Written by Barry Rubin
With Libya going down the drain, Egypt daily moving toward an Islamist dictatorship, and Syria in a bloody civil war between Sunni and Shia Islamists, how is Tunisia—the most potentially moderate Arab state which had the best chance of achieving democracy–doing? Not very well.
Anna Mahjar-Barducci is one of the best authors writing about North Africa and she has produced a comprehensive article on Tunisia for MEMRI. She is also author of “Understanding the `Islamist Wave’ in Tunisia“ in the MERIA Journal of which I’m the editor.
While Tunisia is being run by a coalition of the Muslim Brotherhood and two secular parties, the Brotherhood’s power is growing while Salafist groups are free to intimidate people. The most vocal opposition leader, Chokri Belaid, was assassinated with indications that this killing was backed, even organized, by the ruling Islamists.
President Moncef Marzouki is being described as weak in the face of this Brotherhood takeover. A former human rights’ advocate, he is backing down to the Brotherhood’s al-Nahda Party, which is the largest party in the government. He has called the opposition “secular extremists” who are seeking to stage a coup but never criticizes the violent Salafists.
Note that claiming the opposition seeks to seize power by force authorizes “regime defenders” to attack them by force. In fact, Marzouki threatened that opposition members who were trying to overthrow the government would be hung.
He has threatened anyone criticizing Qatar—al-Nahda’s financier—with prison. Unlike other Arab countries, however, the moderate democratic opposition is well organized and has not been intimidated. Not yet anyway.
Then, on March 31, 2013, Marzouki’s own party, the National Council of the Congress for the Republic, appointed the president’s chief of staff Imed Daimi as secretary-general. He was soon forced to resign, however, when it was pointed out that it was strange to have a “center-left” and “secular” party by a man with a long record of having been an Islamist militant. He was also a featured speaker at the Turkish Islamist front group, Union of the Good, which has connections with terrorist groups.
Whatever Daimi’s current views, the idea that the president’s party, and one of the governing coalition’s two “liberal” members, would have been headed by an Islamist fellow traveler stirred up strong objections.
Like the Communists historically, Islamist groups have been adept at creating front groups, fellow travelers, and massive disinformation campaigns, including creating the “Islamophobia” theme in the West.
Meanwhile, the main Salafist group in Tunisia, the Ansar al-Sharia, which has periodically engaged in low-level violence, has now threatened to launch a war of terrorism against the ruling party, which it says is only pretending to be Islamist. Here’s a MEMRI report on this threat. And here’s an example of the kind of riot that results.
One columnist in the Guardian is critical of the Muslim Brotherhood ruling party in Tunisia. Why? Because it is moving in an anti-democratic direction? No, because it isn’t working hard enough to integrate the “moderate” Salifists. Note this new invention following that of the “moderate” Islamists and “”moderate”” Muslim Brotherhood.
Meanwhile, to show the gratitude of Tunisia for the Obama Administration’s help to its turnover of power to the Brotherhood, twenty people were sentenced for an attack on the U.S. embassy in which four assailants were killed and many wounded last September. They received a two-year suspended sentence. And Tunisia is the only Arab country where an eternal refusal to accept Israel, even if Israel and the Palestinians agree on a two-state solution, is written into the Constitution.
At any rate, things do not look good for Tunisia. And if Tunisia can’t make a real, non-Islamist democracy, there is scant hope for Egypt, Syria, or any other Arab state to do so.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan)