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Tunisia out of the impasse?

Hoping for an orderly retreat of Ennahda to avoid a return to the old regime

27. November 2013
by Wilhelm Langthaler

Tunisia was the starting point of the Arab peoples’ revolt. In the central countries of Egypt and Syria, however, the movement is threatened to subside in repression and violence. Again, it is Tunisia, which gives grounds for hope: Ennahda could withdraw from the government without violence paving the way for early elections. Thus the democratic gains could be saved from the threat of a counter-revolution on behalf of the old elites.


Should this succeed – which is by no means certain – Tunisia might serve as a role model. This would strengthen the already-won democratic rights and the path to independent articulation and organization of the subaltern masses against the social elites would be paved.

Let’s try to read the trends in Tunisian society and to draw wider conclusions reaching beyond the small country.

1. Islamists losing influence

Following the overthrow of Ben Ali, the Islamist Ennahda party, a force including several tendencies, emerged as the central power of the new government enjoying a strong relative electoral majority. Although it is true that the popular movement against Ben Ali was influenced by the Left while the Islamists had played only a secondary role, the leading governmental position they acquired did nevertheless correspond to the majority sentiment. Elections generally reflect the more passive sections of society as opposed to demonstrations by which the active elements seek to get heard. Activists with their means to express themselves tend to get the support of the passive elements only when all other means are exhausted. But this was not the case, quite on the contrary. For the very first time real elections with on open outcome took place. Many of those who had themselves taken to the streets or had supported the popular movement cast their ballots for Ennahda as a credible, articulate and organized alternative. They did not look for polarization, but on the contrary for a certain re-balancing and societal détente.

But within a year, the mood changed fundamentally. The (perhaps exaggerated) hopes were quickly disappointed. First, the situation is characterized by a social disaster. Not that anyone could have fundamentally changed the social situation within such a short period of time. But Ennahda does not even offer an idea or concept except the abstract reference to Islam as the solution. They appear mesmerized like rabbits before the snake of global capitalism in crisis.

But it is not only this loss of support due to the ongoing dismal social situation that would probably create troubles to any government. It’s about a violent clash of cultures. Just like authoritarian secularism ruling long decades, Islamism has no concept how to organise an inhomogeneous, not only socially, but also culturally diverse society. Islamism tends to impose its culture on the entire society. It tries to batter social opposition by the club of culture. Instead of the hoped-for relaxation of social and political conflicts Islamism fomented confrontation anew. In combination with the political claim to power this leads to a violent clash with the secular block, which is similarly intolerant. There is no need for confessional minorities in order to provoke a sectarian-communal type of conflict.

At this point the even more radical Salafi and Jihadi tendencies come into play. The latter express these exclusivist positions by armed means pouring further fuel into the fire (see below under 4).

Similar to their Egyptian homologues Ennahda followed the concept not to challenge the old elites but to offer them instead co-operation in controlling the state apparatus. Their idea is to acquire power only slowly and gradually avoiding ruptures. So while they reacted aggressively exclusionary against the street mobilisations, on the other hand they silently embraced the old elites. Parts of those elites even switched sides. So they turned down the massive popular demand for prosecution and punishment of the old regime’s perpetrators. Especially in Egypt but also in Tunisia the Islamists regarded the mobilized left-leaning street as the main enemy – the very ones with which they had co-operated under the dictatorship and with whom they could have jointly eliminated the remnants of the old regime.

2. New mobilisation

To the extent in which initial euphoria evaporated and disappointment crystallized, opposition became manifest once again on the street.

Core of the mobilization was the Left and the milieu that already had played the leading role against the dictatorship – similar to the Egyptian Tahrir. Of course it was also about the social demands. But especially important were the realization of the democratic demands, such as the punishment for crimes committed by the old regime from which the Islamists were shying away.

The struggle against Islamisation is inextricably linked to this mobilisation. From a democratic point of view this is legitimate to a certain point, but very quickly tends to become intolerant and anti-democratic, ignoring that political Islam does represent a significant portion of the population including the lower classes. At this point Islamophobia provides a political platform, a gateway for the reorganization of the forces of the old regime on the basis of a French, exclusivist secularism. Large parts of the Left do not want to distance themselves from this type of secularism. Actually they stand in line in this very phalanx, in which they inevitably can only play second fiddle.

3. Reorganization of the old regime around Nidaa Tounes

After the inevitable disintegration in the wake of the revolt and the first state of shock, the old elites succeeded to recover somewhat modernized reorganising around Béji Caïd Essebsi and his party Nida Tounes (“Call for Tunisia”). The Left surrendered the leadership of the struggle for democratic demands to them by sticking to secularism (thus excluding the Islamist lower classes as interlocutor). Although Nidaa Tounes & Co partially participated in the street mobilizations their main argument is the same that every social elite is employing: guaranteeing stability of the (capitalist) economy and the system as a whole as well as their relationships with the world’s rulers. With the deepening of the social crisis and the desperation such arguments tend to gain influence across all layer of society – especially when trimmed with anti-Islamic communalism.

