Tunisia is confused between Islamic fundamentalism and the new nationalism

I'm an image! 2021 / 20 / Sep

Tunisia is confused between Islamic fundamentalism and the new nationalism


Prepared by researcher Najat Abdel-Qawy Aoun

Master's degree, Faculty of Economic Studies and Political Science, Alexandria University

During the past decades, Tunisia witnessed many crises, which necessitated further interactions of some political forces, and at the forefront of these forces was the Islamic Ennahda movement and civil currents.

This study seeks to answer a major question: To what extent does the conflict between Islamic movements and civil currents affect the stability of Tunisia?

Try to build a set of sub-questions:

1- What are the historical roots of the conflict?

2- What are the political conditions in Tunisia since the revolution until now?

3- How did the political situation affect the Tunisian economy?

4- How did the Corona pandemic affect the economic conditions?

5- Who are the conflicting political currents?

The first topic: the historical roots of the conflict between the Islamic movement and civil currents

The Islamic movement arose in Tunisia in the shadow of the national state, starting in the seventies of the twentieth century and was a reaction to the secular orientation of the state that was sponsored by the first president of the country, Habib Bourguiba, and as a result of the fact that the movement was against the general orientation of the state, it was subjected, during decades, to a kind of exclusion and repression, whether during the era of Bourguiba or even during the era of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. This prevented it from exercising a real political role, although it was allowed and for limited periods of time to work, during the two covenants, but it did not enjoy an official recognized presence, and it was always under the power of the security forces, because the regime in the two covenants was afraid of the popularity it possessed, and of Islamic models that gained strength and influence such as the Algerian model that introduced Algeria into a state of violence and counter-violence between the Islamists and the authorities.

There were reasons that led to the politicization of the movement and the expansion of its presence in Tunisian society, which are:

1- The intensification of the national crisis caused by the open door policy, as the emergence of the Islamic movement was a reaction to the policy of the secular Bourguiba regime and its authoritarian orientation and its suppression of all political currents, especially those with an Islamic orientation in a society whose vast majority are Muslims.

2- The clash between the General Labor Union and the state in 1978, which was considered one of the strongest civil society institutions in Tunisia and still is, until the Tunisian revolution of December 2010 and beyond.

3- The influence that resulted from the Iranian revolution, as the success of the Islamic model in reaching power in Iran was an important factor in encouraging Islamic movements in Arab and Islamic countries to move to reach power despite the difference between sects.

The second topic: the political situation in Tunisia since the revolution until now

Since the fall of the regime of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2011), the Tunisian opposition elite has gradually taken over the political process, placing the transformations that Tunisia is going through under the title of “democratic transition.” Ennahda, the Islamist movement with Brotherhood tendencies, has been able, due to several internal and external factors, since its victory in the National Constituent Assembly elections in October 2011, to take control of the reins of power, and now considers itself the backbone of political life in Tunisia and the guarantee of this new path, controlling the joints of the political scene after it had an influential role in drafting a new constitution, through which it established a hybrid political system that disperses the executive power between the president of the republic and the prime minister, and an electoral law that allows it to have a homeland. I submitted to it, whatever the circumstances, with its opportunism and ability to change color and adapt to changes.

This path made it possible to institutionalize political life in a way in which Tunisia appears as if it is following in the footsteps of democratic countries. However, those who examine the reality of the country and the reality of its conditions from outside this scene full of manifestations of democratic adornment stand on a number of objective facts, which we can reduce to the following points:

The political system has led to a conflict over powers between the two heads of the executive authority, whose features began in 2018 between former President Beji Caid Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, and deepened further in the recent period between President Kais Saied and Prime Minister Hisham Mechichi. In both cases, the Ennahda movement and its allies in Parliament supported the prime minister; What fueled that conflict, and in recent times it had serious repercussions that were manifested in the escalation of the political crisis, as President Kais Saeed’s rejection of the recent cabinet reshuffle that Mechichi made led to a crisis that disrupted the normal operation of public utilities and made state institutions appear disjointed and damaged.

As a result, this system in terms of its implementation was not appropriate or valid and lacked the required courage to guarantee the interests of the state and society, in addition to the fact that it posed a grave danger to the unity of the state and to social and political stability.

It reduced political action to an approach based on maneuvers, targeting opponents, and attempts to infiltrate rival parties to weaken them, and establish circumstantial alliances with non-Islamist political groups to camouflage and improve their image as a party that extends its hand to the violators, then quickly abandons them, similar to what happened with the parties of the Conference for the Republic, the Ettakatol for Labor and Freedoms, and Nidaa Tounes.

The economic and social conditions have continued to deteriorate significantly and continuously, and successive governments, whether partisan or technocratic, have failed to provide programs and solutions capable of avoiding this deterioration and achieving an economic transition similar to the political transition that guarantees improvement in development indicators. Rather, the crisis has worsened significantly in the last two years.

The state's public debt has increased to more than 100% of the gross domestic product, as it is about $30 billion, which threatens the state with bankruptcy and falling under foreign tutelage from lending powers and institutions.

