Tunisia’s Islamist-free revolution?

Al Jazeera was the only outlet heavily covering the growing protests in Tunisia over the last month. But the news that its president had fled the country on Friday night has been widely reported. If your knowledge of Tunisia doesn’t extend past something related to Carthage or Star Wars, there’s a lot of catching up.

To that end, I thought David Kirkpatrick’s piece in the New York Times was most helpful. It gives a lot of information about Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his 23 years of authoritarian rule. The piece helps explain the significance of his fall — it being the first time that street demonstrations had overthrown an Arab leader. Will this be a warning to other rulers in the region?:

“What happened here is going to affect the whole Arab world,” said Zied Mhirsi, a 33-year-old doctor protesting outside the Interior Ministry on Friday. He carried a sign highlighting how he believed Tunisia’s protests could embolden the swelling numbers of young people around the Arab world to emulate the so-called Jasmine Revolution.

Because the protests came together largely through informal online networks, their success has also raised questions about whether a new opposition movement has formed that could challenge whatever new government takes shape.

The role of social media in current protest movements is fascinating, and this piece gives lots of fodder to those who are interested in considering its possibilities.

Think of how much more quickly information spread in the Jasmine Revolution than the Czech’s Velvet Revolution just a couple decades ago! (Interesting to note that the Tunisian protests were spurred by a Jan Palach-type suicide as well.) Another key angle was the role that Wikileaked documents played. Citizens had been upset with the corruption for a while, but U.S. cables documented some of that in new ways.

The story also highlighted how much I have to learn about the country. For instance, we’re told that Tunisia was considered an important anti-terrorism ally in the region. But we’re also told that President Obama congratulated the protesters. That might indicate that there is not much threat of an Islamist political group taking over. The story doesn’t address that religion angle directly, but we get a hint in a later passage about the composition of the crowd. A woman speaking in fluent English emphasizes the education and relative affluence Tunisians have compared to others in the region. We’re reminded that Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba emphasized education, secularization, women’s rights and family planning. Anyway, here’s the line:

For the first time in the month of protests, large numbers of young women joined the crowd, almost none wearing any form of Islamic veil.

So what role does religion play in these protests or the larger story about what might happen in the days to come? Or why hasn’t religion played a big role up to this point? Foreign Policy‘s Michael Koplow writes “Why Tunisia’s Revolution is Islamist Free”:

Unlike in Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, and most other secular Arab autocracies, the main challenge to the Tunisian regime has not come from Islamist opposition but from secular intellectuals, lawyers, and trade unionists. The absence of a strong Islamist presence is the result of an aggressive attempt by successive Tunisian regimes, dating back over a half-century, to eliminate Islamists from public life. Ben Ali enthusiastically took up this policy in the early 1990s, putting hundreds of members of the al-Nahda party, Tunisia’s main Islamist movement, on trial amid widespread allegations of torture and sentencing party leaders to life imprisonment or exile. Most influential Tunisian Islamists now live abroad, while those who remain in Tunisia have been forced to form a coalition with unlikely secular and communist bedfellows.

The nature of the opposition and the willingness of the Tunisian government to back down are not coincidental. If it had been clear that Islamist opposition figures were playing a large role in the current unrest, the government would likely have doubled down on repressive measures. The Tunisian government is rooted in secular Arab nationalist ideology and has long taken its secularism and its nationalism more seriously than its neighbors. Habib Bourguiba, Ben Ali’s predecessor and the father of the post-colonial Tunisian state, took over lands belonging to Islamic institutions, folded religious courts into the secular state judicial system, and enacted a secular personal status code upon coming to power.

Bourguiba, like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, viewed Islamists as an existential threat to the very nature of the Tunisian state. He viewed the promotion of secularism as linked to the mission and nature of the state, and because Islamists differed with him on this fundamental political principle, they were not allowed into the political system at all. Bourguiba displayed no desire for compromise on this question, calling for large-scale executions of Islamists following bombings at tourist resorts. He was also often hostile toward Muslim religious traditions, repeatedly referring to the veil in the early years of Tunisian independence as an “odious rag.”

Ben Ali, who served as prime minister under Bourguiba, has taken a similarly hard line. Unlike other Arab leaders such as Morocco’s King Mohammed VI or Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, he has been unwilling to adopt any sort of religious title or utilize Islamic imagery to justify his rule. Most importantly, Ben Ali never attempted to co-opt Islamists by controlling their entry into the political system, but instead excluded them entirely from the political dialogue.

