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Tunisia's religious opposition

Date:11 September 2013
Author:Religion Factor
Protestors in Tunisia during the Arab Spring. Photograph: V. Matthies-Boon
Protestors in Tunisia during the Arab Spring. Photograph: V. Matthies-Boon

 Recent events in Egypt have once again raised questions about the relationship between religion and politics in the Middle East. These events are significantly impacting other countries in the region, including Tunisia where the political situation is changing rapidly. In this post Frank Ubachs comments on the binary opposition between a religious and a secular camp that media coverage of the revolts in both countries now routinely postulates as an explanation in itself of the dynamics of change. Such sweeping dichotomies gloss over important nuances. If we are to really understand what is driving the situation, we must speak with the actors themselves.

In June/July this year I spent a month in Tunisia participating in the Tunis Exchange, organised by in collaboration with the International Crisis Group (ICG). The immersion course in the politics of the region particularly emphasised direct engagement with some of the leading academic, political, intellectual and religious figures active across the spectrum in Tunisia.

A struggle is going on over the role of religion in Tunisian society. In the media, the current eruption of protests and responses by the transitional government are interpreted as a standoff between Islamists and secularists. However, representing what is happening in Tunisia as a simple binary confrontation is not helpful as it papers over complex dynamics and underlying divisions. If anything, it makes it harder to understand Tunisian society. At the moment, frustrations on different levels (political, economic and social) are uniting a multifaceted (leftist, conservative, Islamist) opposition to a mixed Islamist-secular government unable to deliver on its promises.

The tumultuous developments in Egypt of late are having a definite impact on Tunisia, its smaller counterpart in the region, where the Arab revolutions started in late 2010. Tunisia´s ruling Islamist party Ennahda(Renaissance Party) is increasingly facing serious opposition. Calls for the dissolution of the current government have already forced President of the National Constituent Assembly Mustapha Ben Jaafar (Ettakatol) to suspend the NCA (1). 

Although extremely worrisome, the developments in Egypt had been welcomed by Ennahda´s main contesters, Tunisia´s secular parties. For them, the fate of (former) Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi was good news. It was a reminder to Arab societies after their respective revolutions that the Islamists can horribly fail when summoned to actually rule the country. Also, it was a warning that even though democratically elected, the broader population will not accept all Islamist agenda points without protest. In other words, the message from Cairo was that the Islamists better not overreach if they wanted to remain in power.

For Ennahda developments in Egypt meant that it had been dealt a blow by proxy: it affected their self-confidence and strengthened the opposition. The more so as acknowledged and unacknowledged affiliations tie Ennahda to Egypt´s Muslim Brotherhood (2). On the other hand, those in Tunisian politics who fear the influence of Islamist movements were relieved: not all had been lost, after all.

Ever since Ennahda was voted into the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly with a 41% plurality in 2011 and formed a coalition with two minor secular parties, the Islamist party has had to be careful not to hurt a range of sensitivities. It has shown itself flexible and intent on brokering a Constitution broadly supported in Tunisian society by giving in on controversial issues regarding religion. Nevertheless, suspicion runs deep and opponents accuse Ennahda of double talk and pursuing a hidden agenda. Moreover, in the past period many have been dismayed by aspects of Ennahda´s wielding of powe (3): e.g. their apparent backing of the development of a second level security apparatus (the League for the Protection of the Revolution, LPR) (4) and appointments of Ennahda representatives to key posts in society (5).

A year and a half in power, the transitional government has still to produce a new Constitution, promised elections are not in sight and the economy is worsening. People have become impatient with the incompetence of the ruling parties (6). The coalition partners – already small from the start – have seen their following dwindle. These secular parties are now tempted to distance themselves more clearly from the consensus project they embarked upon when joining the transitional government. They can tap into strong secular sentiments among certain (mostly urban) segments of the population.

People comfortable with the secular system that Tunisia once was, have been horrified by the sudden appearance in the public domain of symbols (indigenous or imported) of an explicit religiousness that questions the ´acquis´ of modern society. And it has been difficult for many to distinguish between the different strands of Muslim fervour that have surfaced in many areas of society.