Corruption also permeated the country, as Tunisia ranked 69th globally in the Corruption Perceptions Index, according to Transparency International.

It seemed clear that the system that emerged from the path of democratic transition has reached a dead end, and what we can call the "organic crisis" according to Antonio Gramsci's expression, which is a structural crisis in which the system lacked the ability to reproduce itself and impose its hegemony over the state and society, and if the system was able to overcome the crisis in 2013 after the assassination of political opponents Chokri Belaid (6/2/2013) and Mohamed Brahmi (25/7/2013) through the mechanism of national dialogue and the adoption of a policy of consensus between The Ennahda movement and the Nidaa Tounes movement, because it was unable to solve the crisis that it has been floundering in since 2020, as it is a crisis within the system between its partisan and political components, and the contradiction between them has reached a great extent, and it is no longer possible to find a formula of understanding and coexistence among them, especially in the face of the Ennahda movement and its allies seeking to impose a policy based on domination and marginalization of opponents.It is a dichotomy crisis between the system itself - especially the Ennahda movement, its solid core - and society.Over the past years, the gap between the political class has deepened. Those who were taking advantage of the electoral dates to accumulate their political, material and symbolic benefits and to reproduce the system itself, even if some of its political formations changed, and among large sectors of society boycott those elections, and did not see in them a feasibility in changing their lives and improving their living conditions, especially in light of the grave breaches surrounding them related to the financing of parties and electoral campaigns, and they were expressing themselves in the form of protest impulses of varying intensity and strength from time to time, and these protests took root until they reached their climax on July 25, 2021. President Qais Saeed, who came from outside the traditional political system, captured the historical moment to resolve the contradiction between the regime and society.

Tunisia has been witnessing a state of acute political tension for a long time, in light of Ennahda’s intensive mobilization against the Tunisian president in an attempt to restrict him from any movement and leave the political arena empty in front of its agenda aiming at domination. He prompted Saied to refuse the new ministers to take the constitutional oath in front of him. The political crisis has worsened in recent months in light of a state of sharp polarization that prompted the Ennahda movement to prove that it is the main actor in the scene, as the movement opposed any attempt by the president to change the government or reach an acceptable settlement to the crisis that would lead to a breakthrough in the state of political stagnation, which led to catastrophic repercussions on many vital files in the country, which were subject to great stagnation.

We conclude from the foregoing that the so-called democratic transition path was a difficult and faltering path, and ended in failure, whether in establishing a political system based on the principles of good governance or in establishing a development model that achieves the aspirations of all groups for a decent life, a fair distribution of national wealth, and the achievement of high social, health, educational and cultural services. This led to a comprehensive and complex crisis, for which the existing regime became unable to provide radical solutions, which could have posed a threat to the unity of the state and the safety and security of society. The result was an explosion of popular anger against those in control of this regime, especially the Ennahda movement.

The escalation of the anti-Ennahda movement: The decisions and policies adopted by the Ennahda movement led to the polarization of many forces and parties opposing it in various sectors, in light of many considerations, represented in the criticism directed at the movement on charges of corrupting the democratic process and exploiting the judicial institution to cover up litigation files in a number of important files closely related to its leadership, on top of which are the files of the assassination of political opposition leaders, led by Chokri Belaid, Mohamed Brahmi and others.

It was remarkable in this context that President Saied was keen to issue a clear warning to some of the parties in a speech he delivered from Habib Bourguiba Street after announcing the recent decisions, by saying that "Whoever stole the people's money and tries to escape, how can he escape... Who are the ones who have the money and want to starve the people?"

This coincides with the escalation of internal instability in the movement due to the wave of resignations it is witnessing, and the resulting divisions, which naturally affected its cohesion and, consequently, the stability of the government and the effectiveness of its performance. Perhaps the most prominent evidence of the state of popular discontent against the movement is what the Tunisian south witnessed in terms of widespread demonstrations against the party's strongholds and headquarters, although the movement has always considered the south its most important and main stronghold.

The third topic: the impact of the political situation on the Tunisian economy

The economic conditions in Tunisia have worsened during the past years, which witnessed the dominance of the Ennahda (Brotherhood) movement on the scene. Economic growth in the country declined to 1.3% in 2019 AD before contracting by about 8% in 2020 AD, compared to an average growth of about 5% in the ten years preceding 2011 AD, while the unemployment rate rose to about 16.7% in 2020 compared to 12% before 2011 AD, in addition to the escalation of inflation rates. to reach about 5.7% in 2020 AD, while the public debt in the same year approached about 90% of the GDP, compared to only 55% in 2010 AD, and the deteriorating economic conditions in the country were reflected in the downgrade of the international credit rating agency "Fitch Ratings" Tunisia's long-term credit rating of foreign currency sources from "B" to "B", which reflects serious indicators regarding the provision of financial liquidity internally and externally, as well as difficulties related to Tunisia's ability to pay its debts In addition to its inability to fulfill the obligations of the International Monetary Fund in order to be able to obtain new loans, these data have created enormous pressure on citizens, many of whom have resorted to illegal immigration to escape difficult circumstances.

