Tunisia: Al-Nahda’s Deadly Mistakes

Tunisian security forces and protestors clash in the town of Siliana, in central Tunisia, on 29 November 2012 (Photo: Fethi Belaid)

By: Noureddine Baltayeb

Published Wednesday, December 12, 2012

In the coming days, Tunisia will begin celebrating the two-year anniversary of the revolution that toppled the Ben Ali regime. The occasion will be marred however by the repeated missteps of the al-Nahda ruling party.

The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) has called for a strike on 13 November 2012. The strike, which coincides with a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is a slap in the face to the increasingly beleaguered Islamist al-Nahda coalition government.

A series of missteps by the Islamist party has alienated many sectors of Tunisian society and has raised questions abroad about whether it is capable of governing the nation as it transitions into a democracy.

It was not long ago – before the 14 January 2011 revolution – that any affiliation with al-Nahda was considered illegal, with many of its supporters and leaders spending years in Ben Ali’s prisons. A number of al-Nahda ministers in the current government have spent more than a decade in prison. Prime Minister Hamadi al-Jabali, for example, was imprisoned for 17 years, ten of which were in solitary isolation.

Al-Nahda’s road to power was not easy by any means; it came after years of repression and exile for many.

The movement was rewarded with a victory at the ballot box, winning 39 percent of the constituent assembly in the country’s first free elections in October 2011. It went on to form a coalition government with two other smaller parties.

There is no question today as to the legitimacy of those elections or the right of al-Nahda to rule, but according to the majority of public opinion polls, the movement is increasingly losing support among Tunisians due to a series of deadly mistakes it has committed since taking power.

Today, many sectors of Tunisian society are in a state of mutiny against the Islamist party, with repeated attacks being reported against their branch offices throughout the country. For its part, al-Nahda claims that a collection of miniscule parties and remnants of the old regime are conspiring to undermine it.

However, the party cannot deny that it has backed down on a number of agreements and deadlines since the very beginning. The al-Nahda bloc in the constituent assembly, for example, refused to set an end date for the body, which was supposed to produce a constitution within a year, and hold new elections.

This has shaken many Tunisians’ trust in the party and has raised suspicions among former supporters that the Islamists are only interested in staying in power. Already, al-Nahda is appointing its supporters and allies to influential government posts related to education, the judiciary, and the media, among others.

Over the past year, the party has opened its doors to the country’s business class, many of whom accumulated their wealth through questionable means. It also turned a blind eye to the work of the Salafis, who are following al-Nahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi’s instructions to Islamicize society, thus turning them into a kind of religious police.

More recently, clashes between al-Nahda members and protesters – including the UGTT – in the impoverished town of Siliana have led to a hemorrhaging of support for the Islamist movement.

In an unprecedented move – even in the days of Ben Ali – al-Nahda entered into direct confrontation with the widely respected union confederation by attacking its headquarters on the day it was marking the 60th anniversary of the assassination of its founder, Farhat Hached. The incident prompted the UGTT to call for the December 13 general strike, which is gaining wide support.

For its part, the government has so far done little to tackle the country’s social problems, such as widespread unemployment and rapidly rising inflation. This has been accompanied by indications that the constitution being drafted by the al-Nahda led constituent assembly may actually reduce rights and freedoms guaranteed by the country’s 1959 constitution.

A little over a year since it took power, al-Nahda is in an unenviable position: government services across the board are in decline; bribery and corruption are on the rise, according to reports by organizations; and the dominance of one party over the state is slowly returning, as attested to by al-Nahda ally President Moncef Marzouki.

After threatening the UGTT, al-Nahda is currently engaged in last minute negotiations with the union to call off Thursday’s general strike. Given the accumulating anger against their stint in power, the party is right to worry about the backlash such an action may unleash.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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