As if out of nowhere, a variety of Salafist groups have emerged (7), ranging from the quietist to the jihadist; the latter – although considered a minority – being the most visible (8). Spectacular violent attacks have rocked the country over the last two years and seemed to indicate that Tunisia is falling prey to the same Salafist terror that is being witnessed in much of the majority-Muslim world. The assault on the US Embassy and the American school in Tunis in September 2012 were emblematic of this development. In 2013 two leftist politicians were assassinated within 6 months and the murders blamed on Salafist radicals.

There have been Salafist attacks on art galleries, liquor stores, a synagogue and several churches, as well as on individual intellectuals. (9) The incidents seemed to confirm the worst fears of the secular-minded elite: primitive religion was taking over and threatened to extinguish the progressive gains of the last decades. A hesitant response to the incidents by the Ennahda-led government combined with a harsh stance on blasphemy cases compounded these fears.

In the meantime, the appearance of Salafi activism in its different manifestations became a serious liability to the consensus-centered approach of Ennahda. The Salafists´ increasing prominence and their criticism of Ennahda´s conciliatory tone appear to prefigure an alternative Islamist project that has no use for careful explanations and patient confirmations of the compatibility of democracy and modernity with Muslim politics. For example, what sets a Salafist party like the minority Reform Front Party (RFP) apart from Ennahda is its intransigent passion for the cause of a society ruled according to religion. A far cry from pragmatic Ennahda that thrives on compromise and concession, RFP caters to a constituency that has no use for diplomatic meanderings and the niceties of dialogue with secularists, either leftist or capitalist.

Still, the question as to how the various strands of Salafi activism in Tunisia exactly relate to Ennahda´s more suave brand of Islamism (as expressed by its figurehead Rachid Ghannouchi) remains unanswered. Ennahda itself sometimes seems to distinguish between gradualist approaches (which it endorses) and ´immature´, ´impatient´ approaches (which it condemns).

Reliable statistical data being scarce, different interlocutors will offer vastly different views of the recent surge in Salafism, ranging from the alarmist to the aloof. More research and deeper analysis are, therefore, needed (as provided by scholars like Monica Marks, Fabio Merone and ICG´s Michael Ayari who take the trouble to see Salafists and talk to them directly to better understand what is motivating them). It is a better way to gain insight into what is driving people in Tunisia than taking other people´s word for it, coloured by party allegiances, enemy images and plain scare mongering. At the same time it does not put suspicions to rest that Ennahda and its comforting discourse are not the only or indeed mainstream form of Islamist activity in the country. Rather, Ennahda´s choice to appease its two coalition partners and secular objections to constitutional drafts, is infuriating more hardline Islamists and is fanning the flames of an intra-Islamist opposition to Ennahda.

Ennahda has been trying to function as a consensus-builder among the various constituencies and, in the process, has alienated many. Over the last months, splits within Ennahda have become apparent and the party has to deal with them in order to satisfy its voters. Given widespread misgivings about the transitional government, even (or should one say: especially) within the ´Muslim vote´, tensions about the future direction of the party are an urgent matter. In the party itself these tensions play out as well and there is debate about whether Ennahda should be a movement rather than remain a political party.

Such discussions tie in with larger debates within society on Tunisian identity and the role of religion. In political and intellectual circles it is not uncommon to come across the insistence on the Muslim identity of the Tunisian population as a generic characteristic (10). Harking back to a view of a ´traditional Tunisian Islam´ and its alleged harmony and tolerance, representatives of very diverse persuasions acknowledge the importance of the Islamic (Maliki) heritage of the country in very general terms. By doing so, they abstract from the theological tensions and identity divisions inherent in more ideological approaches to religion.

More complexity is added where Tunisian politicians, such as Ahmed Najib Chebbi, Maya Jribi (Republican Party), Tarek Kahlaoui (CPR), Rafaa Ben Achour (Nidaa Tounes) and Meriem Bourguiba (independent), insist on the legitimacy of indigenous religious traditions but reject interpretations and practices ´imported´ from or ´injected´ by foreign sources. The image of an authentic, homogeneous and tolerant Tunisian Islam is contrasted with the innovative plurality of fervent or even radical Muslim discourses that upset the original balance in the country and threaten to undermine Tunisian identity (11). 

