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Tunisia remains divided

Andreas Gorzewski / ncDecember 16, 2012

Two years after the 'Arab Spring' revolution in Tunisia, the country is in turmoil. The economy is paralyzed, and the political, religious and social gulf between Islamists and the secular opposition is growing wider.

Members of the leftist UGTT union, background, react during clashes with League members Foto:Amine Landoulsi/AP/dapd
Image: dapd

Hundreds of people have been hurt in protests since the end of November. In the Northern town of Siliana supporters of Tunisia's largest trade union UGTT protested against police abuse and social grievances. In the course of several days, more than 300 people were hurt in clashes with security forces.

In the Tunisian capital Tunis, radical Islamists attacked members of the UGTT, who were gathered outside the union's headquarters on December 4 to mark the 60th anniversary of the assassination of its founder.

Elsewhere in the country the situation is tense. Two years after the beginning of the rebellion that became known as the 'Arab Spring', the country has still not found peace. The self-immolation of a Tunisian vegetable vendor triggered the initial wave of discontent and protests that quickly spread across the Middle East.

Mohamed Bouaziz had set himself on fire to protest against the authorities which had confiscated his vegetable stall. The news quickly spread and Tunisians in towns all over the country vented their anger over corruption, officials' arbitrary behavior and the general lack of economic perspectives.

Tunisia's President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in early 2011, setting the stage for a painstaking political reorganization. The Islamic Ennahda party emerged victorious from the elections in October 2011.

Divided society

Tunisia is increasingly polarized. The Ennahda and Salafits groups want to give greater political and social importance to Islam. The opposition, comprised of several parties and the influential trade union UGTT, views this with concern.

A protester throws a tear gas canister back at police during clashes in Siliana November 29, 2012. At least 200 people were injured when Tunisians demanding jobs clashed with police on Tuesday and Wednesday in the city of Siliana in a region on the edge of the Sahara desert that has long complained of economic deprivation
Protests in Siliana TunesiaImage: Reuters

“Battlelines are being drawn”, William Lawrence from the International Crisis Group told Deutsche Welle. “It is increasingly clear that Tunisian society is lining up on one side or the other. Things are definitely getting more tense in Tunisia these days”, said Lawrence, who heads the North Africa Department, referring to ongoing strikes and violence by Salafists against secular targets.

Radwan Masmoudi, who heads the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, agrees that there is an ever greater gulf dividing the two sides. “People are afraid of each other: The Islamists are afraid of the secularists and the secularists are afraid of the Islamists.” He told Deutsche Welle that there was a lot of “residual fear” on both sides. “The Islamists have suffered for 30 years from oppression and torture.”

Secularlists, he added, were afraid that the Islamists in power might imitate the Iranian or Saudi Arabian model. “The key is to encourage dialogue and find a consensus.” The center Masmoudi chairs organizes round table discussions. When the debate is public, Masmoudi says, it tends to be heated. But turn the microphones off – and both sides manage to engage constructively.

Economic crisis overshadows political turmoil

But these social conflicts are overshadowed by the economic crisis. Two years ago, the anger spilled onto the streets when hundreds of thousands demonstrated against unemployment and the dictatorship's nepotism. One of the protesters main rallying calls – besides freedom and dignity – was jobs. Young university graduates without any perspective of ever finding work were the driving force behind the revolution.

But their situation hasn't improved. “One of the major causes of revolution was corruption and it is absolutely unclear if any of this corruption has been attenuated”, says Crisis Group analyst Lawrence. Until the revolution, the families of President Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi “had their hands in about 180 of the top-200-firms in Tunisia. And when those families ran away, power was transferred to new interests but it is not clear how corrupt those new interests are”, Lawrence says. What is more, according to the Middle East expert, neither Ennahda nor its coalition partners, have any great experience in economic policies.

Calls for European support

In order to kick-start its languishing economy, Tunisia depends on support from abroad. Lawrence and Masmoudi agree that Europe could do more for the country. But, in the aftermath of the revolution, many European companies fled – and continue to flee – Tunisia, Lawrence says: “They leave for good reasons: unrest, strikes and threats of violence.” He is convinced that Tunisia has to create a “hospitable environment” for the European companies that Tunisia so badly needs. But, Lawrence says, more is needed than just an inflow of money. Tunisia requires fundamental structural reforms, he said.

Members of the leftist UGTT union march, one holding a portrait of Farhat Hached, during a rally to commemorate his 1955 assassination of a historic member when they were attacked by the League for Protection of the Revolution, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 in Tunis. League members are considered to be close to the Ennahda Party, which dominates Tunisia’s post-revolution coalition government (Foto:Amine Landoulsi/AP/dapd)
Confrontation with the Tunis trade union, UCTTImage: dapd

Mamsoudi is convinced that it is “critical for European interests that Tunisia succeeds as a model for democracy that shows the way for other Arab countries, like Libya and Egypt how to build a true democracy in the Arab world and in North Africa.” But in order to achieve that, Europe should support Tunisia in its difficult transition period, “in the same way that Europe helped Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”