Arab Spring status report: Where is Tunisia heading?

Arab Spring status report: Where is Tunisia heading?

Whatever happened in the period between Dec. 17, 2010, and Jan. 14, 2011, in Tunisia, culminating with the departure of then President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, forever changed the political, social and economic face of this small North African nation and beyond.

What started as the test ground for a truly open, democratic and pluralistic Arab society turned into an Islamist laboratory after Tunisia’s first-ever free elections to form a constitutional assembly resulted in the takeover of the Islamists organized under the banner of Ennahda.

With time, it appeared that the Islamists were not interested in the drafting of a Constitution that would reflect the aspirations of the people: freedom, dignity, and jobs. Instead, the whole process turned into an exercise in reinventing Tunisian society in accordance with an Islamist vision.


When Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956 with Habib Bourguiba at the helm, the main strategy was fighting poverty, building infrastructure, educating the masses, emancipating women and entertaining peaceful international relations.

However, Bourguiba thought that “his” people were not mature enough for democracy, and he fell into the classic president-for-life trap, which led to the non-democratic takeover by Ben Ali in November 1987.

With the total absence of freedom of expression, endemic corruption and unemployment, an ever-widening gap between rich and poor and the total marginalization of the rural areas all prepared the way for the inexorable uprising of Jan. 14, 2011. Such an explosion was made possible by civil society in the form of a spontaneous movement. The people who took to the streets did not do so under the banner of any political party – not even the Islamist one!

The day after

Tunisia experienced a double shock: a civil revolt carried out by an unstructured civil society movement, not inspired by any ideology or leader, followed by the Islamists filling the vacuum and taking over power.

The electoral triumph of Enhanda can be explained with reference to its historic legitimacy as a political organization whose members were tortured under Bourguiba and Ben Ali, a wide network, tight structure and a simple message that promises to obey God, fight corruption and promote integrity.

An Islamist laboratory
Ennahda’s ideological project stands on two basic pillars:
• Shariah is the norm.
• The model of the “nation-state” is inadequate and the ultimate project is to govern in accordance with the caliphate model spanning to all of Islamic society (ummah). Loyalties, meanwhile, should no longer be based on being a “Tunisian” but being a “Muslim.”

While the Salafis appear to advocate hard-line Islam, Ennahda has been promoting the image of “moderate Islam.” In this author’s view, those who distinguish along ideological lines between “moderates” and hardcore Salafis in the Islamist movement err. A subdivision between “moderate” Islamists and Salafis mainly serves to pacify those fearful or skeptical of political Islam.

Civil society as the savior?

While Ennahda is increasingly plagued by scandals, lack of performance and a serious erosion of confidence, the growing number of associations and NGOs being registered offer a ray of hope.
All attempts to rewrite Tunisia’s “DNA” have met with consistent reaction from the new civil society network not affiliated with Ennahda. It is this author’s opinion that in the case of Tunisia today, an active civil society is the first and last frontier in the battle for democracy.

Today, Tunisia is set to choose between building an open, pluralistic and a development-driven Arab and Muslim society, or, slipping irreversibly into an Islamist, totalitarian and a backward-looking model. Only civil society can prevent the latter from happening and the legitimate and democratic aspirations once thought attainable from evaporating.

Lotfi Maktouf is founder and president of Almadanya, a non-political Tunisian NGO. This abridged article is originally published in the summer 2012 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ).