Echoes of Egypt: Secular-Islamist Tensions Rise in Tunisia

By Mathieu von Rohr

Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring over two years ago. But growing frustration and violence have caused the chasm between secularists and Islamists to widen, leading many to fear political chaos like that gripping Egypt.

Mount Chaambi has been burning for four days now. At the foot of the mountain, in his house among the olive trees, Khaled Dalhoumi watches black smoke rise into the sky, as if Chaambi were a volcano.

On Friday, August 2, Dalhoumi woke to the distant sound of explosions. He went out his front door and saw bombs raining onto the mountains. Since then, he has heard shots and shelling at all hours, and at night the mountain is lit by the glow of massive forest fires. The mountain where Dalhoumi's father once mined for lead, and which has since been made a national park, has become a war zone. "It breaks my heart," he says.

Dalhoumi, 53, is an elementary school teacher and a unionist, a mild-mannered man with a mustache who is versed in Karl Marx's writings and supported the revolution. Now he struggles to understand what is happening with his mountain, his city, his country.

Mount Chaambi, 1,544 meters (5,066 feet) high, rises at the edge of Kasserine, a city in western Tunisia. It is close to the border with Algeria and a four hours' drive from the capital of Tunis. Kasserine is one of the places where the revolution began in December 2010, the revolution that would topple dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and set the Arab Spring in motion.

Now this has become a place where the Tunisian army is fighting Islamist terrorists. Although their backgrounds and identities remain unknown, these fighters have reportedly retreated to the mountains here. After they killed eight soldiers, the army has been striking back with all its might.

For Dalhoumi, the columns of smoke rising over Kasserine are a sign that something has gone fundamentally wrong with Tunisia's Arab Spring. "The revolution has gotten on the wrong track," he says.

The ones he holds responsible for this are the Islamists of the Ennahda party, which has governed the country in a coalition with two secular parties since elections were held two years ago. Dalhoumi believes that Ennahda and its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, have no interest in taking action against extremists. "Before, it was: Ben Ali does whatever he wants, and no one can say anything about it," he says. "Now it's: The Islamists do whatever they want, and the others can say whatever they want about it."

For Dalhoumi, it's all interconnected -- the anger and hopelessness felt by people in Kasserine and throughout the country, the terrorists on the mountain, the unsolved murders of two opposition politicians and, of course, the military coup in Egypt. The result of all this has been that, within a short period of time, Tunisia's complicated but hopeful transition to democracy has come to a standstill, and the country has plunged into a serious crisis. Last week, work on the country's new constitution was suspended, even though this is the gridlocked parliament's main task.

The Religious-Secular Divide

The burning mountain serves as a symbol for this political crisis. On the mountain, as in the country's politics, the circumstances are murky and all involved in the conflict fashion their own interpretations of reality, with suspicions taking the place of facts.

One thing can be said for certain: On July 25, left-wing politician Mohamed Brahmi was fatally shot in front of his house in a Tunis suburb, in front of his wife and daughter. Witnesses later said they had seen two men on a motorcycle. The attack recalled the murder of another leading opposition politician half a year earlier: Chokri Belaïd was also shot in front of his apartment -- and apparently with the same weapon, as the country's Interior Ministry has now disclosed. Both murder victims were outspoken critics of political Islam. Official statements say there are 14 suspects, who are believed to have ties to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Brahmi's murder triggered a chain reaction. Thousands gathered the same day on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis to protest the government, at precisely the same place where the protests against Ben Ali's regime took place in early 2011. Police used tear gas, and the demonstrators moved on to gather in front of the parliamentary building in the Le Bardo district.

There, in the following days, both supporters and opponents of Ennahda gathered for demonstrations -- two Tunisias side by side, separated by barbed wire. On the opponents' side were well-to-do youth from the suburbs, in tight jeans and expensive T-shirts, while bearded men and women in headscarves filled the Islamists' side. But then, too, it was sometimes the other way around. There were the two pretty, un-veiled sisters on Ennahda's side, screaming that the opposition is trying to bring about a coup, and the veiled old woman among the secularists, saying this is not the Islam she wants.

