Tunisian activists and analysts are assessing the implications of the security services’ violent suppression of yesterday’s demonstration by labor and civil society activists. Violent protests have since spread to several regional cities, and some observers believe the crackdown may prefigure growing polarization and conflict between secular and Islamist forces.
“During the first phase of the transition, the political elite acted in a very smooth way. There was an attempt to use dialogue and comprise. Now, there are widening divisions in the political elite between Islamists and secularists,” said Amna Guellali, a Tunisia-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Each one is trying to defend its own turf, and that might lead to heightened tensions on the street.”
The country’s president denounced the “unacceptable violence” used against the protesters in a crackdown that observers suggest is likely to prove a public relations nightmare for the Islamist-led government.
At least 2,000 protesters mobilized to commemorate the Martyrs’ Day holiday, which marks the 1938 suppression of pro-independence activists by French colonial forces, in defiance of a recent ban on political assemblies on Habib Bourguiba Avenue.
Security forces used tear gas and batons to disperse protesters who filled the capital’s central artery.
“Police officers were very, very brutal,” said lawyer Radhia Nasraoui. “I had the impression we were reliving the situation under Ben Ali. This government does not solve Tunisians’ problems but it knows how to clamp down.”
“We are all in shock, what happened is horrible, a point of no return has been reached,” said Sadoua Elleuch of the Doustourna civil society network:
Doustourna leader Jawar Ben Mbarek was roughed up when he was stopped for questioning during the demonstration, while members of the Constituent Assembly were pushed around and journalists harassed.
“To see prominent people, officials being treated like that is unbelievable,” Elleuch said.
“Such a degree of violence is unacceptable,” said President Moncef Marzouki.
“I deeply regret that peaceful protesters were injured,” he said, deploring “the unacceptable standoff between the state that has banned demonstrations on Bourguiba Avenue and those who deliberately violated the ban”.
The demonstration was organized by the UGTT labor federation and civil society groups critical of the Islamist Ennahda Party’s dominance of the ruling coalition.
Many demonstrators voiced outrage at what they saw as authorities’ double standards as they would not rein in hardline Muslim Salafists but cracked down on left-leaning protesters, Agence France Presse reports.
“It was us who defended them when they were repressed under Ben Ali and today, now that they are in power, they repress us with the same practices of the old regime,” said Moufda Belghith of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women.
“We see the same pattern of repression that we used to see under the Ben Ali regime. For me, that underscores the lack of social overhaul, to structurally change the security,” said rights activist Guellali.
But a spokesman for Ennahda defended the government’s actions
“There is a difference between a revolution and chaos,” said Said Ferjani, a torture victim and former exile.
In both Egypt and Tunisia, the New York Times reports, the Islamist parties leading the new legislatures — outlawed as radicals under their former governments — take a conservative, business-friendly approach to matters of law and order that is at odds with more left-leaning forces in the revolts.
In Tunisia, that tension has become particularly focused on Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis — a central thoroughfare that is the symbolic core of the country’s revolution, like Tahrir Square is in Cairo. Labor groups, liberals and conservative Islamists have all used the avenue as a staging ground for demonstrations to voice their demands. Local merchants and businesses, meanwhile, complain that the protests have scared off tourists, ruining any hope of economic revival.
The situation came to a head on March 28, when two rival groups of liberal artists and ultraconservative Islamists both staged marches there. Clashes ensued, with the ultraconservatives attacking the artists.
In response, the government announced a ban on protests along the avenue, directing demonstrators to march elsewhere. And on Saturday, the police first used tear gas and batons to enforce the new ban when a few hundred members of a group billing itself as a union of the unemployed tried to march from the nearby headquarters of the national labor union.
Some observers believe that Monday’s violence may be a precursor of growing political polarization.
“People have many grievances against at the government,” Sadok Belaid, a teacher at the University of Tunis, told The Media Line. “It’s afraid that these demonstrations will concentrate all the anger of the people on its bad performance on the political, economic and social levels, the reaction and the counter-reaction will accumulate.”
“The problem is that even if it tried, and it is willing to do, Ennahda is not capable of satisfying everybody,” Belaid said. “They cannot meet the demands of the extremists of either side, but especially of the Salafists. They want to take power and push out Ennahda, which in the Salafists’ eyes is a traitor.”
Several secular centrist parties, including the center-left PDP, this week agreed to form a new alliance to challenge the Islamist parties in forthcoming general elections.
“We will create a new democratic, social, moderate, centrist party that will be built on justice,” PDP leader Maya Jribi said. “We will make the battle against the scourge of unemployment, for equality and the respect of Tunisians’ fundamental rights… our program”.
Tunisians were “starting to have doubts and wondering where Tunisia is going”, she said, citing “threats by [Salafist] fundamentalists” and deteriorating security.
Ennahda’s electoral victory created a paradox for the Islamists, Mohamed Bechri writes on the Fikra Forum.
“The leadership is well aware that only a partnership with the secular parties would be palatable to the West, both to appease the domestic front and help revive the economy. But they also need to take into account the radicals amongst them, and they face a tough competition from the Salafis,” says Bechri, a former president of the Tunisian Section of Amnesty International.
Ennahda has tried to appease its Salafist rivals by taking more radical positions on foreign policy, some observers suggest.
The party’s president recently declared that “there can be no normalization” of relations with Israel.
“Tunisians’ problem is with Zionism, not with Judaism”, said Rached Ghannouchi. Palestinians would reclaim land occupied by Israel through “the victory of democratic regimes in the Arab World,” he said, denouncing Tunisia’s former leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali as “a collaborator with the Zionists.”
But members of the country’s Jewish community believe the ease with which Salafist chants have morphed from “Death to the Zionists” to “Death to the Jews” may be an ominous harbinger.
“Ennahda’s election favored the emergence of a new fundamentalist section of the society, the extremists,” says Jacob Larguech, a Tunis-based businessman. “And the two enemies of the democratic revolution are populism and extremism.”
The Islamist party “is under pressure from secular parties and labor unions to improve economic conditions and not give religion too prominent a place in public life,” Reuters reports:
Protesters on Monday likened Ennahda to the Trabelsi family of Ben Ali’s wife Leila, widely blamed by Tunisians for the rampant corruption of the final years of his rule. “The people are sick of the new Trabelsis,” protesters chanted.
Tunisia has changed enormously since the revolution, with a democratic system now in place and ordinary people able to speak and demonstrate freely for the first time in memory. But the interior ministry decided to ban rallies on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in late March after local hotels, restaurants and other businesses complained that repeated protests and counter-protests were snarling traffic and disrupting business…..
From the outset, Ennahda has faced strong opposition from secular parties and Tunisia’s powerful labor union, who fear it will impose conservative religious values on a country long known for its liberal and secular outlook.
Ennahda has promised not to ban alcohol or enforce wearing veils but has faced pressure from conservative Salafi Islamists pushing for a greater role for religion in public life.
The region’s Islamist parties are constrained by the fact that the Arab revolts were prompted by socio-economic grievances, says Bechri. Some 54% of Egyptians, according to Gallup, say jobs and the economy are the most important priorities, as opposed to less than 1% who prioritize the implementation of Sharia.
“In Tunisia, the bias against implementing the Islamist agenda is even more pronounced,” he writes, presenting Ennahdha with “no choice but to establish a coalition government” with the secular Congress for the Republic and Democratic Forum.