The Tunisian State is Crumbling

A girl lights candles following Saturday's fire at a mausoleum in Sidi Bou Said, in the northern suburbs of Tunis 13 January 2013. (Photo: Reuters - Zoubeir Souissi)

By: Sofiane Chourabi

Published Monday, January 14, 2013

In a scene rarely witnessed in Tunisia, hundreds of elite troops from the interior ministry were deployed in the heart of the capital Tunis, surrounding al-Fateh Mosque, the city’s most prominent house of worship. All roads leading to the mosque were closed by commando teams wearing balaclavas and carrying machine guns.

On an average Friday, the mosque is full of civil servants due to its central location near government offices. After the 14 January Revolution, the mosque became one of the strongholds of the Salafi movement and was often so full of worshippers that the crowds would spill onto the surrounding streets.

On this particular Friday, a number of Salafi organizations had issued calls to attend a sermon by Abu Ayyadh, a Salafi leader in Tunisia. It was even broadcast live on the Internet.

In Tunisia, all imams are civil servants – employees of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the only body permitted to choose imams. Abu Ayyadh is not a civil servant and did not have a permit to give a sermon. The Salafi cleric might be better known for his former status as Tunisia’s most-wanted man. After the American Embassy in Tunis was stormed during the uproar against the anti-Prophet video, the public prosecution issued a warrant for his arrest. He was never captured; a small number of his supporters were able to smuggle him to an unknown place.

This time, at al-Fateh Mosque, Abu Ayyadh’s supporters were so plentiful that the security guards didn’t stand a chance in preventing his sermon from taking place. The same goes for the ministry-appointed resident imam.

The scene, in a way, sums up the condition of Tunisian state institutions two years after the revolution and a year and a half after the troika alliance, with the Islamic al-Nahda at its helm, assumed power. This was an administration already shaken by the removal of its most central pillar – the tyrannical political regime – and now, with al-Nahda administering the affairs of the state, the system has been dealt some significant blows and atrophy seems to have set in.

Between Tyranny and Democracy

The post-revolution democratic regime should require “individuals to subject their will to their reason,” in the words of French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. Popular power was expressed in the Constituent Assembly, a body that is supposed to lay down just laws to be enacted by the government. However, the current authorities want to lead the country in a different direction.

There is a huge difference between the state envisioned by al-Nahda’s leader Rashid Ghannouchi and the one envisioned by many citizens. For Ghannouchi, the state is “a social expression of the doctrine of monotheism.” Questions arise from this interpretation: Which texts? According to what jurisprudence? And who is qualified to determine the correct reading of the Quran and Hadith?

It should not surprise us that the Islamists in Tunisia are seeking to destroy the pillars of the civil state in order to rebuild, on its ruins, a state whose structure is a throwback to bygone centuries.

The revolutionary wave that overwhelmed Tunisia after the ouster of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali sought to destroy the backbone of the dictatorship. The old constitution was declared null and void and all political institutions emanating from it were dissolved. A temporary government was established to prepare for the election of a council which would lay the foundations of a new state.

Everyone joined in the task of destroying the state and creating a vacuum around it, certain that they would be the victors in future elections. What a disappointment! Tyranny is not limited to the ruler; it only takes root when it finds support in the general mentality of society. Al-Nahda’s overwhelming victory in the elections was not surprising because it is a party that functions in the same way as the dissolved Constitutional Democratic Rally.

As soon as al-Nahda came into power – in coalition with two weak and marginal parties – the construction of a “nahdawi” model for the 21st century picked up pace. Any semblance of a system based on a fair judiciary collapsed. Security and stability were lost and tribalism reared its head. All local laws were trampled and terrorism seeped into all corners of society.

Thus, the state – which for the first time in its modern history was based on popular will – was weakened. What remains is a government led by people who lack experience and qualifications necessary to hold their posts. They are helpless when it comes to dealing with a disintegrating state.

Religion Replacing the State

Tunisia, which was once a beacon in a region that struggled to adopt modern values, is the target of a planned invasion by the wealthy lobbies of the Arabian Gulf. Local organizations with full coffers offer social services in the country’s interior, taking on the role of government organizations.

Of course, gifts and aid do not come without a price. It now suffices to own an Afghani tunic, grow your beard, learn some Quranic verses, and declare your loyalty to people who have appointed themselves Islamic “sheikhs.” This will trigger Qatar and Saudi Arabia to release their bounties to the new ruler.

Over the course of a year, Tunisia, whose people believed that legal and civil marriage can create a balanced society where both sexes are equal, has recorded between 700 and 800 “customary” marriages imposed by Salafis in universities. The groups, for some unknown reason, cling to intolerance in an academic space which, in principle, is supposed to promote enlightened ideas. The state has not intervened to stop this hemorrhage.

In a suburb of Tunis, a “religious” elementary school has been established for the first time since religious education was abolished in 1964. This is a school where children will not learn modern science and culture. They will regurgitate annotations in jurisprudence from remote eras of the past. Of course, the state did not even flinch at the prospect of the establishment of a parallel educational system.

The Islamist penetration of the Tunisian state is taking place at two levels. The first is on an official level with al-Nahda taking the reins of the country and appointing their members to the most important ministry and local government positions.

The second is how Nahda-affiliated Islamist groups are taking over public space. In the poor Duwwar Hayshar suburb, small groups of Salafis have even set up patrols to stop “sharia violators.”

Al-Nahda does not believe in the values of a civil state. One is reminded of when temporary prime minister Hamadi al-Jabali warned us of the declaration of the
“sixth caliphate.” Currently, nothing stands in the way of al-Nahda’s supporters, as seen the day of Abu Ayyadh’s sermon. They have found the road to be fairly well-paved for them – by the secularists.

Sofiane Chourabi is a Tunisian journalist.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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