Tunisia should have been the good story in the saga of the Arab Spring; it is where it all started more than two years ago. The Jasmine Revolution was about freedom, dignity, jobs and social justice. But a year since Tunisians went to the polls to elect a Constituent Assembly in the first free legislative elections in 55 years, the situation today is glum. The ountry is divided and Tunisians are polarized. There are genuine fears of a religious backlash against secular forces. The Salafist influence is growing, and with the country heading into a political vacuum there are doubts that Tunisians can agree on a draft constitution that will pave the way for fresh presidential and legislative elections in the summer of 2013.
Interim President Moncef Marzouki summed up the situation in his speech recently before the Constituent Assembly. He rejected attempts to divide the people between good and bad, reformers and corrupters, revolutionaries and reactionaries, Islamists and secularists, modernists and Salafists. He admitted that the objectives of the revolution are yet to be realized. A battle is raging among various political, religious and intellectual forces, in Parliament, within the government and in the streets, sometimes with a violent outcome.
The Constituent Assembly, which is controlled by Islamists from Al Nahda party and the Salafists, has failed to adopt a draft constitution that would overcome the thorny issues of the religious character of the state, public liberties, women rights and human rights, among others. Lawmakers have grappled with such issues raising fears that the Islamists want to do away with the secular gains of the civil state which were achieved over the past few decades.
The Salafists have been accused of pushing to impose Shariah law. The coalition government, controlled by Al Nahda, which won 41 percent of the Constituent Assembly's seats, and formed the government along with two small leftist parties, has failed to stem the growing tide of the Salafists and reassure secular forces in Tunisia. The clash now is between the Popular Association for the Defense of the Revolution, which is a front of Islamist movements supporting Al Nahda, and the Movement for Tunisia; a secular and liberal movement led by Beji Caid Essebsisi, a former prime minister.
But not all Salafists support the Islamist-led government. The head of Ansar Al Sharia, Abu Ayadh, has accused the government of being a puppet of the United States and un-Islamic, vowing that the Movement for Tunisia will never be allowed to rule the country.
But away from the agitated street, the real battle is being waged inside the Constituent Assembly. Secularists fear that Article 17 of the draft constitution which says that international conventions will be respected inasmuch as they are not contradictory to the constitution; would be used to violate human rights and other international pledges. Al Nahda's President Rashed Ghannouchi had pledged recently that his party would not push for the implementation of the Shariah, and would keep the first article of the former constitution as it is. That article states that: "Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state, its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic and its type of government is the republic."
Another contentious issue in the draft constitution has to do with women's rights. Article 28 speaks of complementarity within the family rather than equality between men and women. In a country where women have enjoyed far-reaching rights and privileges for decades, such gains are now in danger.
It is hoped that the final draft will be revealed soon. But it will immediately launch a heated debate on the nature of the state, civil and public liberties and women's rights. The fear is that such debate will transform itself into violent clashes in the street, especially between Salafists and secularists.
Meanwhile, the government has been accused by human rights organizations of committing violations. A showdown between Prime Minister Hamadi Al Jabali and the press syndicate raised fears about the future of press freedom and free expression in Tunisia. Intellectuals and artists have been attacked and threatened by radicals. Ghannouchi, considered a moderate, has admitted to the rising influence of Salafists in the country. In his view the best way to deal with this is through dialogue. He told Le Monde newspaper recently that "If we diabolize the Salafists, they will rule the country in ten to 15 years."
The events in Tunisia represent an early test for political Islam in the countries of the Arab Spring. Like in Egypt, the Islamists are now in the driver's seat after winning free and open elections. But the biggest challenge, for both, is how to arrive at a new constitution that reflects the diversity of opinions and beliefs while preserving both countries' civil and democratic nature.
The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. This article was published in the Saudi-based Arab News on Oct. 31, 2012