamic, the more it has justice in it,” he says:
Britain’s version of secular democracy is more neutral and tolerant than the French, and therefore has some of the answers.
“When people asked me why I came to Britain, I explained that I was going to a country ruled by a queen where people are not oppressed and where justice prevails.”
“Tunisia’s elite is very closely connected to French secularism – the idea that society and state have to be secular and religion has very little role to play in that society,” says Maha Azzam of Chatham House….”The struggle of those that came out on to the streets of Tunisia is for accountable government,” Ms Azzam says. “Within that context, they still want respect for Islamic values, but I don’t think that there is a desire for an Islamic system of government that throws away democracy.”
“His vision for the model of an Islamic nation is built heavily on the idea of values,” explains Anas Altikriti, a British Islamist whose father led Iraq’s Muslim Brotherhood:
Ghannouchi’s theories are helping the Muslim Brotherhood to stop talking endlessly about ideology and instead address the tough questions – such as how to create jobs – that the electorate care about most.
“For the past 30 years the Muslim Brotherhood has been raising the slogan, ‘Islam is the answer,’” says Altikriti. “Well now they really need to answer many, many tough questions.”