The fourth topic: Corona pandemic and its economic repercussions

The unprecedented health crisis afflicting Tunisia in light of the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic revealed the deteriorating conditions in the health sector, especially in light of the continuous escalation of cases in recent weeks. Tunisia, according to the World Health Organization, is the highest in Africa and the Arab world in terms of daily infection cases, as positive results reached 30% of the total daily examinations, which increased popular fears about the inability of the current government to contain the crisis and combat the epidemic, especially in light of the slow vaccination campaign and lack of vaccines.

In addition, the Covid-19 crisis cast a shadow over the tourism sector, as tourism revenues in Tunisia declined by 74% from their normal rates before the pandemic, while the losses of the tourism sector increased by more than the first year of the spread of the pandemic since March 2020, after the sector’s resources amounted to 874 million dinars only, according to reports of the Central Bank of Tunisia. The spread of the epidemic led to Tunisia being considered a "red point", and European countries canceled their tourist delegations to the last, which were scheduled to organize their trips in the months of June and July 2021.

It is noteworthy in this regard that the deterioration of tourism activity is reflected in the spread of unemployment in the tourism sector, especially with the decline in tourism activity of travel agencies in July by 80% compared to the same period in 2020. According to figures published by the Tunisian University of Hotels, 60% of workers in the tourism sector are threatened with poverty, while 27 thousand workers lost their jobs. This, in turn, contributed to the escalation of protests against the government for its inability to contain the pandemic crisis and support the sectors most affected by it, as well as the failure to take the necessary measures to reduce the pressures on thousands of workers in activities related to the tourism sector, especially with the internal inability to secure alternative jobs for them due to the comprehensive quarantine measures approved by the state since January 2021.

The fifth topic: the conflicting political currents

Salafi movement

The Salafis in Tunisia are not at the heart of one man, and they do not follow a single methodology, due to the difference in their schools, the diversity of their sheikhs, and their influence on their ideas.

Hizb ut Tahrir

The party is a branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was founded in 1953, in Jerusalem, by Judge Taqi al-Din al-Nabhani. Its ideas in Tunisia are linked to all branches of the party in the world, as it calls for "the resumption of Islamic life by establishing the Khilafah state."

The party has repeatedly refused to participate in the various electoral events under the pretext that it conflicts with the principles of Islam and the Khilafah state.


Shiism in Tunisia has become a fait accompli and a phenomenon that is expanding and spreading in the states of the Republic amidst the principles of the Tunisian constitution, which allows freedom of belief.

• Iran has a clear role in supporting and spreading Shiism through the Iranian Cultural Center, which is considered an important center in spreading Shiism and a spearhead for Iranian penetration into Tunisian society.

• There are real Tunisian fears of Tehran's exploitation of the tourism agreement with Tunisia to repeat the experience of the Syrian model in Tunisia, in which Iran took control of Damascus and Syria, through programs of tourist delegations.

• The presence of Shiite cultural and media institutions opens the door to a Shiite presence in the future amid fears of a repeat of Hezbollah's experience in Tunisia, which is the worst future scenario for the Shiite presence and Iranian penetration in the country.

The role of Tunisian women

Since 2011, various groups of political Islam have put pressure on women, taking advantage of the state of social regression that afflicted Tunisian society and introduced doubt and suspicion into its modernist gains brought about by the independence state, specifically including women’s freedom and equality with men, to put tremendous pressure on women to force them to retreat from public space to return to the “tomb of life”, forcing them to wear the hijab and veil so as not to be accused of wanton display and to avoid the evil of harassment.

However, since the confrontation became open between the groups of political Islam and the defenders of the republic and its gains, Tunisian women have emerged in particular in this battle, as they did not leave a single space that did not erect a bulwark against the hordes of darkness. It was always in the front lines in confrontations, in raising slogans, and in protection and mobilization committees. This presence is directly related to her awareness of the imminent danger to her, to society and the state, and to her deep belief that her cause is linked to the democratic cause in society in general and to the values of the republic and modernity.

It is not surprising that we find it in all the movements that accompanied the Constituent Assembly’s deliberations regarding the constitution of the second republic, which means that unity arose between its defense of its gains and the republican boom that took its place in the consciousness of the people who remained protesting in front of the Constituent Assembly’s headquarters, demanding a democratic republican constitution, the departure of the Troika government, and the disclosure of those who were involved, from near or far, in the assassination of Shukri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. It is a phenomenon that calls us to say that a convergence is taking place between the Tunisian women's movement and the republican boom, since the struggle against dictatorship and tyranny began to crystallize until it began to express itself in the form of declared bias.

In sum, the Tunisian woman would not have been what she is without the historical, cultural, social and civilizational stock that the Tunisian society has witnessed for hundreds of years, and she is inevitably about to represent her role and position in defending the republic and its gains in a way that helps her to have a decisive say in all issues that concern the present and the future.