What remains of secularism in Tunisia

Secularism in Tunisia, or radicalism in the face of the religious current, is not part of a strategic intellectual project, but rather a tool for political positioning
Saturday 19/09/2020
Tunisian women demonstrate for a civil state in Tunis, in August 2018.  (AP)
Tunisian women demonstrate for a civil state in Tunis, in August 2018. (AP)

Tunisian university professor and constitutional jurist Yadh Ben Achour has revived the debate in Tunisia about the future of political separation by calling for a “large-scale secular cultural and political movement” to counter the expansion of political Islam in Tunisia, at a time when political alliances in Tunisia no longer obeyed any logic, becoming almost absurd, to wit, the formation in 2013 of a parliamentary front that included Islamists, independent populists and MPs affiliated with the constitutional trend, that came together under the banner of Nidaa Tounes headed by the late Beji CaidEssebsi, before personal disputes and struggles for leadership split it into small groups.

In an article in the Leaders magazine, Ben Achour called for “the establishment of a large secular cultural and political movement, with clear choices and without political concessions, that transcends party ideologies and defends the gains of independence and Bourguiba’slegacy in order to defend Tunisian society and the Tunisian state against the invasion of political and constitutional Islamisation.”

Tunisian anti-Islamist leader of the Free Destourian Party (PDL) Abir Moussi, takes part in a sit-in in front of the Municipal Theatre hçolding a framed picture of Tunisian iconic leader Habib Bourguiba. (DPA)
Tunisian anti-Islamist leader of the Free Destourian Party (PDL) Abir Moussi, takes part in a sit-in in front of the Municipal Theatre hçolding a framed picture of Tunisian iconic leader Habib Bourguiba. (DPA)

Such a front would be of the order of miraculous event if we were to closely examine the state of the so-called secular political forces in Tunisia or of those that are seen as the last hope for leading the task of building a new front to confront the expansion of the Islamists.

From the outset, we find that intellectual and ideological criteria have disappeared from the current political conflict in Tunisia and replaced by fluid and convenient considerations that might lead any given politician to one day declare himself or herself as anti-Islamist and the next day become their friends. Such a situation is due primarily to the fact that secularism in Tunisia, or radicalism in the face of the religious current, is not part of a strategic intellectual project, but rather a tool for political positioning, which may require manoeuvring with escalation sometimes and de-escalation other times in order to achieve political gains.

Ironically, the main intellectual front that is supposed to compete with the Islamists in the struggle over the societal vision, namely the Tunisian left, has retreated considerably following the shock of the 2011 uprising, even though it was supposed to be the first beneficiary of the change in the country given its ideological ambitions for a radical change of reality.

The Tunisian left might have its own intellectual references, and its leaders may be said to master the intellectual tools of analysis and deconstruction, but since 2011, it has not overtly come forth with political visions and statements that would confuse the Islamists or shake their image in the country. Some go even as far as saying that the biggest mistake of the Tunisian leftist parties in post-revolution Tunisia was not to clearly demarcate themselves as a movement working for a radical change and serving the people by being close to them. Instead, they focused their strategies on one goal, and that is to counter the Islamist Ennahda Movement, which had in the end succeeded into dragging the left into useless and draining battles about details, and led it enter into unnatural alliances serving the agendas of groups that are by definition hostile to leftist ideologies.

Of course, one should always keep in mind that the left is many lefts and that each group considers itself the bearer of the most radical approach and the closest to the concerns of the common citizen. But the leftist leaders, groups and blocs that have emerged so far, and especially the conflicts that surfaced, further weakened the left and pushed it into the shadows. The best illustration of this trend was the experience of the Popular Front Party which had lost all of its 16 members of parliament in just one election cycle.

Moreover, one should not underestimate the extreme pragmatism shown by the Islamists who did not hesitate to back down on some issues and items that were in the past part of the traditional points of contention used against them in public debates. Thus, Ennahda Movement had no qualms about adopting the Tunisian Family Code (the Personal Status Code) as a common ground with the left, even though some aspects of this Code fundamentally contradict the traditional jurisprudential interpretations that Islamists usually defend, such as the legality of polygamy and illegality of adoption.