4. Salafi-Jihadi violence

In February 2013, one of the leading left oppositionists, Chokri Belaid, was murdered. This was followed by a deadly attack in July on Mohamed Brahmi, also an important leftist figure. The government remained passive. They did not want to threaten their unity with the Salafi-Jihadi milieu. For the unity of the Islamic forces is important for their claim on power over society. (Compare the fractures of Egyptian Islamism and the Salafi support to Sissi’s military coup.) Ennahda now has to pay dearly for this attitude as the political responsibility for the attacks is attributed to them. Eventually people took to the street demanding Ennahda’s resignation. An explosive mixture as in Egypt seemed to concoct.

5. Terrorism hysteria and a new leadership role for the old elite

Unlike in Egypt, the security forces are determined primarily by the police and intelligence agencies. While Ennahda created some units devoted to them, they did not even try to take over the repressive apparatus as a whole. Essentially, it is still controlled by supporters of the old regime, but with the disruption caused by the toppling of Ben Ali they assumed a low profile.

However, with the change of society’s mood and in particular with the continued Islamist attacks on security forces, the milieus emerging from the old regime were able to politically gain the upper hand once again. The media apparatus dominated by the Essebsi block generated a terror hysteria shaped after the 9/11 pattern which created conditions for direct intervention by the security forces into the political process. In order to avoid an Egyptian scenario Ennahda had to react to the threat built against them.

6. The Left lost profile and influence

Analogous to Egypt by declaring the Islamists to be the main enemy the Left entered a block with the recycled old regime forces by the name of National Salvation Front. (Turning point was the murders.) Actually sometimes the Left has been waging the cultural struggle even more violently to the point that Nidaa Tounes & Co appeared as moderates. In their campaign against the Islamists, the Left howls with the wolves and thus continues to lose independence.

The cardinal error of the Left is not to grasp that the Islamists are a block across classes built on a culturalist base. They organize and lead an important part of the lower and middle classes which hope to further their interests against the national and global elites. (Obviously they reduce these elites in a culturalist way to being secularists.)

They have created a narrative depicting Islamism as the mainstay of imperialism and as a tool of the capitalist elites to control the popular masses. While imperialism simply had no other choice than to co-operate with the Islamists after the old regimes had fallen, the referred-to narrative interprets this co-operation as an organic relationship. At the very same time it neglects the historical fact of the organic relationship of the old elites with the global regime. Western pressure on Egypt’s junta asking them to compromise with the Muslim Brotherhood is also read in this logic. In fact, it is more the fear of the untenable position of the military restoration and the need for a certain opening towards political Islam in order to keep the regime stable and the Western orbit that drives Washington & Co. They do not want to break with their old allies, but care about their weakness and fragility.

7. National dialogue

Faced with the enormous pressure both from the street as well as from the old elites Ennahda seems to respond with an orderly retreat. They do not want to run into the Egyptian catastrophe their Muslim Brotherhood friends proved unable to anticipate and to avoid. Certainly, each side is trying to secure as much as possible for themselves by tactical manoeuvrings. These are the very characteristics of negotiations. They are all about exploring a compromise according to the balance of power. The contrast to Egypt is striking: “National dialogue” was started, even if it still can fail, unsettling the Egyptian mechanism of counterrevolution.

The quartet composed of the trade union federation UGTT, the employers’ association, the Human Rights League and the Bar Association is playing a decisive role as the negotiations take place under their aegis. In Egypt there are no institutions of this type with such a large margin of manoeuvre. The quartet’s constituents are not, however, neutral or independent institutions, but part of society representing different layers and sections also in conjunction and coordination with the elites. Presumably, as a resultant they will tend to be averse to the Islamists. At the same time their mediating position expresses that in their milieus a return to the status quo ante is not wanted and substantial democratization is really sought. This means that there is consensus to downsize Islamist institutional influence but at the same time to keep Ennahda within the system by working on a compromise. Ultimately it is all about accepting Islamism as an essential component of society and thus to recognize their democratic rights.

An Egyptian scenario – which Ennahda rightly fears and expects guarantees for its prevention – is unwanted by the quartet and thus by significant sections of society including the middle classes and even elites. Under these conditions the Essebsi block as well as the security apparatuses cannot neglect or violate this mood. (This does not mean that this cannot change with new factors emerging. Currently, for example, the talks are suspended.)

