Tunisia’s prime minister today accused groups who organized a series of protests over the weekend of plotting to derail the country’s democratic transition. Officials blamed Islamist groups for setting fire to a police station and coordinating violent demonstrations against the provisional government.
But Tunisian citizens want politicians to focus on the dignity agenda and address their core priorities of employment and security instead of sectarian debates about the role of religion, according to newly-published research.
“There is an orchestrated plan to upset the stability of the country,” Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi (right) said in a televised address. The protests were designed to provoke chaos and instability, he said, ahead of polls scheduled for October 23 that will elect an assembly responsible for drafting a new constitution.
“Some parties and marginal groups are not ready for the elections,” said Cebsi, a centrist secular democrat, citing the “strange” timing of the weekend’s protests.
At least one protester was killed in the weekend’s violence which reflects growing friction between increasingly assertive Islamists and secular forces in the provisional government and civil society who led the revolt against longtime president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
“The least one can say is that they are ambiguous,” says Maya Jribi, co-leader of the center-left Progressive Democratic Party, criticizing Nahda’s tendency to “use the mosque for sending its political message.”
Most Tunisians believe politicians “should not use Islam as a political tool to gain votes, according to newly-published research from the National Democratic Institute, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
“Democracy and Islam are seen as consistent and not mutually exclusive,” NDI-commissioned focus groups suggest, expressing “strong sentiment that politicians should focus less on debates about religion, and instead present programs to address core issues including employment and security.”
“Focus group participants demonstrate a high degree of fidelity to Article 1 of the Tunisian constitution, noting the need for separation of religion from the state,” and participants cite lack of jobs and economic security as their principal concerns and cause for discontent with the transition.”
Nahda, Tunisia’s main Islamist party, is by far the best-known party, but “awareness of the party does not translate to awareness about its programs.”
Political branding and allegiance remain weak, the research notes. “Nearly six months after the revolution, focus group findings suggest that citizens continue to be ambivalent about political parties – whether newly formed or pre-dating the January revolution.”
In the resort town of Monastir, police reportedly stopped former regime supporters from disrupting a rally held by Nahda, Tunisia’s main Islamist party. Monastir had a reputation for tough football fans, who were sometimes the heavies who provided security for the RCD [the ruling party before the revolution],” explained one local man. “They are now being sent out to protest against Nahda.”
Abdelfattah Mourou, a member of Nahda’s political bureau, warned against “partisan and ideological conflicts” at the rally, held in the birthplace of the country’s late first president, Habib Bourguiba, who secured independence from France in 1957.
While secular forces blame Islamists for fomenting the violence, others suggest that it is also a manifestation of popular frustration with the pace of change.
A teenager was reportedly killed by a stray bullet during a demonstration in Sidi Bouzid, the small inland town where Tunisia’s revolution – and the wider Arab Spring – began when unemployed street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire last December 17.
“There was major fighting late into the night in Sidi Bouzid and in Regueb,” said Ali Zarai, a local labor union activist. “The people of Sidi Bouzid are angry. Six months after the revolution, they still haven’t seen any change and they are demonstrating against the government of Beji Caid Essebsi,” he said.
Tunisia is arguably the best placed of the region’s states to democratize, but only 46 per cent of citizens believe the transition is on course and only 59 per cent view the current government as able to address the country’s problems, according to a recent public opinion survey from the International Republican Institute.
“We’re in a transitional period, the state is weak and other forces are taking advantage,” said Dora Jaafar, a young marketing director. “Nobody knows where we’re going and this climate is prone to manipulation.”
The Islamists’ growing political leverage is evident in the “republican pact” released earlier this month by the official policy commission for political reform as the basis of a new constitution. Nahda reportedly insisted on a provision in the pact banning ties with Israel as a condition of accepting a postponed poll.
While many commentators have observed that the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring were notably free of the anti-US and anti-Israeli slogans so often used to divert attention from domestic issues, reports suggest that Tunisia’s “Islamist parties, along with Arab nationalists and extreme leftist factions, are pushing to implement a constitutional provision that would ban normalization of relations with Israel.”
So much for prioritizing the dignity agenda.
Jamel Bettaieb, a Tunisian activist, teacher and trade unionist, accepted the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2011 award on behalf of the citizens of Sidi Bouzid, hometown of Mohammed Bouazizi.