13 February 2013, 14:19

Radical Islam on the rise in Tunisia

Radical Islam on the rise in Tunisia
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Hamdy Hassan, the Director of the Center for African Future Studies in the UAE, talks about the causes behind Tunisia's turn towards religious radicalism.

I have some concerns regarding the rising fundamentalism in Tunisia. So, this will be a major challenge in the future.

You are absolutely right that we all had the impression at the initial stages of the Tunisian revolution, that it looked like it could be a model for all other Arab Spring countries. And the fact that something went wrong was a little bit of surprise to me.

So, what went wrong?

Yes absolutely!

Yes, we need to discover that.

So, how do you see that, what is it that went wrong?

It is the division within the society. I believe that there are three main divisions in Tunisia after the revolution. The first are the secular groups, the non-religious political activists, whether they are liberal or leftist. These are those who don’t believe in the implementation of Sharia law in political life. The second main group are the moderate Islamists who believe in Islamic-based Government, like al-Nahda – the ruling party under the leadership of Rashid Al-Ghannouchi who is main a Muslim Brother. And the third, and this is the most radical Islamists, are the Salafists, those who are obeying the most purist version of Islam.

I think there is a kind of polarization in the political domain in Tunisia and you need to reach a consensus. So, how to reach this kind of consensus – this is the real challenge. But the picture is more complicated than this kind of ideology-based analysis. You have №1 the economic challenge. Why the people raised up and toppled Ben Ali in the beginning, it was because they need better life, because of the poverty among many sectors of the Tunisian population, especially in the south. And other issue is the difference among the elites in Tunisia regarding a political priory. What comes first? Is it a social justice or is it transitional justice? How to reform police? And this is the real issue, and not only in Tunisia but in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt – all the Arab Spring countries. So, these are the real problems which will shape the future scenario of Tunisia in my understanding.

Dr. Hassan, but surprisingly enough in Tunisian case I think it was a rare case of when Western countries seem to be supporting the new Government. And as far as I understand even now they are considering a contract with the IMF and there were other donor countries of Tunisia, and nevertheless the violence currently is on the rise. Do you think that perhaps the rising violence in surrounding areas, in countries around Tunisia, could play a role?

Let me say in the very beginning that Tunisia has an advantage because it was a model for all Arabic states or the so called Arab Spring countries. So, it provided us a model and what happened after the removal of Ben Ali is the troika, that there came the moderate Islamists under the leadership of al-Nahda with the two main secular parties, including the party of the interim president. They came together and they share the Government. So, they introduced something different than the Egyptian case for example where the Islamists under the MB dominated the political scene. This is not the case in Tunisia.

So, it provided some hope that we will have a new model for democracy based on consensus and even in the designing of the new constitution in Tunisia you have, to some degree or another there is a consensus between the troika – between the secular forces and the Islamists. If you look at the case of Egypt, you have a different scenario. You have only one faction dominating the process of designing the constitutional process and providing a divided constitution. This makes Western countries and even the people outside Tunisia believe that Tunisia provided something different.

Suddenly something happened, something went wrong in Tunisia. And I do believe that the uprising in the neighbouring countries is the domino-effect of the Libyan case. Look at what has happened in Libya on the border – a lot of fundamentalist, the radical Islamists who were trained in Libya, who smuggled weapons from Libya, they went to Tunisia. So, the Salafists in Tunisia became another factor – a real threat to the democratization process in Tunisia. Look at how they behaved in the last two years. The first thing they did was to destroy the Sufi shrines in Tunisia and to threaten the secular popular meetings.

And generally speaking they are a real threat to the democratic debate or discourse in the new Tunisia. They burned last year the American embassy in the capital city. And there is a general belief that they were behind the assassination of the main oppositional leader last Wednesday, of Mr. Chokri Belaïd –a prominent leader, which escalated uprising in Tunisia. And making the violence rise in Tunisia, it threatens the transition process. This is actually what went wrong in Tunisia.

These are the tactics that some radicals are using – resorting to violence in order to achieve their strategy or their goals. If you believe in democratic mechanisms and in democratic means – there is no problem with that. Because how we could manage the division within the society – if we accept the democratic norms there is no problem. But if you resort to violent means, this is the case in Egypt, in Libya, in Tunisia – it will be a real theat.

So, the Tunisian case in the last two years, it was a low level violence sparked by the Salafists. But now it became very concrete, people resort to it. And there is a new factor which is a political assassination that the country never had since the Bourguiba years, the first years after independence. Now when you come to use political assassination – it is a real threat because democracy is based on dialog, on debates, on peaceful means. This is very dangerous in Tunisia nowadays.

Sir, and finally, what is your forecast?

Now it is uncertain. When you are talking about the future scenario – it is uncertain because the Islamists need to resort mainly to dialog and a compromise. This is not a zero-sum gain process. This is a compromise, you need to do compromise. I do believe this is the case in Tunisia and also in the other Arab Spring countries like Libya and Egypt. If the main actors believe in compromise, believe in sharing powers, believe in each other – I think democracy will prosper in these countries. But if you believe that you are the only actor and you have the will of the people, and you are representing the real people – this will be a real mistake which will lead to chaos and violence, and threaten the transitional process in Tunisia.

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