The opposition's demonstrations in the Le Bardo district have been larger, as this side could mobilize more supporters in the capital. In response, on Saturday, August 3, Ennahda transported tens of thousands of supporters from all around the country into the city. Then, on Wednesday, the opposition countered with a large-scale demonstration of its own. Each side cited "Google Earth calculations" afterwards and unrealistically high numbers in an attempt to prove that its demonstration was the biggest.

The Islamist government's largely secular opponents are calling for the immediately dissolution of the country's elected Constituent Assembly. Most would rather see a government made up of independent technocrats. Ennahda may not have actually hired the individuals who killed the two opposition politicians, the party's opponents say, but they still hold the government at least politically responsible for the murders because, they say, it was too hesitant in dealing with the extremists. Opponents also accuse the Constituent Assembly of far exceeding its one-year mandate.

The opposition parties have also taken up at least parts of the demonstrators' demands, with around a third of their representatives boycotting the assembly. The situation resembles the one in Egypt: The country is divided, with Islamists on one side, their opponents on the other and a deep chasm between them. And here, too, a democratically elected government led by Islamists now faces mass demonstrations calling for them to resign.

Unlike in Egypt, however, Tunisia's army has no political ambitions. But here there is the powerful UGTT trade union, which played a decisive role during the revolution and is exerting pressure on the Islamists in the current conflict, as well.

Contested Legitimacy

Moadh Ghannouchi is sitting in his father's large office at Ennahda's headquarters. The party leader's son grew up in exile in the UK and now serves as his father's chief of staff. He speaks British English and is quick to deny Ennahda's responsibility for the murders. Rather, he blames the opposition for the current situation, which he says wants an Egyptian-style coup. But unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Ghannouchi points out, Ennahda has always been willing to compromise, creating a coalition with secularists and agreeing to refrain from making Sharia law part of any new constitution.

For Ghannouchi, an Islamist, the opposition represents the country's old, Western-influenced elite, which he feels refuses to accept that it no longer has the sole say. Since these secularists can't secure power by democratic means, he says, now they're trying to do so by other ones. It has become apparent, he adds, that the opposition doesn't want to allow Islam absolutely any role in politics, no matter how democratically the Islamists were elected. Ghannouchi appears disenchanted to find that it hasn't paid off for Ennahda to play by the rules. Many Islamists in Tunisia are making the same arguments.

Most secularists, meanwhile, are united by a fear that the Islamists have a secret agenda. "The Ennahda people aren't democrats; they only want to cling to power," says Béji Caïd Essebsi, founder of the most significant opposition party, Nida Tunis ("Call of Tunisia"). This newly formed party brings together leftists, liberals and some members of the former ruling RCD party. It also stands to gain the most from the current protests. If the chronically unreliable polls can be trusted, were elections held today, Nida Tunis would replace Ennahda as the strongest party.

There is hammering and construction still going on throughout the party's new headquarters in the affluent neighborhood of Berges du Lac, where Essebsi sits tiredly in an armchair. He once worked for Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's first post-independence president. Essebsi also served temporarily as prime minister after the 2011 revolution. Now, for many of Ennahda's opponents, he is their last hope.

Essebsi gives little credence to the Islamists' claim to democratic legitimacy. He believes their mandate has expired. The parties did agree before the election to limit work on the constitution to one year, but that timeline was unrealistic from the start.

Essebsi wants to put "independent types" in charge of governing the country until elections are held in December. "If Ennahda doesn't agree, we risk an Egyptian scenario," he says, adding that Ennahda is almost like the Muslim Brotherhood and must agree to negotiate. It sounds like a threat.

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mustapha 08/19/2013
Is 'secular' a universal language?
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