Tunisia on path of transformation

Tunisia on path of transformation

The victory of the Nahda party in last week’s election has already shaken Tunisia and resonated throughout North Africa and West Asia. On the domestic front, the political landscape in Tunisia has been transformed by the emergence of this party.  While optimistic observers speak of the ‘Turkish model,’ hoping that al-Nahda (Ennahda or Renaissance) will follow the example of Turkey's moderate Justice and Development Party which has been in power since 2002, pessimists warn that al-Nahda hardliners could try to impose a conservative social and cultural lifestlye on Tunisia, which has the most progressive laws in the Arab world.

The latter cite the case of Iraq, where following the 2003 US invasion and occupation, Shia fundamentalists installed in power have reversed progressive legislation and imposed laws based on Muslim canon law, Sharia, as interpreted by conservative thinkers.

Equal rights

Al-Nahda’s founding father, Rachid Ghannouchi has pledged not to abrogate or modify laws giving women equal rights and dealing with family matters adopted during the reign of Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba.  Ghannouchi has said that al-Nahda is not a ‘fundamentalist’ party but an ‘Arab’ nationalist party with an ‘Islamic reference.’ For now he is stressing the Arab aspect of the party’s self-identification and he is calling for the reduction of French influence more than half a century after Tunisia was liberated from France. 

Ghannouchi — who spent 16 years in a Tunisian prison and 20 years in exile in London while al-Nahda was outlawed - is said to be a ‘progressive,’ but others in the party, perhaps even the rank and file, are not. They represent the conservative current dominant in poor rural areas and urban slums where Bourguiba’s modern practices did not penetrate. However, al-Nahda, which won a plurality not an absolute majority of seats in Tunisia’s new 217-member constitutional assembly, will have to govern in coalition with secular partners that will keep hardline fundamentalists in check. 

Al-Nahda is already engaged in coalition negotiations with the leftist Progressive Democratic Party and the centre left Ettakol.  Al-Nahda’s secretary general Hachmi Haamdi is slated to be prime minister, not Ghannouchi, who will remain in the background. Al-Nahda has promised to form a government within a month and begin the task of writing the new constitution which will redefine the country’s identity.

This is a challenging prospect as the task is certain to involve a tug-of-war between al-Nahad’s moderate fundamentalists and determined secularists from its coalition partners.

On the regional front, al-Nahda’s success has boosted the prospects of the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent of all modern Muslim fundamentalist movements, in Egypt, the largest and potentially most influential Arab country, which goes to the polls in a parliamentary election on November 28. Banned as a political party but allowed to operate as a charitable organisation by Egypt’s republican regimes, the Brotherhood expects to win the largest number of seats in the popular assembly.  Its Freedom and Justice Party has a good chance to do so because secular liberals who made the uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak in February have fractured and formed small parties that cannot hope to challenge the Brotherhood which is determined to dominate the commission that will be appointed to write Egypt’s new constitution and to maintain the provision that says the the country’s laws will be based on Sharia.

Al-Nahda’s rise is likely to prompt the Syrian government, which insists it is battling the Brotherhood and hardline Salafi groups, to step up its campaign to militarily crush anti-regime protests that have gripped the country since mid-March. 

Damascus has the backing of Baghdad and Tehran, both ruled by Shia fundamentalists who do not want the secular Syrian regime to fall to an opposition in which the Sunni Brotherhood is heavily represented. King Abdullah has just sworn in a new cabinet with the aim of marginalising protesters — led by the Brotherhood — demanding an end to corruption and more popular participation in government.

The result of the Tunisian election has already strengthened the determination of the Moroccan and Algerian reformers to press for democratisation of these countries’ authoritarian regimes and of these countries’ governments to maintain firm control.

Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni Muslim power, has bested its rival, Shia Iran which tried and failed to export its revolutionary ideology to neighbouring Arab countries following the revolution that toppled the shah in 1979.  Riyadh sees al-Nahda as a key asset in the struggle with Tehran, which has extended its sphere of influence into Iraq only because the US propelled Iraqi Shias allied to Iran into power following the 2003 war and occupation. Saudi Arabia can also count al-Nahda as a major asset in the battle with the secular liberals who have led the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. 

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