The first months after Habib Bourguiba’s overthrow in November 1987 witnessed an ambiguous honeymoon between the new regime and the Islamists. Bourguiba himself was under a form of house arrest in Monastir, his native town. Squares named after his birthday, August 3, 1903, were renamed November 7, the day of the coup. Some of his statues were pulled down, but many streets were still named after him and his grand mausoleum and mosque were well tended in Monastir. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the coupmaker who had worked as minister of interior and prime minister under Bourguiba, presented himself as a man of “renewal” and called for political pluralism and respect for human rights. He opened a dialogue with the opposition forces, socialist and Islamist. An amnesty released hundreds of political prisoners and allowed thousands to return home. The media reflected the more open atmosphere.

The state over which Ben Ali presides is still that inherited from the French and shaped by Bourguiba. Ben Ali’s opening, designed to reduce polarization and contain the Islamist forces, confronts serious difficulties, ones which have become more evident over the past year. In the parliamentary elections on April 2, 1989, the government list triumphed everywhere in Tunisia. There is not a single opposition candidate in the new 141-seat assembly. But this apparent triumph only poses more starkly the question that continues to divide Tunisia more than two years after the 1987 coup. Historically the most open and Mediterranean of the Arab countries, Tunisia is an improbable site for an Islamist upsurge: But the Islamic and Arab worlds have produced enough surprises in recent years, and it is in urban areas like greater Tunis that Islamist challenges have grown the most.

Before and following independence from France in 1956, the initiative in Tunisia was held by secular parties. Bourguiba’s own Neo-Destour party looked to French socialism, as did the splinter groups that broke away from the Neo-Destour after its initial successes. The road leading up to Bourguiba’s now deserted summer palace at Monastir is still named the Avenue Mendes-France, after the French socialist premier who arranged Tunisia’s independence. Since the 1970s, though, there has been a growing challenge from the Islamist opposition. This threat to the regime accounted in part for the Ben Ali coup that deposed Bourguiba, whose regime was increasingly associated with brutality and corruption.

Main Opposition

During the election period in the spring of 1989, the uncertainty of today’s Tunisia, caught between a secular state and religious opposition, was graphically evident at the entrance to the walled old city, the medina, of Kairouan, the holy city of North African Islam. There stood a vast portrait of President Ben Ali, installed for the elections: The president gazed confidently at the center of traditional religious opposition to the state, while the banner proclaimed him to be “Protector of the Sanctuary and of Religion.” In the medina itself, the walls were covered with the electoral programs of the competing parties: red for the ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), mauve for the opposition “independents,” the rubric under which the Islamic forces, whose party had not been legalized, ran in the elections. But the main candidate of the RCD was himself a cleric: Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman Khlif, famous throughout Tunisia for leading a protest in the 1960s against the filming of The Thief of Baghdad in the Kairouan shrine.

Despite their failure to win any seats in parliament, the Islamist “independents” won around 17 percent of the vote, displacing the secular left, who won around 3 percent, as the main opposition. Given that around 1.2 million of those of voting age were not registered, and given the almost complete control which the ruling party has in the rural areas, the real Islamist strength is no doubt considerably greater than 17 percent: In the Tunis area, the figure was around 30 percent. Until the latter part of 1989, the Islamists themselves played their cards carefully and seemed intent to maintain their dialogue with the regime in the hope that their party will be legalized. Rashid Ghannoushi, the leader of the Islamic Tendency Movement (now “independents” because the Movement is still banned), laid greatest stress on those issues that he saw as challenging the Bourguibist legacy: the need to lessen the power of the state and to make the economy more egalitarian and independent.

“Our social objective is to contribute to laying the cultural and social bases of a civil society which assumes its most important functions, one which the state serves and which constitutes the only source of legitimacy,” Ghannoushi declared immediately after the elections in the Tunisian weekly Realities. “There is no place for dominating society in the name of any legitimacy — historic, religious, proletarian, or pseudo-democratic,” he continued. “Bourguiba put forward the slogan of the state’s prestige, but its real content was the monopoly of the party, of the capitalist interests within which power in the country was located, and the monopoly which Bourguiba exercised over this state. The time has come to raise the slogan of the prestige of society, of the citizen, and of the power which serves both.”

