The Islamic terrorist attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis may have serious ramifications on the fragile moderate center of Tunisian politics. An entente between Islamists and secularists that produced the Arab Spring’s only successful transition to democracy is already shaky. Tunisia has also produced the Arab world’s largest number of jihadis for the Islamic cause in Syria and Iraq, challenging the assumption that democracy is the best antidote for stemming the rise of Islamic extremism.
After peaceful legislative and presidential elections in Tunisia toward the end of 2014, which were lauded on both the national and international levels, the attempt to form a new government reveals the tensions among the various political forces and the difficulties of constructing a democratic system in the country that was the birthplace of the "Arab Spring."
The Tunisian parliamentary election that took place on October 26 has been widely hailed as a rare and heartening success story. It was a moment of bloodless democratic transition in a broader Middle East that appears to be crumbling daily into anarchy, from the lawless militia zone of Libya to the killing grounds of Syria and Iraq. The election went off peacefully, without accusations of fraud, and even the principal losing party—the Tunisian Islamist group known as Ennahda—held a celebration to honor the event as a “victory for all Tunisians.”
Since the revolution that led to the end of the Ben Ali regime in January 2011, Tunisian women have obtained political parity and participated, for the first time, in the writing of the country’s new constitution. With just a few weeks remaining until new elections that will determine the country’s political orientation over the next five years, a look at the experiences of women who have been involved in formal politics can help us understand the political culture of a society in the process of a democratic transition.
Ottaway writes that three years after the beginning of the Arab uprisings, Tunisia and Egypt are moving in different directions. Tunisia is moving in a democratic direction because well-established political and civil society organizations counterbalance each other, forcing compromise. In Egypt, politics pitted the Muslim Brotherhood against the military and other state institution, inevitably leading to the triumph of the state. A new process of democratization is unlikely to start without other uprisings.
The failure of Tunisia's ruling Islamic Ennahda movement to convince secular parties and civil society groups that it is truly committed to the separation of religion and state underlies the current political crisis there. Ennahda's moderate leadership has made repeated compromises on religious issues to meet secularist demands for a new constitution. But it has lost their trust by showing too much deference to its own militant Islamic wing and fundamentalist Salafis outside the movement.
U.S. policy toward the Maghreb countries is presently driven above all by security concerns. Although three of the four countries—Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya—have experienced considerable political change since 2011 and Algeria is on the verge of a succession crisis with potentially significant consequences, the United States is not deeply involved in these transitions. Exhausted and disappointed by failed nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States seems to be moving toward the opposite extreme, neglecting political transformations to focus on security. Unless the countries restore or maintain political stability, however, counterterrorism efforts cannot succeed
Two years after the uprising that forced President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali into exile, Tunisians are slowly coming to grips with the reality of politics in a pluralist system where opposition is real and the outcome of political contestation is not predetermined. The process is slow and somewhat uncertain, and it would be premature to conclude that Tunisian politicians have fully embraced not only the concept of democracy but also its concrete implications.
Tunisia’s transition to democracy, widely regarded as the most successful to emerge from the five uprisings that shook the Arab world in 2011, is being seriously threatened by violence in the wake of a prominent leftist politician’s assassination in early February. The killing of Chokri Belaid has not only triggered a showdown within the ruling Islamic Ennahda Party between its moderate and fundamentalist wings but also deepened the hostility between secularists and Islamists within Tunisian society.
The Islamists Are Coming is the first book to survey the rise of Islamist groups in the wake of the Arab Spring. Often lumped together, the more than 50 Islamist parties with millions of followers now constitute a whole new spectrum—separate from either militants or secular parties. They will shape the new order in the world’s most volatile region more than any other political bloc. Yet they have diverse goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they are even rivals.