But as the most pressing issues are considered to be the socio-economic ones, which are seen as both the spark of the revolution and the litmus test of its success (12), identity issues are denied priority on the political agenda. Religious identity issues and contentions over the influence of religion in the public sphere are currently being sidelined in politics. This is creating a contradictory situation in which the relevance of religion is broadly acknowledged but at the same time is not given a political platform. For those voters who see religion as an inalienable dimension of the public and political sphere, it fosters a frustration comparable to the frustration that built up under the secular repressive regime of ousted President Ben Ali.

It is a driving force behind the popularity of Salafi jihadism among (predominantly) disenfranchised youth in Tunisia who feel neglected and deceived by the political leaders (13). It is turning away increasing numbers of potential voters from the ballot box. Even if elections will take place in Tunisia within the coming six months, it will be doubtful that the outcome will reflect what Tunisians really think. Many of them are looking for alternative avenues to influence their future.

Frank Ubachs is Fellow in Religion, Violence and Security with the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain and co-convenor of the Religion, Peace and Security Research Cluster at the CRCPD. Formerly, he was executive director for The Hague Process on Refugees and Migration and policy advisor in the human rights and good governance department at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

(1) Michael Ayari, 2013, ´Tunisia: Avoiding the Egyptian Scenario?´,

(2) ”There’s always been a sense that Ennahda was from the same school of thought as the Brotherhood. All of them were. All of them were effectively descendants or affiliates of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood,” explains Shadi Hamid, an expert on political Islam, and director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.´ in Patrick Kingsley, 2013, ´Who are the Muslim Brotherhood?´ (

(3) ´Throughout 2012, secular forces in Tunisia- headed by leaders like Chokri Belaid – vigorously denounced Ennahda for facilitating political violence and preparing an Islamic power grab (…)´ in Jade Salhab, 2013, ´Tunisia: the fate of moderate political Islam on the razor´

(4) ´The LPR have been accused of having close ties with the ruling Islamist Ennahdha party, a relationship denied by both the Leagues and the party.´ in Nissaf Slama, 2013, ´New Group Formed to Fight Leagues for Protection of the Revolution´, (; Monica Marks, 2013, ´Tunisia’s priority is security reform´,

(5) ´According to a source in the Troïka, there are today 11 Ennahda governors on a total of 24. Moreover, almost a third – between 30 and 40% –  of new president director generals and recently appointed general directors of public enterprises belong to the Troïka´s main party´ (original in French, FU),

(6) Monica Marks, 2013, ´Tunisia in turmoil´,

(7) Fabio Merone and Francesco Cavatorta, 2013, ´The Emergence of Salafism in Tunisia´,

(8) Fabio Merone, 2013, ´Salafism in Tunisia: An Interview with a Member of Ansar al-Sharia´,

(9) Tunisia: Violence and the Salafi Challenge, Crisis Group Middle East/North Africa Report N°137, 13 February 2013,

(10)´Tunisian self professed seculars among intellectuals and activists, at least but significantly, overwhelmingly espouse and promote the Arab-Islamic heritage. One would be hard pressed to find a significant exception to this.´ in Mohamed-Salah Omri, 2013, ´The perils of identity politics in Tunisia´,

(11) ´The mainstream perspective views the ultra-conservative strain of salafi Islam as an alien phenomenon, imported from the Gulf states, and Saudi Arabia in particular, to undermine what is often referred to as Tunisia’s ‘moderate’ and ‘modern’ brand of Islam.´ in Corinna Mullin and Ian Patel, 2013, ´Political violence and the efforts to salvage Tunisia’s revolution´,

(12) Lahcen Achy, Tunisia’s Economic Challenges. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 2011,

(13) Monica Marks, 2013, ´Youth Politics and Tunisian Salafism: Understanding the Jihadi Current´, Mediterranean Politics, 18:1, 104-111


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