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Michael Brenner

The Tunisian exception

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, founder of the ruling, secularist Nidaa Tounes party [Getty]

Date of publication: 1 July, 2016

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Comment: Michael Brenner examines the ingredients behind Tunisia's successful democratic institutions, the lessons other countries might learn, and the reason for such proportionally high numbers of Tunisian IS recruits

Tunisia has been the center of attention since January 2011 when the spontaneous rebellion ignited in remote Sidi Bouzid uprooted the regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and then spread across the Arab world. Today, amid the figments of shattered hopes that litter the political landscape from Libya to Iraq, Tunisia stands out as the one country where democratic institutions are in place.

Analysts and politicians are absorbed by three questions: What are the ingredients that explain that singular success; what lessons does the Tunisian experience hold for other countries in the regime; and how should we interpret the incongruous fact that more young jihadis have joined IS from Tunisia than from any other country on a proportional basis? They are related - the answers to them composing a coherent sketch of an Arab society in political transition.

Let's consider them in reverse order. Understanding the exodus of Tunisians to Syria and Iraq to fight under the banner of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi begins with examination of the circumstances of the Islamist radicals when the old regime toppled. The total number of those imprisoned was in the tens of thousands. We know that prisons that congregate Islamists are a breeding ground for radicals and a recruiting mechanism for al-Qaeda/IS.

That's what happened at American run camps in Iraq, like Cropper and Bucca, from which IS leaders emerged with the infrastructure of their movement-to-be already under construction. That's what happened in Egypt after the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood after Sadat's assassination. That's what has been happening in France on a smaller scale (eg. the Charlie Hebdo attackers). The problem is compounded by authorities' readiness to let well organised Islamist groups run the place because it maintains order and keeps down violence, etc.

The number of imprisoned radical Islamists in Tunisia was not exceptionally high by standards of Middle Eastern autocracies. What was distinctive is that the transitional authorities in the wake of Ben Ali's departure simply opened the prison gates and let almost everyone out. There was little or no vetting. Correspondingly, there was little or no surveillance of those released since the security services were demoralised and the process of reconstituting them had been extremely slow and lethargic.

Understanding the exodus of Tunisians to Syria and Iraq to fight under the banner of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi begins with examination of the circumstances of the Islamist radicals when the old regime toppled

When the Ennahdha party won the first post-revolutionary election for the Constituent Assembly in 2011 and led a coalition government, it felt inhibited about identifying even hardcore fundamentalists since they formed part of the party's constituency and had been prison mates of Ennahdha officials who had not fled abroad. Furthermore, Tunisia's novice government had virtually no experience in running large organisations - much less a national government. Their incompetence compounded all political aspects of their rule.

In these conditions, Salafist elements sought to provoke and to marshal popular support for their cause. That involved direct action against art exhibitions, movie theatres, the still active synagogue in central Tunis and sit-ins at some universities. In addition, they put on public displays of their new-found presence in Tunisian life, including saturating public spaces in the center of Tunis.

The unexpected reaction was rejection by a large majority of Tunisians and few public demonstrations of support. The authorities were passive - for the most part. The security services at all levels were in disarray, the Ennahdha government confused and divided, and two successive secular Presidents, Beji Caid Essebsi and Moncef Marzouki, were largely mute. There were, though, spontaneous responses by civil organisations and at times physical action by citizens (as in the case of the synagogue).

This reception points up a second feature of the peculiar Tunisian situation. Tunisian society generally speaking was not welcoming (as was the case elsewhere), and since the government leadership was much constrained about pushing its modest Islamicisation project, the Salafists were at sea. There was not then, and there is not now, a significant segment of Tunisian society to succor and serve as a support base for jihadi (violent) Salafists.

Tunisia's novice government had virtually no experience in running large organisations - much less a national government. Their incompetence compounded all political aspects of their rule

Their radical Islamist program does not tap large pools of popular discontent and aspirations. The number of Salafist sympathisers is small and concentrated in a few towns on the periphery in the deep South and, to a lesser extent, the West. The deadly attacks that they have launched may have relied on small cells or networks of activists operating clandestinely, but the absence of sympathetic communities means that affiliates of groups like Ansar al-Sharia, must organize and function as criminal bands.

