How Islamists Can Save Tunisia's Revolution

Al-Nahda then lobbied to participate in the most powerful of the three "committees" overseeing the transitional process. That committee was renamed the "High Commission for the Achievement of the Revolution Objectives, Political Reform, and Transition to Democracy," this time with representation al-Nahda. Then, in late May, the group quit the committee over negotiations on the single biggest issue facing transitional Tunisia: when to hold elections. Al-Nahda wanted elections soon, while their polling edge is still strong. But others on the committee, knowing their own parties still needed time to organize, wanted them delayed. Not long after al-Nahda quit, the elections scheduled for July 24 were postponed to October.

The episode is a microcosm of the larger dilemma with which al-Nahda is grappling. Twenty years of opposition has made them the most popular political party in Tunisia. Participating in what is sure to be a messy process (as democracy always is) risks compromising their hard-won credibility. It also gives them partial ownership over an unpredictable transitional government that could implode overnight and over a moment in Tunisian history that is politically and economically unstable. Al-Nahda doesn't want to miss out on their big shot at real political participation -- particularly if they can do well -- but they're wary about betting their future on a revolution that is far from assured.

Even if Tunisian democracy succeeds, participation is still risky for al-Nahda. There is an easy purity to playing the opposition, but leading requires making difficult decisions, which can divide an otherwise cohesive party. "Fragmentation is a real threat for al-Nahda," according to Basly, who says it is already "challenged by internal rifts." Founding member Abd al-Fattah Morou was recently forced out by the group's younger generation, for example, and has since pledged to start a new party to compete against his old one.

•       •       •       •       •


Neither Islamism in general nor al-Nahda in particular appeared to have played any role in Tunisia's January 2011 revolution, but they had everything to do with the brutality and corruption that sparked it. Ben Ali was despised for a number of reasons, but two of those reasons were the ferocity of his secret police and the arbitrary nature of his rule. Before down-on-his-luck Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself alive in protest, he had endured humiliation and harassment by the corrupt, untouchable police.

Ben Ali, like Bourghiba before him, was either unable or unwilling to recognize and accept the other half of the Tunisian identity, and so suppressed it wherever he found it. Maybe ben Ali truly hated the Yusufists and the Islamists as Bourghiba had (the elder ruler once appeared on television drinking orange juice in the middle of Ramadan). Maybe ben Ali wanted to engineer a Tunisian society that was more liberal, secular, and European than the one he found. Or maybe he simply feared that the other half of Tunisian society posed an inherent challenge to his rule.

Whatever the reasoning, both Bourghiba and ben Ali had consolidated tremendous control and coercive power they seemed to feel were essential to suppressing Tunisia's conservatives. But authoritarianism can be imprecise, and plenty of secular, liberal, or simply indifferent Tunisians got caught in the police state's path. Bouazizi wasn't an Islamist or an opposition activist, but he was a victim of the police state that had been designed to oppress them.

•       •       •       •       •


Al-Nahda's great fear -- that the same class of secular liberals who have ruled Tunisia since independence will dominate the post-revolutionary government -- should also be Tunisia's great fear. It's not hard to see why al-Nahda is worried. Many of the secular, liberal activists who appear to have driven the revolution look to be seeking a Western-style secular, liberal democracy. The same goes for government officials and academics in the U.S. and Europe, which are shipping in aid money and technocratic assistance to cultivate the growth of democracy in a part of the world that has long suffered under autocracy.

Ben_Youssef-Bourguiba2.jpg

Ben Yusuf and Bourghiba, 1955 / WikiMedia

For Westerners (or for coastal urban Tunisians long exposed to the West), this can seem like the natural, universal ideal. But a functioning democracy is about more than just institutions and transparent votes and independent judiciaries -- it's about a government that embodies the identity of the nation and meets the more needs of the people. That identity, whether we like it or not, is at times populist and Islamic; those needs include feeling connected to the government and, for many, public recognition of Islam.

Tunisia's pre-revolutionary government, long considered one of the region's most stable, did, for most of its history, represent that part of society personified by Habib Bourghiba, even if it did so non-democratically. But it never represented the other half, a shortcoming it made up for by repressing that identity and by denying its social and cultural needs. Any Tunisian government that excludes Islamists, marginalizes them, or denies their needs, no matter how democratic it appears, will only perpetuate the contradictions and tensions that ultimately ended ben Ali's rule.

Ever since Bourghiba and ben Yusuf turned against one another in the years before they achieved independence, Tunisia has been divided. Its division has not been along any line as obvious as ethnicity, color, religion, or geography. But it has nevertheless proven existential. The January 2011 revolution finally provides an opportunity for the two sides of Tunisia to come together and resolve the two halves into a single Tunisian identity. Were al-Nahda and other Islamists to govern alongside the liberals and secularists, it would be more than just a fully representative government. It will be proof that Tunisia's two identities are not irreconcilable, that the country does not have to choose. If this day comes, Tunisia will have accomplished something truly revolutionary.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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