The World Social Forum has just wrapped up its activities in Tunis. For several days, thousands of participants discussed a broad gamut of topics that included the global economic order, popular struggles from Palestine to Venezuela, and women’s liberation. That innumerable young women — both veiled and unveiled — could and did participate in the discussions and share their experiences demonstrates the extent to which the political right and a large portion of the left in France skirt reality. I, personally, took part, together with Tarek Ramadan and Nejmeddin Hamrouni, in a debate on democratisation and Islam. The session was attended by more than 600 people. In addition, these few days in Tunis afforded me an opportunity to gauge the expectations of diverse stakeholders and to acquire a sense of their hopes and fears for the future of their country, especially following the assassination of one the leaders of the left, Shukri Belaid.
Speaking from Doha, President Moncef Marzouki vowed to send his opponents to the gallows (see “Marzouki menace de potence,” La Presse, 27 March). The threat was an indirect response to remarks by Popular Front leader Hamma Al-Hammami. During the ceremonies commemorating the 40th day since the death of Belaid, Al-Hammami (16 March) he declared that a people who could topple the Bin Ali regime could also overthrow the current government, headed by Ali Larayedh.
Such verbal sabre rattling might lead one to believe that the country is on a collision course between two camps: Islamists and secularists. However, discussions with the leaders of the various organisations leads one to a more nuanced impression.
At the centre of the game is Rached Al-Ghannouchi, the historic leader of Al-Nahda who has the final say in his organisation. If, in my recent interview with him, he initially honed in on France and the rise of Islamophobia, he subsequently moved on to voice his point of view on domestic developments too: “Al-Nahda cannot and does not desire to lead alone. Our alliance with Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Mustafa bin Jaafar’s Al-Takatol (the two other parties that, together with Al-Nahda, form the current ruling troika) is not tactical. It is natural and should continue until the elections and beyond. We have reflected upon the Algerian experience of 1991 and the legislative elections that were suspended by the army. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) obtained 80 per cent of the votes, but the remaining 20 per cent carried significant weight (representative of the army, professional cadres, journalists and individuals who influence foreign relations). That minority also carries significant weight here [in Tunisia]. So even if we obtained 51 per cent of the votes, we could not govern.” He added: “We have the ‘quantity’ but not the ‘quality’.”
One recalls that in 1973, following the military coup in Chile that put an end to the Chilean democratic-socialist experience, Enrico Berlinguer, then secretary-general of the Italian Communist Party, drew a number of lessons for his organisation. These he elucidated in three famous articles in which he called for a historic compromise between the communists and the Christian democrats. In his opinion, it was impossible to change Italy with 51 per cent of the vote.
Of course, the context today is entirely different. However, in view of the chaotic transition in Tunisia (and in Egypt as well), should not the diverse political forces also strive to reach a historic compromise? This would not be about denying ideological antagonisms, divergent conceptions of the future of these societies and the place of religion in them, or the need for social confrontations. Rather, it would be about establishing a common framework within which conflicts can play out.
To Al-Ghannouchi, “It is important to avoid a confrontation between two camps, an ideological confrontation. When it comes to ideology, no one likes to compromise. But we can find a political common ground. This is why we support an entente, and why our party has agreed to relinquish four sovereign ministries even though there was nothing to oblige us to do so.”
“Our aim,” he continued, “is to move as quickly as possible, following the promulgation of the constitution, to elections the results of which will be accepted by all, including the opposition. It serves nothing to win elections, as in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood, if the opposition boycotts them.”
Al-Ghannouchi explained that this is why his party had agreed to make concessions on the constitution. “We want a constitution for all. We no longer insist that it mention Sharia, for which it was not easy to win approval within Al-Nahda. We have removed that provision that spoke of the complementary relationship between men and women and accepted [gender] equality. Also, we have relinquished registering reservations with regard to the need to apply the universal provisions on human rights. We do not want to go to a referendum (which would happen if no agreement is reached on the text) because we want to shorten the period of transition and because we seek a consensus.”
Does this discourse of the Al-Nahda leader stem from an awareness of power relations and mass movements following the assassination of Belaid, for which the opposition, more indirectly than directly, blames Al-Nahda? Does it mark a real turning point in the party’s policy? So far, his statements arouse only scepticism and mistrust among opposition forces. To Taieb Baccouche, secretary-general of Nida Tounes Party, former secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) from 1981 to 1984, and a member of the transitional government after the fall of Bin Ali, “The new government is a reproduction of the former one, with some small shades of difference that do not go beyond the surface. The former was a failure, so why reproduce it? This is a form of arrogance.”
On Al-Nahda’s relinquishment of sovereign portfolios, Baccouche responds: “It’s no more than form, for two reasons. Firstly, the people who pull the strings are still the same. Secondly, the government bureaucracy has been pervasively infiltrated; there have been between 1,200 to 5,000 appointments, a large portion of which came from Al-Nahda.” He adds: “One has the impression that they want a theocratic state by whatever means it takes, including violence.” Nevertheless, he takes issue with the analogies, drawn by some, to Europe of the 1930s and the rise of fascism. There is no comparison, he acknowledges. “Al-Nahda is part of the political landscape.”
But the surprise came at the end of the interview. When asked whether he envisioned his party entering into a national unity government together with Al-Nahda after the elections, he refused to comment and, hence, to exclude this possibility.
The third major component of the political landscape, the Popular Front, opposes Nida Tounes, which it views as a blend of old regime figures and liberals, as much as it does Al-Nahda. Nida Tounes and Al-Nahda see eye-to-eye on a number of economic and political issues. Most notably, they agree on the principle of reaching an agreement with the IMF.
