A group of leading civil society figures, including lawyers, human rights activists, trade unionists and academics today called for a “national salvation government”, composed of independent experts and demanded that all parties “avoid falling into the spiral of violence, and exercise self-control and vigilance in a concerted effort to bring the country out of the crisis. ”
Political actors should also support the initiative of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) to identify a common national vision for a successful democratic transition, said the statement, whose signatories included journalist and rights activist Slaheddine Jourchi (right), labor unionist Mustapha Filali, and Mustapha Kamel Nabli, a former governor of the Central Bank of Tunisia.
But Tunisia’s Islamists have rejected a plan by Ennahda’s party leader and prime minister to replace the government with a non-partisan cabinet of technocrats prior to fresh elections following the killing of a secular opposition leader, “deepening the worst crisis since the 2011 revolution,” Reuters reports:
A senior Ennahda official said Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali had not sought party approval, highlighting a split within the Islamist group.
“The prime minister did not ask the opinion of his party,” said Abdelhamid Jelassi, Ennahda’s vice-president. “We in Ennahda believe Tunisia needs a political government now. We will continue discussions with other parties about forming a coalition government.”
Ennadha’s parliamentary leader, Sahbi Atig, said the party’s block of MPs also rejected the plans, AFP reports.
“We have rejected this proposal… The head of the government took the decision without consulting the (ruling) coalition or the Ennahda movement,” he said on national television.
Protesters set fire to the Tunis headquarters of Ennahda and demonstrations also broke out in Sidi Bouzid, where the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi proved to be the catalyst for the Jasmine Revolution that ousted dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.
Leaders of the UGTT labor union called a general strike for Friday to coincide with the funeral of Chokri Belaid, the assassinated secular politician, which is “likely to be a highly emotive event in its own right,” The New York Times reports:
Belaid was one of Tunisia’s best-known human rights defenders and a fierce critic of the ruling Islamist party. His killing placed dangerous new strains on a society struggling to reconcile its identity as a long-vaunted bastion of Arab secularism with its new role as a proving ground for one of the region’s ascendant Islamist parties.
The explosion of popular anger, which led to the death of a police officer in the capital, posed a severe challenge to Ennahda, which came to power promising a model government that blended Islamist principles with tolerant pluralism.
During the protests the “familiar ‘degage’ (get out) chants synonymous with the uprising against Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime were directed at Ennahda, and the party’s co-founder, Rached Ghannouchi,” the National Democratic Institute reports:
A member of the party’s governing Shura council confided to NDI staff that “the country is dangerously close to being drawn into a cultural war,” and expressed suspicion about the timing of the incident as the ruling coalition parties that make up the increasingly fragile “troika” — Ennahda, Ettakatol, and the Congress for Republic Party (CPR) — had been in the midst of intensive debate over a long-rumored government re-shuffle. ….Fears of a broadening conflict are shared by the leadership of Tunisia’s larger opposition parties, including Nidaa Tounes and Al Joumhouri, which met with NDI earlier in the week and recently announced the creation of an electoral front — along with three other opposition parties — for upcoming national polls.
Activists and analysts alike warn of “dark forces” seeking to undermine the transitions underway in Tunisia and Egypt.
“Confronting violence, radicalism and the forces of darkness is the main priorities for societies if they want freedom and democracy,” Amr Hamzawy, a member of Egypt’s main secular opposition coalition, wrote on Twitter. “Assassinating Chokri Belaid is warning bell in Tunisia, and in Egypt too.”
Tunisia’s main opposition parties also rejected any move to a government of experts and demanded they be consulted before any new cabinet is formed, Reuters notes:
Political analysts said protracted deadlock could aggravate the unrest, which has underscored the chasm between Islamists and secular groups who fear that freedoms of expression, cultural liberty and women’s rights are in jeopardy just two years after the Western-backed dictatorship crumbled.
Ennahda has failed to form a stabilizing partnership with key state institutions, as the Muslim Brotherhood has done with the Egyptian military, according to the Stratfor analysis group.
“This inability or unwillingness to rely on the state security apparatus as a regime backer has left Ennahda with few useful tools to address the strengthening political opposition and popular forces increasingly calling for significant changes in the makeup of the government,” Stratfor said.
The secular opposition wants to leverage the crisis to its own advantage and prolonged uncertainty could lead to more unrest, said analyst Salem Labyed.
“It seems that the opposition wants to secure the maximum possible political gains but the fear is that the … crisis will deepen if things remain unclear at the political level. That could increase the anger of supporters of the secular opposition, which may go back to the streets again,” he said.
Shadi Hamid, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Doha Center, told The Washington Post that the Islamist-secular divide that came with the Arab Spring’s nascent pluralism was predictable. “I don’t think it was possible to stop this divide from happening,” said Hamid, who was in Tunis on Wednesday.
“There is a fundamental ideological divide in the Arab world — let’s not pretend that it’s purely political,” he said. “There is a battle for the future of these countries and what they should look like.”
In a TV appearance on the evening before his death, Belaid criticized Ennahda’s tolerance of ultraconservative Salafists hostile to modern culture in one of the most broadly secular Arab states.
“The ruling Ennahda Party has yet to distance itself from the radicals,” notes one observer:
Ennahda founder Rachid Ghannouchi even encouraged “our young Salafists” to patiently embark on a long march. “Why the hurry?” he said in a video of a meeting with Salafists. “The Islamists must fill the country with their organizations, establish Koran schools everywhere and invite religious imams.” The video was secretly recorded and posted online, but Ghannouchi claims his words were taken out of context.
Ennahdha has generally been portrayed as a ‘moderate’ and as a unified party, but internal divisions between relatively modernist and conservative factions “could carry major implications for the party’s integrity moving forward,” a recent analysis suggests.
“Disagreements have surfaced, for example, over the issues of political participation and the relationship between religious and secular law. Although the moderate strands of the party have won key debates in the past nine months, there are signs that the conservative branch of the party may be ascendant,” writes Sara J Feuer in Islam and Democracy in Practice: Tunisia’s Ennahdha Nine Months In, a report for Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies:
Such divisions are a liability for the party, which might explain why the opening lines of the recent party congress’s final declaration, as well as statements by Ennahdha members at press conferences that followed, asserted that the party remains unified around its “moderate” and “centrist” character. However, the results of the congress’s votes for party leadership and key concessions to the conservative wing in the final declaration belie such claims.
Though the movement re-elected [Rachid] Ghannouchi (above) as president, just over one-quarter of the party’s membership did not vote for him. Hearings at the congress were closed to outside observers, but reports later emerged of heated debates between an older, less confrontational generation of members molded by the experiences of exile and imprisonment and a younger, more conservative trend in the party insisting on a hard line toward the secular parties and greater cooperation with Salafist parties.