Will Tunisia Become Less Secular?

Tunisian women.jpg

Hassene Dridi/AP Photo

Tunisian women at a meeting for the Ennahda party, Tunis, April 17, 2011

Outside Tunis one afternoon last week I visited the Tunisian American Association for Management Studies, which offers vocational training and literacy courses to working-class women. A sewing class had just ended, and the participants—a dozen girls and women between the ages of fifteen and fifty, most of them wearing headscarves—agreed to talk about the country’s first democratic election, scheduled to take place on October 23.

In recent weeks, polls have showed that Ennahda (Renaissance), an Islamist party banned by the dictatorship of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, is poised to win about one third of the vote. Ennahda’s leaders insist that if they win they will respect equal rights for men and women and maintain a division between Islam and the state. Still, they are widely distrusted, and the prospect of an Islamist plurality in the constituent assembly—which would give the party major influence in shaping a new constitution—has heightened anxiety among many Tunisians.

Many women in the sewing circle, though, seemed pleased by that prospect. “Ennahda is the party of Islam,” said a fortyish woman, her head wrapped in a beige headscarf, who gave only her first name, Laila. During the Ben Ali years, when open Islamic observance was discouraged in daily life, women were banned from going covered in the workplace and in school, and Ben Ali’s hated security police periodically harassed and even arrested women wearing the hijab on the street. Mosques were always forced to close between prayers, per a government regulation, and women and young people who attended Friday prayers were closely watched. “I don’t want to vote for a party that does not consider Islam,” Laila said, as half a dozen women in the classroom nodded in agreement. But Maherzia, a woman in her twenties who went uncovered, shook her head in disgust. “They say they are moderates, but in the old times, they threw acid and killed people. How can they be trusted?”

So far, Tunisia’s transition to democracy has taken place rather smoothly. Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, the 30,000 members of the military returned to their barracks after the first few days, ceding power to civilians. The new interim government, led by Beji Caid el-Sebsi—a respected octogenarian lawyer who had served in the first Tunisian government after independence from France in 1956—has been in place for seven months, and has won respect for establishing an administration that is open to scrutiny and has made its financial accounts public. Twenty independent radio and television stations have received licenses. The minister of defense, the Minister of the interior, and other key figures from the old regime are on trial, facing charges ranging from corruption to murder; hundreds of indictments have been filed.

But the most difficult part of the post-revolution period is still to come. In Tunisia’s experiment with democracy, 111 parties have registered to take part in the October 23 election. The participants range from Attajdid (Innovation), a coalition of ten leftist parties and political associations, some of whose members were harassed and jailed by Ben Ali, with some of their leaders in exile, to eight bloggers who rose to prominence during the uprising and who are running as independents. None of the parties, however, can match the organization or the financial strength of Ennahda. Although the party was largely unknown among the younger generation when it was legalized in March, the religious leaders quickly formed cells made up of former political prisoners, returning exiles, and the devout in hundreds of communities, and mobilized new members through a network of mosques.

I visited Moez Sinaoui, the chief spokesman for the interim government, in his third-floor office in the prime minister’s headquarters outside Tunis’s souk; he was in the middle of arranging one of his twice weekly press conferences—a new practice, he told me, that had been inspired by White House briefings. A foreign service officer during the dictatorship, based in Tunis, Rome, and Washington, Sinaoui resigned his post in 2007. He explained that diplomats were often instructed to steer potential foreign investors to ruling family members, who would then demand a cut of as much as 80 percent of any proposed business venture. “It was a Mafia.”

Prime Minister el-Sebsi recently appointed a committee to investigate corruption, and the government has uncovered $27 million in cash and jewelry in safes hidden behind bookshelves in Ben Ali’s palace. But Sinoui said that frustration has built up over the impunity enjoyed by Ben Ali and his family, whom the Saudi Arabian government refuses to turn over to Tunisia to face justice. Convicted in June in absentia of embezzling state funds and sentenced to thirty-five years in prison, Ben Ali and his wife have also been indicted on another 159 counts in both military and civilian courts for murder and corruption.


For the time being, anyway, Tunisians have indulged in small acts of vengeance. Ben Ali’s name has been scratched out of schools, street signs, and the façade of a huge mosque he built on a hilltop down the road from his palace. Streets and plazas named after November 7—the date in 1987 that Ben Ali deposed Tunisia’s founder and president, Habib Bourguiba—have been renamed for January 14, the date of Ben Ali’s exodus. Hundreds of people still make visits to the vandalized villas of Ben Ali’s relatives, including Belhassan Trabelsi, older brother of Ben Ali’s wife and owner of Carthago, the country’s largest private airline. Two days after he escaped to Italy in his yacht on January 13, mobs broke down the walls of Trabelsi’s sumptuous estate, burned down the house, and trashed the garden.

It was two weeks after the revolution that Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, ended his 20 year exile and returned home to a hero’s welcome. A somber-looking man of seventy with a salt-and-pepper beard and a brick red skullcap, Ghannouchi originally had a reputation as a radical Islamic preacher who condemned secularism in Tunisia and progress in women’s rights. Jailed and tortured under Bourguiba, who opposed orthodox Muslim influence in public life, he was released during a brief democratic opening after Ben Ali seized power. In 1989 Ennahda came second to the ruling party in elections, officially winning 17 percent of the vote. Two years later Ben Ali turned against the Islamists, jailing 25,000 Ennahda activists; five thousand of them escaped, including Ghannouchi, who fled to the United Kingdom.

Ghannouchi has admitted that Islamists were responsible for the subsequent attacks, with acid, on the ruling party headquarters, as well as a series of bombings against tourist hotels in the 1980s; but he denies he gave the order for them. In recent years, he has recast himself as a moderate. He insists that he rejects “the obscure theories of Sayyid Qutb”—whose advocacy of jihad against the West helped shape the ideological underpinnings of al-Qaeda. But the movement’s earlier uses of terror, and the uncompromising views of some of its members, have caused many to distrust him. In a February interview, the Ennahda spokesman, Hamadi Jebali, denied that the party wanted to implement Sharia law, but during the same conversation, he confirmed his party’s adherence to it. “On television they come off as soft, but in the mosques, it is completely different,” argues Ahmed Ibrahim, the secretary general of the leftist Attajdid coalition.

Back at the Tunisian American Association for Management Studies in Borj Louzir, Chema Gargouri told me that she feared a sweeping transformation of society if Ennahda managed to take power. The party’s more recent moderate façade, she says, is contradicted by its promotion of Islamic values. “I’m concerned about women, education, tourism,” she told me. “If Ennahda is going to allow alcohol and bikinis, then how does this go with Islam? Do they support an Islamic banking system? What about foreign investment? What are they going to create?”

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