By many measure, Tunisia has the best chance among the Arab Spring countries to transition to democracy. It is a moderate Islamist-led state with close ties to the West. Nearly two years after deposing one of the region’s most repressive autocrats, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians are deep into the crucial task of writing a postrevolutionary Constitution.
But a spate of recent violent incidents, including attacks on the American Embassy in Tunis last month, have fueled new tensions between the moderate Islamic government and liberal secularist opposition parties over Islam’s role and the best way to handle extremists. How those tensions are resolved will determine Tunisia’s future as well as the broader regional debate over whether Islam and democracy can co-exist.
Since its victory in the constitutional assembly elections in October last year, Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that leads the government in a coalition with two secular parties, has tried to reassure Tunisians that it would respect liberal democratic values and not impose a strict Muslim moral code.
But it has opened itself to criticism with an indulgent attitude toward the ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis. The critics are not just the secularists, who are already mobilizing to defeat Ennahda in the next election. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch said that the authorities appeared unable or unwilling to protect individuals from attacks by religious extremists. The group also complained of increased restrictions on freedom of expression, with journalists, artists and critics of the government singled out under the guise of maintaining public order and public morals.