Opposition proclamations stressed the need for Tunisia to return to its “Islamic and Arab traditions,” without spelling out what these are. Ghannoushi demanded that the day of rest be moved from Sunday to Friday, but he was cautious on the question of women: While many Islamists called for the repeal or revision of the family and personal status law introduced by Bourguiba in 1956, Ghannoushi claimed this would not be necessary. He made much of Ben Ali’s electoral use of Islam, arguing that this showed the state rejects European ideas of secularism. There is a world of difference between the calculations of a Ghannoushi and those of more traditional leaders like Sheikh Muhammad Lakhoua from Tunis, who reportedly called for the return of polygamy and of slavery.

In the Robes of Islam

As the instance of Kairouan shows, the regime has gone some way to presenting itself in Islamic garb, much as in Egypt Anwar al-Sadat and Husni Mubarak sought to appropriate some Islamic legitimacy. Posters of Ben Ali during the election campaign showed him in the white robes of a hajji — soon after November 7 he went on the ‘umra, the individual pilgrimage to Mecca. Election posters for the ruling party showed a set of hands with the slogan “The Hand of God Is with the Assembly.” Government speeches now begin with an invocation of Allah and end with quotes from the Qur’an. Religious programs feature on TV, something forbidden under Bourguiba.

Nowhere is this shift more evident than in the attitude to the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan. Bourguiba, intent on modernizing the country, had ordered restaurants to stay open and told people to eat. On one occasion, he took the symbolic step of drinking a glass of orange juice during a public rally held in Ramadan. Yet even at the height of the secularizing drive in the 1960s, there was widespread observance of fasting. During the Ramadan of 1989, which began in early April, observance was over 90 percent. The press published widely on the significance and rituals of Ramadan. In an excess of zeal, brought on in part because there has been no religious education in Tunisia under Bourguiba, many believers fasted even when Islamic codes say they should not — pregnant women, children, people such as diabetics or kidney patients who should eat and take medicines regularly.

During and after the elections, the Islamists requested that their Renaissance Party (Hizb al-Nahda) be legalized, but after a long period of uncertainty this was finally refused in June 1989. Ben Ali accused the Islamists of concealing their real views, and said there was no place in Tunisian life for parties that based themselves on religion. The truce between government and opposition began to break down. The Islamists denounced government authoritarianism and the influence of the “secular left” within the regime. In January 1990 the government did allow publication of a weekly, al-Fajr, but this was seen as a substitute for a political party.

Ben Ali, in a major speech on June 27, warned against a proliferation of parties and the dangers of instability. The hope of the French-educated secular elite who run Tunisia is that, with a combination of concessions and firmness, the opposition threat will recede. The example of their Western neighbor, Algeria, is an unsettling one, since there the opposition Islamic Salvation Front has been legalized, along with secular parties. More reassuring is that of Egypt where, despite the assassination of Sadat in 1981 and continued agitation, the Islamists have so far been held at bay.

Ben Ali hopes to resolve the country’s economic problems — high unemployment and regional imbalances. He has improved Tunisia’s relations with its neighbors, Algeria and Libya: The warming with Libya means that Tunisian migrant workers can send home remittances again. President Mitterand visited Tunis in June 1989 and there is firm, if discrete, American backing — many believe that Ben Ali worked closely with the CIA during his earlier career. The November 1987 coup in Tunis did receive US support and fit the pattern of several preemptive moves encouraged by the Reagan administration to channel and check popular challenges in the Third World — the Philippines, South Korea and Haiti being other cases.

Despite the initial respect for dialogue on both sides, the prospects of a more antagonistic relationship at some point in the future appear considerable. Ben Ali’s post-Bourguibist regime remains as committed to a monopoly of power and to its secular program as did le combattant supreme himself. Faced with economic pressures, Ben Ali has cut food subsidies. There was no widespread hostile response on the street. The Islamists are biding their time, presenting a moderate face and consolidating their support, in the hope of a future opening.

