In December 2010, a Tunisian street vendor publicly setting himself on fire sparked a wave of protests that eventually led to then-President Ben Ali’s ousting on January 14th, 2011. Soon after, the revolutionary spirit swept over the Middle East and started East, knocking off one lifelong leader after the other. Theis wave of sudden hopes, fears, upheaval, and turmoil became known as the Arab Spring. Soon after, the Spring turned into intense summer scorch, leading to civil wars, terrorism, ISIS, Iranian hegemony and the rise of anti-democratic Islamist forces. With the recent events in Tunisia and the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Ennahda party from power, the Arab Spring has come a full circle.
On Sunday, July 25th, Tunisian President Kais Saied ousted the government and froze parliamentary activities and those of the largest party, Ennahda. Saied, a professor of constitutional law, evoked a constitutional clause that allows him to practically freeze political life in “national danger” and consolidate constitutional powers in his presidential office. This comes after a year of serious mishandling of the COVID crisies, which resulted in economic despair and a breakdown in the Tunisian public health system.
Celebrations of the ousting of the Islamist movement’s ousting took to the streets, while Islamists declared the move to a coup against democracy. While many Western analysts, with their all–too–familiar burning love for Arab “democracy,” rushed to mourn the death of the only Arab “democratic” system, wiser people should do better. To celebrate a democracy without democrats is like observing a chess game played by pigeons.
The swift rise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Ennahda party to power was part of the larger regional paradigm that brought political Islam to the center stage of political life. Within this paradigm, the Middle East witnessed unprecedented polarization of the regional environment that resulted in the breakdown of social negotiations and state structures in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt, leading to the outbreak of violence that destabilized the entire international order. The more stable manner in which Tunisia conducted its political transition prompted many analysts to speak of a “Tunisian Exception.” But the exception proved to be nothing but another utterance of the rule; wherever political Islam may existexists, only trouble lays ahead.
It is important to emphasize that the perceived stability of Tunisia in the past decade covered deep unresolved tensions. The Tunisians werecountry was just as politically polarized as the entire region when it comes toregarding political Islam, not to speak of the social and economic pressures which brought Tunisians out to the streets to begin with.
The electoral victories of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Ennahda party did not persuade a large segment of the Tunisian population that their goals had been achieved. Ennahda, a political movement established shortly after the Iranian Islamic Revolution, inspired by and taking its inspiration from Ayatollah Khomeini, was a shrewd political force, having learned from the lessons in Egypt.
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That didn’t mean that the caution in which Ennahda proceeded changed their primary nature as an Islamic political movement. A series of mysterious assassinations of secular politicians added an undeniable dimension of a familiar Islamist threat. The last decade was nothing but a series of consecutive Tunisian political crises. A series of mysterious assassinations of secular politicians added a dimension of a familiar Islamist threat.
In retrospect, the caution and political shrewdness only slowed the polarization of Tunisia, but did not prevent it. In 2018, a coalition of lawyers and politicians accused Ennahda of forming secret societies infiltrating the security apparatus and judiciary, wich are also all too familiar signs of an Islamist take over.
Meanwhile, the Western journalists and researchers who flocked to Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, to marvel at the Tunisian Islamist “exception” and were received warmly by the polished and articulate figures of the Islamist elites. Such figures are carefully chosen who were long-term residents of Western coastal cities and well-versed enough in the modern elite liberal terminology to be the face of its liberal apologia. They offered lengthy expositions on liberal Islam, civil liberties as the basis of Islamic legal theories, and gender security in modernist Sharia governance models. Much of the Islamist theorizing was later filtered to the American foreign policy establishment in the form of think tank analysis and academic and policy papers.
But expositions on gender equality in Sharia can easier be done in English or French than in Arabic, especially when Tunisians can watch on live TV Islamist parliament members beating female opposition politicians during parliament sessions as they did recently to Abeer Musa, a female leader of a secular party. Neither can academic treatises on a liberal model of Islam hide the real shadow of the threat of mysterious assassinations of secular politicians. Moreover, no amount of theorizing, Islamist or otherwise, can solve any country’s severe economic problems and deep structural flaws.
Regional and international reactions varied. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf, expectedly, are championing the moves of Said, considering it the ultimate validation of their now decade–long campaign to uproot the Muslim Brotherhood from Arab societies. The media outlets of the “moderate axis” are running positive coverage of the events. On the other side is the Islamist camp, Aljazeera and the usual suspects, accusinged the Tunisian President of making a coup and decried the assault on democracy and all that is benevolent and good in humanity. This orchestra of Islamist grievances is joined by many liberal analysts, journalists, and foreign policy experts. However, the Biden administration wisely refrained from taking any strong positions and stuck with generic support for democracy and stability.
The removal of Islamists from power in Tunisia, if finished, is decisively a triumph for human decency, yet that does not mean that the future of Tunisia is secure. Islamist forces are not likely to give up quickly, and as seen in other neighboring cases, may drag the country into violence if they so choose.
Nor is it clear what President Saied intends to do with all the powers his office suddenly amassed. Is he going to take Tunisia back to the era of eternal one-man rule? Is he going to build a secular political system? Will he lead the country out of the COVID economic and health crisis while dealing with the explosive political situation simultaneously? Is Tunisian experimentation with electoral democracy over?
Nothing is certain except that the last man I would want to be right now is Kais Saied, the man who closed the circle of the Arab Spring.
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