To Jilani Al-Hammami, spokesman for the Popular Front, “The new government is a copy of the Jebali government. It is incapable of taking the necessary measures to alleviate the conditions of the masses. This year, payment of the debt accrued by the Bin Ali regime will amount to 17-18 per cent of national budgetary expenditures. The relative calm that prevails at present in society is but the calm that precedes the storm.”
What of the differences inside Al-Nahda between Jebali and Al-Ghannouchi? “The first would like to unite the Tunisian bourgeoisie in a common front while the second wants Al-Nahda to be the sole representative of this bourgeoisie,” said Al-Hammami. The Popular Front, meanwhile, “hopes to break the bipolarity. Al-Nahda represents the kernel of a despotic regime while Nida Tounes is the product of a despotic regime. Currently, opinion polls give us 12 to 13 per cent of the votes.”
Yet, as another Popular Front leader, Mohamed Jmour of the Watad Party, admits, talks on identifying the “main enemy” are still ongoing inside the organisation and, in light of the mounting violence, some members are calling for an “coalition for democracy” from which Nida Tounes would not be excluded. Everyone in the Popular Front realises that “the mounting violence necessitates the creation of a vast front to oppose it,” said Jmour.
Anwar bin Kaddour is the assistant secretary-general of the powerful UGTT, a syndicate organisation that plays a key role in Tunisia. Originally from Gafsa and a son of a former director of the organisation, Bin Kaddour is a consummate syndicalist. He observes: “Everyone still feels the shock of the assassination of Belaid. The accessories were arrested, but the main instigator remains at large. This is a test for the government. The people must know whether the police can handle a difficult situation. We are still waiting.”
One of chief problems, according to Bin Kaddour, is “Al-Nahda’s double-talk and the difficulty it is having in moving from an opposition force to a party in government.” To illustrate, he cited the UGTT. In January, the prime minister signed an agreement with labour leaders, a copy of which was given to Bin Kaddour and which constitutes “progress in the social dialogue”. The agreement guaranteed a number of worker rights: joint administration of the social security fund, the creation of an unemployment compensation fund, and the recognition of the right to strike. However, some Al-Nahda representatives are still trying to restrict this right in the constitution. Also, although Al-Nahda has officially renounced the demand to include Sharia in the constitutional text, some of its representatives continue to fight for its inclusion.
Is this double-talk? (On the Al-Nahda Party, read the excellent article by Febio Merone and Francesco Cavatorta, “Al-Nahda: A Party in Transition,” Jadaliyyah, 26 March 2013). Why, then, are the supreme committees for the organisation of elections and judicial supervision still in the planning phase? Why has the higher committee for the regulation of the media not been created yet? Moreover, the media landscape has changed considerably. The media, in general, is hostile to authority and no longer conservative. In Tunisia, as in Egypt, one notes a decline in the influence of Al-Jazeera. There are two reasons for this: a more open climate has paved the way for the establishment of local TV channels as alternative forums for debate and confrontation and, secondly, the link between Al-Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood has tainted its credibility.
But other things trouble the opposition: the continued refusal to dismantle the League for the Protection of the Revolution and the meagre results, so far, of official inquiries into past acts of violence, for example. At the same time, some Al-Nahda deputies and leaders continue to harp on rule by Sharia law, and even on female circumcision, feeding suspicions over Al-Nahda’s good faith.
One can perceive Machiavellian workings. But one can also see the reflection of the contradictions at the heart of Al-Nahda, torn as it is between the rhetoric of yesterday and the demands of managing the affairs of the state today. As Al-Ghannouchi sees it, his movement should not sever communications with “secular fundamentalists,” as he calls them, or drive them to the violence practiced by the Salafis, who have grown much stronger.
On the other hand, another Al-Nahda member maintains that this movement must remember its base. “We cannot forget the weight of history and, above all, the repression, the prisons, the torture that left their mark on militants and their families. There is also a fear of regression if Al-Nahda loses power.” The opposition often tends to overlook this dimension: dozens of thousands of Al-Nahda militants who bear the scars of repression fear the rise to power of Nida Tounes, which counts among its members many affiliates of the old regime.
Is it possible to alleviate these anxieties and, simultaneously, those of important segments of society that fear a totalitarian Islamisation? In September 1973, after Berlinguer published his appeal for a historic compromise, dozens of thousands of militants from the far left marched in protest, shouting, “Comrade Berlinguer, do you know that the historic compromise in Chile was made with guns?”
Will the Tunisians be able to avert such a grim prospect? Will they be able to ward off the chaos caused by two rival coalitions equally bent on wielding their powers to prevent the other from governing effectively? The answer rests with all the political forces, but above all with the most powerful of them all, Al-Nahda.
During the conversation with Al-Ghannouchi, the question of the modernisation of Tunisia inevitably arose. “We must take as our starting point the dream of the 19th century when Tunisia became aware of how far it lagged behind its neighbours to the north and decided to return to true Islam. It did not reject Islam but rather the misreading of Islam. The dream was to adhere to the faith but to live in the present century. Imperialism put paid to that dream, which had been championed by Khaireddin Pasha (d 1890). When the French occupied the country, they imposed another project: set aside Islam and do as France does. Bourguiba pursued the French project and Islam was marginalised. But this project led to dictatorship and violence in the name of modernity.”
The project to eradicate Islam failed. “Even if he drinks alcohol, a Tunisian will still say he’s a Muslim,” concluded the sheikh with a smile.
The writer is editor of Le Monde Diplomatique.