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mohamed bouazizi
Muhammed Buazizi

The so-called Arab Spring began in Tunisia on December 17, 2010, when an illegal vegetable vendor, following mistreatment by the police, set himself on fire in front of the governor's headquarters in Sidi Buazid. That was the spark that set the country on fire and caused the ousting of Ben Ali on the following 14th of January. Then, in time, with a driving effect, other Arab Springs went blooming in other parts of the middle east.

But the Tunisian Spring, unlike others, was aimed at molding a new form of democracy, albeit an unstable one, ensured by the adhesive mix between a strongly secular society and an Islamic party like the Ennahda, which was legitimated by years of opposition to the dictator and which was guided by a man, Rashid Ghannouchi, who was first considered a terrorist but who later showed a high sense of the State.

The elections

Ennahda won the elections but could not turn faith in the Koran into an economic system able to produce the wealth that was expected by those who had voted the party. They tried, a bit clumsily, to 'Islamise' society but, in such a context – this was their greatest mistake – they provided room and alibis to a series of radical Islamic fringes like Ansar al Sharia, which was then banished in August 2012.

The killings

A little over two years after the revolution, on February 6, 2013, all of it risked an early end with the murder of an opposition leader, Chokri Belaid. Four gunshot wounds to the neck from up close in what seemed like an execution. Five months later, on July 25, another political leader of the secular front, Mohamed Brahmi, was murdered in an ambush. Same weapon, same technique, same execution. The dawn of hope for a people that was the first to stand up against a corrupt dictatorship, their dream of liberty and of a better life had faltered when faced with the rigidity of an Islam made of intolerance and hate that surely armed the hand of the killers. But it was this double murder that cast light on the contradictions of the course towards democracy and that gave strength to the Tunisian people.

Chokri Belaid was the leader of the Democratic Patriots Party, a secular left-wing political formation that had obtained roughly 1% of the suffrages during the elections. Belaid was a lawyer who, together with his wife Basma (a lawyer too) was very busy socially. He was an atheist who was seen by the people as a symbol of the will to change and of dedication in politics. Belaid, who is now buried in the section for martyrs in the cemetery of Djellaz, had exposed, a few days before being killed, the presence of groups within Ennahda that were inciting violence. Belaid had accused Ghannouchi of protecting these groups. What Belaid was referring to was the League for the Safeguard of the Revolution, a defense force within Ennahda that was founded right after the revolution. In another incident, just a few months later, Lofti Naguedh, the Secretary General of the “Nida Tiunis” and Secretary of the Union of agriculture workers in Tataouine, was attacked and lynched during a demonstration organized by the League and attended by a group of Islamic extremists.

Brahmi was also from Sidi Buazid. Born in a farmer family, Brahmi had studied economy, was a secular socialist but remained a fervent Muslim, he was part of the constituting assembly for the drafting of the new constitution and had his own little left-wing party: “Popular Current”.

Both Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid were symbols of a strong and alluring social message; one that is surely important during this historical phase. That is why their death, like that of the street vendor Mohammed Buazizi two years before, has had a social impact much more widespread than the importance that the two actually had socially or politically speaking.

belaid brahmi
Chokri Belaid e Mohamed Brahmi

The symbols of change

Either way, the death of the two politicians; the wave of commotion that followed; the growing resentment against the inefficiency of the governing Ennahda and against a presumed collusion, indulgence or laxity of the party with regards to Islamic radicalism; the fear that this radicalism could turn into terrorism, have moved the indignation from street demonstrations to a political current. A new constitution was voted (there was no mention of Shaaria within it), there was even a vote. And this, at least in the Middle East and North Africa, represents an exception. Tunisian democracy ran the risk of drifting towards civil war, instead, it was reinforced.

A number of circumstances and bad examples in neighboring countries have also influenced the Tunisian situation: the civil war in Syria, the military restoration in Egypt, the spread of the ISIS in the Arabic peninsula, the Libyan chaos. The Ennahda has suffered a decrease in popularity equal to that of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement to which Ghannouchi's party is affiliated. This was also due to a number of scandals such as that in which the son-in-law of Ghannouchi, Rafik Abdessalm, also the country's foreign minister, was found using public money to pay the hotel where he slept with his lover.

But Ennahda and Ghannouchi (who leads the more radical wing of the party) have also the merit of taking a step back when they realized that their consensus was declining, thus favoring elections.

The victory of Nida Tunis

On the past 16th of October, during the parliamentary elections, which took place in an orderly and correct way (again, an exceptional event in the region), the popular verdict was favorable to a secular formation founded in June 2012 called “Nida Tunis” (“Call Tunis”), which won 85 seats (out of 217), making Ennahda go from 89 to 69 seats in parliament.

The most surprising aspect is that, amid the various options available to the Tunisian electors, they chose not only a secular party, but also a management with ties to the country's political past. The leader of “Nida Tunis”, Beji Caid Essebsi, is an old time politician who was already active in the struggle for independence against the French. Essebsi served several times as minister during Boughiba's rule and has safely ferried through the dictatorship of Ben Ali, serving as president of the parliament. During each of these political transitions, Essebsi has managed to back away when the regimes toughened up and became unpopular.