The broader implications of this uncertainty in Tunisia are evident enough. Tunisia has long been regarded as one of the West’s more sympathetic interlocutors in the Arab world. Together with Morocco, Tunis has a reputation of exerting a stabilizing influence on its neighbors Algeria and Libya. Western military and economic aid to Tunisia serves evident strategic purposes, and Western officials have been heard to remark that they “will not let Ben Ali go under.” The Tunisian government itself is keen to maintain these links, and also to strengthen its ties to the EEC.

Tunisia’s Islamist forces, for their part, have attracted the support of a variety of external forces — in Libya, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Much of this support may be strictly rhetorical, but it is certainly the case that these states, rivals within the Islamic world, would like to encourage a change of Tunisia’s orientation, internal and external. Tunisia has become one key site of conflicts within the Arab and Islamic worlds as a whole. The outcome is by no means certain.

A Revolt Against the State

Tunisia’s Islamist movement has certain similarities with and differences from those in other societies. Like that of Iran, it represents a revolt against the intrusive secular state, the product of a growing antagonism between state and society which reflects the loss of mobilizing power and legitimacy of the modernizing project. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Bourguiba regime had considerable success in generating popular support through its nationalist policies, its social interventions and its organization of much of the population into the Neo-Destour Party and its mass affiliates. Broadly speaking, in the first decades after independence, parties and regimes that espoused a “modernizing” program held the initiative. The reforms of Bourguiba, like those of Ataturk in Turkey, the shahs in Iran and Nasser in Egypt, strengthened the state, promoted modern and secular values, and sought to transform their countries in order to bring them closer to some model or ideal of what a modern society should be. So, too, in a different context and with distinctive ideologies, did the programs of post-revolutionary communist and other Third World revolutionary regimes.

The record of these regimes was, however, contradictory. First, there was much that was not transformed, despite appearances. Religious beliefs, pre-nationalist loyalties, and family and clan ties persisted. Second, the very success of these regimes acted against them, for it was on the basis of changes which these modernizing regimes introduced that much of the opposition arose. One such change was education: In Tunisia as much as in Iran, support for the Islamist movements draws on educated young people, often ones with a degree of scientific education. Another was urbanization: Large numbers of people moved into cities, an environment where they are more easily organized and mobilized by opposition forces and where the tensions and problems of social change, including corruption and government inefficiency, are more evident.

Equally important is the manner in which these Islamist currents have challenged and to a large extent displaced the more traditional opposition leaders, the parties of the secular left. In Tunisia, as elsewhere, the opposition of the immediate post-independence period tended to take a left form, with communist and radical socialist forces playing a significant role. Their main criticism of the government was that it was not going far enough in its social reforms, but they also tended to criticize the modernizing regimes for their foreign policies, especially for their links to the West. Left parties therefore sought to present themselves simultaneously as radical social critics and as bearers of nationalist legitimacy. In the 1970s and 1980s, these left parties have been marginalized. The gains of the Islamists in organizing among students and the poor, and in developing an appealing populist discourse, explain the Islamists’ success. The left forces have often adopted a defensive ideological posture vis-à-vis Islamism. They now claim to respect Islamic values and seek compromise with the Islamists which the latter, often confident of their greater appeal, are not inclined to reciprocate — in Tunisia as in Iran, Egypt and Turkey.

It is impossible, at this stage, to predict how the contest in Tunisia will develop. Both the Islamists and the regime are jockeying for position and hoping to wear the other down. Ben Ali has taken a harsher line since the April elections and adopted a derisive tone toward the Islamists ominously reminiscent of Sadat and the shah of Iran. The opposition, for its part, has been more open in its criticisms of the regime. The second anniversary of the Palestinian intifada, in early December, saw the most serious clashes since the fall of Bourguiba between police and Islamist demonstrators. The universities have been convulsed by student protests in favor of Islamizing the curriculum. Ghannoushi himself has stayed out of Tunisia for several months, waiting for the situation to clarify. Much will depend on whether Ben Ali can revitalize Tunisia’s economy with foreign assistance: If he does not, then he may find it more difficult than he imagined to contain the regime’s new opposition.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Tunisia’s Uncertain Future," Middle East Report 163 (March/April 1990).

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