This history is vital to understanding why the protests were successful in removing Ben Ali’s government. There is an appreciation within the corridors of power in Tunis that the Islamists are not at the top of the pile of the latest unrest. The protesters, though they represent a threat to the political elite’s vested interests, have not directly challenged the reigning creed of state secularism.

On the other hand, the political unrest leaves an opening for some Islamist activity. If you’re curious about that angle, check with Reuters. For instance, this interview with a Tunisian Islamist leader in exile reports that he plans to return to the country.

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  • Dave

    I hadn’t been aware of the WikiLeaks connection. Another dose of intense abiguity as to how I view that outfit.

  • Dave

    The religion ghost in this story is the part that has yet to be written: The struggle between Islamists returning from exile — the intent reported in that Reuters piece — and the secular demonstrators who ousted Ben Ali, for the soul of this revolution.

  • John M

    I wonder why Tunisia has been more successful at containing and expelling its Islamists than Uzbekistan has been. Uzbekistan, though motivated by a different ideological background, also has a rabidly secular totalitarian state that is vigorously opposed to Islamism, yet Islamism there seems to live on, particularly in the Fergana valley.

    Perhaps the extent of Tunisia’s Islamism is understated by this article and perhaps I’m overstating Uzbekistan’s Islamism. But it’s an interesting question to me.

    -John

  • Ben

    I was wondering about the role of religion in this revolution. Thanks for the writeup.

  • M Blum

    John M’s comparison about Tunisia and Uzbekistan are to very different contrasts. Tunisia is compared to other Arab countries, progressive in the field of women’s rights, easy availibility to education and internet access. Ben Ali ruled over in my the most Western oriented people in the Arab world. While in Uzbekistan, is a backward and uneducated people compared to Tunisians, being a former Soviet state is a great factor. While both regimes have employed harsh methods against Islamists, Bourguiba and Ben Ali have implemented laws and regulations that strengthen the secular state and push Islamism out of society. I strongly dislike the ideology that is Islamism and I pray that the Islamists are excluded from the politial arena in Tunisia and put we they belong in the dust bin of history. While I didn’t support Ben Ali, I did support the secular and anti Islamist policies he put in place. Luckly the Tunisian people are to well educated to accept living in Saudi, Iranian or Afghan conditions, which we all know the Islamist really advocate.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The wearing of the veil and advocacy of killing for conversion or other direct issues of Sharia are only vaguely linked. There are many Muslims who consider the weearing of any form of Hijab as not at all required by Islam.

    Beyond this, I find the use of the term “veil” confusing. In my mind a veil is something over the face. However, I think a lot of times “veil” is used when people are speaking of Hijab, which only covers hair. I always figure “head scarf” is a much better word for this.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Tunisia is 99% Muslim. Attempts to convert Muslims to other religions are banned. In theory Muslims can convert to other religions freely based on their own will, but this is not a likely prospect with the laws against proselyting.

  • John Pack Lambert

    “Secularism” clearly has a different meaning in Tunisia since the president is required by law to be a Muslim.

  • M Blum

    I agree that there are many Muslims who believe that the veil or headscarf is not complusory by Islam, but there are those that do. More and more in the Islamic world, we see more women adopting headscarfs and veils, under this idea that it is mandated by Islam and they are emulating the prophet’s wives. Some in this group, men and women, have a radical or conservative agenda, we see it in Turkey, where Gul and Erdogan are overseeing the slow and careful step of moving away from Ataturk’s model of Turkey to their own and in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where more and more women are putting on the burka. Like all fundamentalists they are loud and vocal, while the moderates and liberals, tend to be silent or subdued. I am glad that Tunisia saw a secular revolution, now we must watch Rachid El Ghannouchi and what ill plans he has.

    By law the President must be Muslim, but compare Ben Ali’s Tunisia to other Arab nations. Ben Ali saw that women with headscarfs were made to remove them and told not to wear them again. Both Bourguiba and Ben Ali were secular, Bourguiba was the Tunisian cast of Ataturk, Ben Ali continued this secular policy. For the Presidency, that fact that Tunisia is 99% Muslim, makes someone of another religion holding the presidency out of the question anyway.