In his political party are businessmen and politicians that were active and prestigious during the preceding regime. The “Nida Tunis” is a moderate party inspired by a reformist and secular spirit; it is a nationalist party that echoes the stances of the Bourghiba politics, including the fact that religion must be kept at bay by the institutions.

Does this imply a rehabilitation of the past? Not necessarily, but surely the Tunisians have realized that to demonize the past when faced with an uncertain future is a useless risk.

Either way, on November 23, in the election of the president of the republic, where participation reached its peak, Essebsi obtained the highest number of votes and will be running in the second round against the runner up, the present president ad interim Moncef Marzouki (also a secular socialist) on December 28.

It is not important whether the “Nida Tunis” will form a government with or without the support of Ennahda, seen as the political system is currently substantially bipolar. It isn't even important if 88-year-old Essebsi will become president. In the political life of the country Ennahda – it must be underlined – still has power and influence.

The most important aspect is that democracy, in Tunisia, has begun to work and to have its own rituals, forcing politicians to confront themselves with the popular consensus and will.

And the terrorists?

There is, however, an unsolved problem; this democratization process does not include the more extreme fringes and the more radical Islamic groups. There is the legal country on the one side, on the other there is only terrorism. Among the foreign volunteers that crowd the ISIS militias, the Tunisians are the most numerous. There is talk of roughly 2500 militiamen, some of whom – about 400 – would have returned home with specific military know-how.

There are parts of the country, towards the border with Algeria, where terrorist groups have settled. From Libya they smuggle weapons and the seed of instability. Ansar al Sharia, involved in the attack against the American embassy on September 14, 2012, still has its leader, Abu Iyad (the battle name of Saifullah bin Hassine), currently a fugitive (who probably escaped to Libya). His group is strong of about 3000 active militants, but the count grows to 10.000 if we include the sympathizers. And we must not forget that a young Abu Iyad had served in the ranks of Ghannouchi's clandestine movement of Islamic tendency. In February 2011, after the start of the revolution, he was released from Tunisian prison where he was serving a 43-year sentence for terrorism.

There is the AQIM of Abdelmalik Droukdel, which now has some operative bases in the country and which has recently designated its own representative of the Tunisian branch of the movement, Khaled Chaieb (aka Lokman Abu Sakhr). There are other, less known but equally dangerous, formations like the Katibah (brigade) Uqba ibn Nafi (from the name of an Arab warrior that had conquered northern Africa), which counts a few hundred militants among its ranks. And there are the radicals within that cultivate extremist theories within the Ennahda.

Then there are the Koranic schools financed by the Wahabite Saudis, the preachers of the Gulf that scour the country, expanding the radical ideology.

All of this is due in part to the condescending of the Ennahda with regards to the radical groups. Since 2011, despite various arrests, nobody has been sentenced for terrorism. Ghannouchi himself, during his public speeches, has hardly addressed the issue of violence. Roughly 40 mausoleums of Sufi saints have been destroyed. When conditions of social chaos develop, there is always operative room made for terrorism.

rachid ghannouchi
Rachid Ghannouchi

The challenges ahead

There are great challenges facing Tunisia in the near future. In October, the ministry of finance has increased Tunisia's defense budget from 110 million dollars in 2014 to 280 million in the coming year. There are agreements in place with the US for the procurement of helicopters, radars, weapons and anti-terror training. The stability of the country must be protected through a reinforcement of its security forces.

There is the reform of the police, which today counts 35.000 men in its ranks; a police force which still has ties to the old dictatorship and which still applies the same violent methods of the times of Ben Ali. Violence against journalists and political activists, arbitrary arrests, torture and corruption. The special forces have become famous, 'Ninja', they call them; they are tasked with intervening on motorbikes during demonstrations. In the field of human rights, democratic Tunisia still has a long way to go. The most trusted ally of the Tunisian revolution this far is the army, which has a force of roughly 40.000 men.

The vertical drop of the resources from tourism has brought the country's economy to its knees. This means unemployment, frustration and an end to stability. Tunisia was promised 500 million dollars by the IMF and 500 million by the US; they would need ten times as much to lift the country's economy back on its feet.

But mostly, there is an ongoing cultural conflict which sees secular forces that reflect the panarabic Marxism of Bourghiba clashing against Islamic sides and, within these, a clash between moderates and Salafites. Then there is the future political destiny of Ennahda, currently crushed between secular opposition and the radicalism of some of its inner fringes. It will have to chose soon whether it will honor its adhesion to democracy and pluralism. It will have to chose between the rules of politics and the influence of religious ideology. There are two distinct experiences and paths that live within the party: those of the people that escaped and were exiled – like Ghannouchi himself – and those that stayed, during the dictatorship, going from one prison to the next while undergoing torture and abuses, such as Hammadi Jebali, the Secretary General of Ennahda. The former may be more incline to bow to the destructive appeal of the military option, the latter will probably be more prone to adopt a political struggle.