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The Tunisian Option

Following the attacks in Paris, the compromise between political Islam and the secular parties in Tunis represents an imperfect alternative to the brutal ideology of the Islamic State

Eugenio Dacrema | 09 December 2015

The creation of a moderate "European" Islam is an idea that is rapidly gaining ground following the events in Paris. The aim of such a project would be to counter the fascination that the bloodthirsty and radical version of Islam propagated by the Islamic State - and by al-Qaeda before it - exercises over the minds of young people, both in Europe and Arab and Islamic countries. And yet, there's no need to look so very far afield to find a valid alternative to extremist ideology, albeit fragile and flawed. Destination: Tunis.

Tunisia has always been something of a anomaly within the context of the Middle East; it has never been involved in the great games and conflicts that have shaken the region in the post-war period. A peaceful country, it has always enjoyed cordial relations with its neighbours and a maintains a relatively small military force. Moreover, it has never been the protagonist of the great ideologies that have swept through the Arab-Muslim world, the Nasserist and Ba'athist pan-Arabism of countries like Egypt, Syria and Iraq, or the Wahhabi religious conservatism originating in Saudi Arabia. Yet, Tunisia has shown that there are other, quieter ways of being in the vanguard. Together with Morocco and Jordan, Tunisia has always been at the forefront in the development of economic and political relations between the European Union and the southern Mediterranean. From the nineties onwards, these relations have helped significantly to reshape the economies and societies of the entire Arab-Mediterranean region, contributing to strong social modernization, but also exacerbating inequality. Thanks to these two factors - economic and social modernization and growing inequality - it was Tunisia that set the pace in 2010-2011, when the wave of protests that produced such radical changes in the Middle East was triggered by events in that country.

The art of compromise
After the enormous initial expectations generated worldwide by those events, today, enthusiasm has given way to disappointment. Five years on, conflicts and the reappearance of repressive regimes, in countries such as Egypt, Libya or Syria, have supplanted any kind of hope for democratic renewal, prompting fears for the stability of the rest of the region. Tunisia seems to be the only country capable of maintaining the promises made during that "Arab Spring". After overcoming the difficult transitional phase, in 2014 the country adopted a new democratic Constitution and called new elections, which represented the first real test for Ennahda, the Islamist political party inspired by the tradition of the Muslim Brotherhood. After obtaining a relative majority in the Constituent Assembly elections in 2011, Ennahda had agreed to form a government in coalition with secular parties, thus distancing itself from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Immediately after the revolutionary events, however, the country has been hit by social tensions, and its first serious terrorist attacks. The attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis in September 2012, and the killings of two members of the secular opposition, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, five months later in 2013, led to Ennahda being accused of failing to check religious extremism in society. As a result of these tensions, in 2014, the movement decided to dissolve Parliament and form a technical goverment, together with the opposition parties. The Islamist party evenutally accepted the results of the 2014 elections, which saw it replaced in goverment by the secular Nidaa Tounis party.

The hotbed of foreign fighters
The example of Ennahda is unprecedented in the Arab world, where no Islamist party had never demonstrated a willingness to accept every aspect of the democratic process: victory, compromise and defeat. But it was not an easy process. Over recent years, Ennahda has gone through several phases and internal metamorphoses that have seen it evolve into a laboratory for the reform of the relationship between Islam and politics. The extremist wing, which initially wanted to follow the example of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, has been partially replaced by the reformist wing, including many younger politicians, which has led Ennahda to face up to changes in its own identity and the relationship between the party's underlying religious principles and the needs of a modern democratic system.

This laboratory is now facing perhaps the most difficult phase in its history. Economic stagnation, and Tunisia's abandonment by its international partners render it virtually impossible to implement any concrete measures aimed at improving the condition of young men in the country's most disadvantaged regions, which in 2010 gave birth to the revolution, and which, today, represent the single largest source of foreign fighters for extremist groups throughout the Arab world. Thus far, the revolution has not been able to meet the needs of those who started it, and this has led many young people, who are often well-educated but unemployed, to look elsewhere for answers to what they see as a life without a future. Ennahda's moderate version of Islam still struggles to offer a credible alternative to the promises of utopian redemption offered by extremists.

Tunisia has so far done everything alone. The country ousted its dictator, and overcame the serious political tensions of those five years of transition, without any outside help , which, in itself, would be worthy of a Nobel Prize. And it continues to combat the threat of terrorism, which can only worsen the stagnation of an economy that is largely based on tourism, without any external assistance. While panic takes hold in Europe, we should hold up Tunis as an example of an alternative solution to Muslims around the world, Europeans included; a fragile, flawed alternative, but one that is worth safeguarding.

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