Given this state of affairs, a large proportion of the jihadis headed East with Libya serving as waystation. Some entrenched themselves there - joining Ansar al-Sharia; most went on to Syria and Iraq where they would find a vibrant, highly organised movement, a passionate community and could seek out the Islamic heroism they craved (along with sex slaves and good pay) in Syria and Iraq.

What are the prospects for sustaining the success that Tunisia has had? Is "democracy" in one (Islamic) country possible? The grounds for optimism are to be found in the conditions sketched above. The victory of the secular party coalition in the last elections, led by Nidaa Tounes, after a peacefully arranged resignation of the Ennahdha-led government, is indicative of both the temperate nature of Tunisian political life and the strength of those forces who will resist any Islamist movement that visualizes radical institutional and culture changes.

The votes for Ennahdha in 2012 came overwhelmingly from Orthodox Muslims who don't share the fundamentalist creed - but who saw the Islamists as the one party that had consistently opposed Ben Ali, had been persecuted, and as religious people were assumed to be benevolent. Their poor performance in government and moves to restore elements of Sharia law were rejected by a considerable majority - while the terrorist attacks tainted by association the party's image. 

Opposition to Islamist movements comes not only from the secular parties, but also from the growing network of civic associations, many of which pre-date the revolution

Hence, it was a matter of political pragmatism that Rashid al-Ghannuchi, leader of Ennahdha, should now launch a comprehensive campaign to recast his party as an Islamic approximation of Europe's Christian Democrats - stressing its respect for Tunisia's unique culture of tolerance and its nascent democratic institutions. He has rebranded the movement as "Muslim democrats" who renounce violence.

His refusal to attend the Muslim Brotherhood conference held last month was clearly a symbolic gesture designed to highlight that message. How much of this is genuine, and how much playing to an audience in Tunisia and abroad, is difficult to estimate. Even if somewhat contrived, the net effect cannot but add weight to those elements in Tunisian society whose inventory of political ideas leans towards envisaging a separation of religion and politics.

Ennahdha's residual strength is based in part on the funding that it receives from Saudi Arabia, and other sources in the Gulf. That has remained undisturbed by Ghannuchi's rhetorical maneuvers. It has helped to finance a network of Islamist education centers that are appearing around the country. They do not rival the public education system directly as they do in much of the Islamic world. Instead, they operate as a supplement - scheduling classes on Sunday and in evenings.

It is likely that the Islamists envisage a push in that direction when and if political circumstances become more congenial. Here is how one highly respected Tunisian commentator appraises the matter:

"There have been several attempts at so-called Islamization of Tunisian society these past few years, designed in effect to check out the lay of the land. Civil society has reacted vigorously on each occasion to block these initiatives. But the Islamists always return with a somewhat modified campaign - in vain. Koranic schools, which always have existed in Tunisia, are quite independent of public education. Moreover, they are controlled and monitored by the Ministry of Religious Affairs." 

Tunisia stands out as the one country where democratic institutions are in place

Opposition to Islamist movements comes not only from the secular parties, but also from the growing network of civic associations, many of which pre-date the revolution - especially women's groups, and the activist professional organisations of teachers, lawyers and judges. Their influence is strengthened by informal alliances with the trade union confederation - LUnion Generale Tunisienne du travail (UGTT). This is another reason for restrained optimism.

This is not to say that Tunisia is 'home free'. Hardly - developments across the country's borders in Libya and Algeria could impinge strongly, in intangible as well as tangible ways, on future prospects. However, it would be erroneous to superimpose on it the conceptual model derived from experiences in the Middle East and Libya. This makes no more sense than imposing an analogous model on all of Christian Europe in historical periods marked by upheaval.

Michael Brenner is Professor of International Affairs, Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh  and a Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS/Johns Hopkins in Washington. He has held previous academic appointments at Cornell, Stanford, Harvard, MIT and the Brookings Institution.  In addition to scholarly publications, he writes a weekly commentary for the Huffington Post.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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