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Opinion: Tunisia's democratization under threat

The cold-blooded murder of opposition politician Chokri Belaid has divided Tunisian society further. But if democratization is ever to be achieved, ideological warfare needs to come to an end, says DW's Loay Mudhoon.

Loay Mudhoon

DW's Loay Mudhoon

Theoretically, Tunisia, the initiator of the Arab Spring, offers the best conditions for furthering democracy and the rule of law out of all the post-revolutionary Arab states. The country has a relatively well-developed civil society, a flourishing women's movement, a robust education system and functional administration. In addition, the country's military has not played a major role in politics so far.

The reforms were off to a promising start following the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's government in January 2011. After the elections to establish a constituent assembly were held in October 2011 - the first truly democratic elections in the country's history - a quick decision was made to set up a coalition government and restructure the highest state offices.

The new coalition - consisting of moderate Islamist party Ennahda, the center-left Congress for the Republic (CPR) and the social-democratic Ettakatol - displayed a spirit of cooperation. Tunisia seemed to be on a good path to democracy.

Stagnation in the transformation phase

But since October 2012, the country's political situation has worsened. The constitution that was meant to be drafted by now is still a work in progress. At the same time, polarization in society and politics is increasing, and the political parties' will to cooperate is waning.

In addition, the violent protests staged by militant Salafists in September last year in response to the anti-Islamic "Innocence of Muslims" film revealed that the Tunisian state is too weak to assert its power. Especially the Ennahda party was reluctant to bring the hate-preachers under control - even though, as the leading party in the coalition, it had the political means to do so.

In light of this, it is not so surprising that the appeal for police protection by opposition politician Chokri Belaid fell on deaf ears. And that's despite the fact that the radical Islamists' plot against him was no secret.

Need for dialogue

Of course, it would have been too optimistic to believe that the legacy of the Ben Ali regime could be dispelled without major internal conflict. The lack of democratic tradition in Tunisia has only exacerbated the problems.

It was to be expected that Islamists and secularists would descend into ideological warfare following the overthrow of the common enemy, the Ben Ali dictatorship. At the same time, after half a century of authoritarian rule, this cultural conflict is essential for reorientation and identity assertion in Arab societies. It is about redefining the nation and establishing a social structure. It is thanks to the Arab Spring that this kind of debate can take place at all.

The crucial factor is the way in which such conflicts are carried out. Once democratic principles are abandoned, they can result in street violence and chaos. This has been the case in Tunisia since the death of Chokri Belaid. The transition period is being made more difficult by the ruling parties' inability to come up with convincing solutions to the country's major economic and social problems.

Because the era of autocratic rule in the Arab world is well and truly over, no single political body can hope to rule Tunisia, let alone solve its most serious problems. National dialogue therefore offers the only way out of the self-imposed ideological gridlock. This implies that a technocracy could be the next logical step in overcoming the crisis.

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