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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

In Tunisia, the march toward a freer political system is pitting secularists against Islamists

Secularists hope Tunisia’s gradual approach for moving to an open political system from a police state will help box in Islamists, but fear the approach has created a political and security vacuum that could end up helping them.

Tunisians forced out President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali via street protests that took place in December and January this year, and more than 90 political parties have sprung up in the newly freed public space.

Secular parties, policy-makers and Western powers are preparing for a future in which the leading Islamist party Ennahda, driven abroad and underground by Mr. Ben Ali, is a key force in the North African country but limited in its power.

“There are colossal suspicions about Ennahda. No one believes their commitment to democracy and pluralism. Their discourse in Arabic is very different to their discourse in French, particularly in rural areas,” said George Joffe, a politics professor at Cambridge University.

He said the fear was not just of its Islamist platform, but of a gradual slip into the one-party authoritarianism of the previous era if one better-organized group dominates.

It is partly because of these concerns that Tunisia is taking its time before getting to any elections. Elections for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution have been delayed until October, and there is no timeframe for parliamentary and presidential elections that follow.

“There is a reasonable chance Ennahda will emerge the strongest party but not having a majority. The best guess is there will be a secular-center left majority in parliament,” a Western diplomat said.

The incumbent political class, divided between those who accommodated and those who challenged Mr. Ben Ali’s corrupt government, hope Ennahda will not gain more than a quarter of the vote, said economist Marouane Abassi.

“Ennahda could get around 25 percent, which is manageable, but more than that would be difficult for Tunisia,” he said.

Though the Tunisian army is seen by analysts as a weaker force than its Egyptian counterpart, it has made an effort to present itself as guiding the transition from above and protecting the secular state established by independence leader Habib Bourguiba.

“The national army is alert to protecting the Tunisian youth revolution, the revolution for freedom, dignity and social justice, and it will remain true to its promise,” proclaims a slogan at an exhibit in central Tunis celebrating the army’s role as protector of the state during the past 55 years.

The work of organizing the mechanisms of transition is split between the interim cabinet and a body with the lofty title of “higher committee for realizing the aims of the revolution, political reform and democratic transition.”

This committee has set up a separate body to organize the October vote and is preparing a political parties law that would introduce transparency and restrictions on funding.

This last move is widely perceived to be targeting Ennahda, which was able to gather support through Islamist networks while in years of exile in London and other Western capitals.

“The Left is trying to marginalize Ennahda. The idea is to hem them in with laws,” said Salah Attia, a columnist at the daily Assabah newspaper.

If Ennahda dominates the constituent assembly it will find much of the country’s political structure already in place.

The committee has also come up with the idea of a “republican charter” for all groups to adhere to, guaranteeing separation of religion and state and key women’s rights that have established Tunisia as a citadel of Arab secularism.

Ennahda says it has no problem with such a charter, but has countered that it should include the principle of no relations with Israel. It says these are tricks to delay the vote further.

“There is a fear now that the committee wants to create tension in order to delay the elections,” said Noureddin Beheiri, Ennahda politburo member. “This would mean it is trying to sabotage the revolution, not realize its aims.”

He noted it has not yet drawn up a list of Ben Ali-era loyalists from his dissolved RCD party who would not be able to run in October. Without the list, the poll will not be possible.

Ennahda made a play for public opinion last month in pulling out of the committee, saying it was dominated by who refused to put issues to a vote.

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