Ennahda no longer believes in the necessity of applying Sharia Law and its controversial concepts and rulings, and is keen to present itself as a conservative movement with an Islamic spirit, shedding in the process all of the controversial aspects of its past belonging to the Islamic Group Movement or the Islamic Trend Movement or even to the overall Muslim Brotherhood identity. Such a strategy has confused its ideological opponents who have let go of focusing on their fundamental intellectual opposition to the Islamist trend and became engaged in debating the details of its chameleon-like pragmatism or in discussing its daily political positions or its connections to Qatar and Turkey, basically keeping them busy searching for fixed elements and criteria that may facilitate the classification of the movement.

A file pictrure shows Islamists demonstrating with a banner reading “Koranic text above any other text”, in the capital Tunis. (AFP)
A file pictrure shows Islamists demonstrating with a banner reading “Koranic text above any other text”, in the capital Tunis. (AFP)

It is important to note that the intellectual groups that were enabled by the Tunisian revolution with the freedom to organise, express their opinions publically and in the media, and hold open meetings with the people, did not succeed in showing themselves as a radical and inclusive option, because the cultural and intellectual dimensions of the overall ideological conflict have disappeared from the public debate. Even what can be cited as examples of ideological differentiation in books, novels and other artistic production cannot be said to represent a collective vision but has to remain confined to individual attempts and visions. Most of this intellectual production, anyways, centred around personal accounts of jail experiences or intellectual assessments of past experiences, assessments that ended up being dominated by feelings of nostalgia and projections of failure and withdrawal.

So, how can we build a cultural movement that leads to clear intellectual distinctions as called for by Yadh Ben Achour?

I think that the matter needs a different vision, because the dreamy cultural change may find a place in books and biographies, but on the ground the country needs what is more important than that, and that isbuilding a steady political system and breaking off with the current hybrid political setup that Mr. Ben Achour is accused of participating in engineering. He even defended this system in his last article, saying that the problem is not with the system but in the ways it is implemented.

The parliamentary system may have succeeded in preventing the Islamists from monopolising or dominating power in Tunisia, but in return, it has disrupted everything else in the country and imprisoned political power in an endless cycle of polarisations and reactions to the point that, since 2012, no government has succeeded in implementing its ideas, programs and visions because of the ubiquitous parliamentary disputes. What’s worse is that this situation promises to remain unchanged for years to come.

Tunisia needs a smooth and uncomplicated political system that enables building alliances capable of governing so that the country can devote itself to addressing its urgent issues, and so as to block the path to the policy and practices of constantly throwing spanners in the works and standing in each other’s way. We have excellent illustrations of these destructive practices in the current disagreement between the three heads of government (the president of the republic, the prime minister and the speaker of the parliament). The worst and most tragic of this situation is what is happening now between Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and President Kais Saeid in terms of an open struggle over appointments and controlling certain ministries.

The priority for Tunisia now is to build a political model capable of functioning and of being sustainable, so that the country can once again focus on solving its security, economic, social, financial and health crises, and to re-invigorate its external image which has been tarnished by political and partisan conflicts.

Such a goal can become the needed ground for clear political differentiation that would enable the re-emergence of a strong and revitalised opposition and force the political parties to focus on improving their performances rather than run after slogans and sell out to suspicious agendas of local and foreign lobbies. Reorienting the climate of pluralism towards this goal, based on competition and clarity, can open the way for working on intellectual and cultural pluralism and allow building a cultural movement to defend the national gains of the state and the elements of enlightenment that will be established in the future, especially as working on the cultural and intellectual dimensions will push the Islamists either to radical concessions that make the old ideas a mere memory, or to completely retract into the traditional Islamist shell of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology.

And it won’t be just the Islamists that will be affected by the issue, since everyone—leftists, nationalists and liberals included—will have to make concessions that break with the diseases of ideology, and will inevitably extend to secularism and its various aspects, bring it down to earth and involve it into building a model of pluralism that actually serves the people.

As a result, the various cultural agendas championing future-oriented enlightenment projects could be the natural consequence of improving people’s reality and building a positive social climate; otherwise, the endeavour would just be another strange diktat that would only lead to the reproduction of models of authoritarianism and despotism.