The error of important parts of the Left in their campaign against the Islamists can be exemplified by their stance on the constituent assembly. Tunisia is the only country of the Arab revolt which has produced such outstanding democratic instrument. However, Ennahda as the strongest party has not proved able to propose an acceptable compromise with the other side also contributing to failure. That the constituent assembly is unable to operate and, ultimately, no longer representative is obvious. New elections would be the best means to adapt to the changed power relationships. It would reflect the experience people have made with Ennahda so far. But often the Left asks for the complete dissolution of the assembly and for its replacement by a constitutional committee imposed from above like in Egypt. That would mean to throw the baby out with the bathwater. This is the mindset of enlightenment dictatorship which for the “dumb masses” only reserves contempt, especially if they support the Islamists. If the Left would in principle stick to the constituent assembly it could easily put the blame for is malfunction on the Islamists addressing their constituencies to find a compromise. That would, however, require defining them as interlocutors and partners of dialogue.

8. New elections as a temporary remedy

In the confrontation Political Islam versus secularism no class conflict can be expressed. We rather see the clash of cultural communities, both of which extend across all social classes. Both wield influence at the bottom as well as at the top. Both maintain connections to the global oligarchy. And both include elements of opposition to imperialism and the local elites.

Class differentiation, an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist social project is feasible only beyond the cultural communalist divide. The task is to find and promote the means of co-existence of the different cultural communities. That would offer the subaltern classes the possibility to test Islamism in practice. One should not forget that they have been persecuted for decades and by their resistance succeeded in sinking deep roots into the people.

The most important step in this direction would be new elections, organized by a transitional government, or at least a strong electoral commission, which is accepted by both sides. Despite all the well-known difficulties of the inequality of arms, in the absence of active, direct mass democracy elections remain the best mode to establish power relations and to derive legitimacy.

Presumably, that would mean the return of the old elite under Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes to governmental office. But in contrast to Egypt it would not amount to a counter-revolution, because the Islamists would not be suppressed. It could mean a real democratization of the regime.

One may object: isn’t that exactly what Washington is asking for? Yes and no. Yes, because they know that each cultural block on its own is too weak to provide stable rule in the interest of the West. Under today’s circumstances ongoing instability and conflict is detrimental to U.S. hegemony. And no, because democratization offers the possibility of the continuation of the Arab Spring in the direction of the independent articulation of the subaltern masses.

9. Tunisia to the rescue of the Arab Spring?

Let us recall the dynamics and the main lines of the Arab popular revolt. A more or less spontaneous democratic and social mass uprising of the impoverished intellectual middle class and large parts of the urban poor forced the secular dictatorships (who are the local pillars of the global capitalist order) to retreat or at least to go on the defensive. Elections for the first time sweep Islamists into power; they had over decades crystallized mass opposition to the rule of the secular elites. The leftist nuclei, which had played an important role in the uprising itself, and especially in the preceding years of preparation, were once again marginalized.

But the Islamists turn out to be incapable of significant steps towards the realization of the hopes of the lower and middle classes as they were expressed in the revolt. Their defenders interject that they were not given the opportunity to do so. They became victims of the sabotage by the old regime (or in an Islamist interpretation: of the infidels, crusaders, etc.). This is, of course, true. However, that is neither an explanation nor an excuse, as any profound social change will have to face reaction. Any insurgency will have to face resistance of those in power not only prior to their unsettling but also their removed from power. And in particular, there is the backlash from the masters of the world. The revolutionaries must be judged by their ability to overcome this reaction and which forces they are able to mobilise in their defence.

The Islamists instead of approaching the Tahrir and its leftist nuclei (in Tunisia their equivalents of the Kasbah and Bardo movement), they had occasionally cooperated with, chose the Left as their main enemy. Thinking in the mechanics of blocks, the Islamists were hoping for some cooperation by the old elites, whose interests they did hardly dare to touch.

The Tahrir movement was up in arms against that and increasingly saw the Islamists as their main enemy and as representatives of global domination. When the new protests started to become a mass movement the remnants of the old regime turned around and embraced the all-Arab Tahrir. Caught in the hermetic ideological cage of secularism, the Tahrir was neither able nor willing to shrug them off, and thus undermined itself.

The old rulers unexpectedly were on top again, especially as the historical Left handed them power on a silver platter. In a pharaonic manner, they staged a coup in Egypt and returned to power, encouraged by the Saudi reaction. With approval or connivance of the Left (who continued to paint the Islamists as the main fascist danger) they are about to restore the old regime. The Left does not understand that in this way they ultimately saved the Islamists in historic terms although the latter suffered a heavy blow from the police and the military in immediate terms. For the new Pharaoh will soon be held responsible again for the intolerable state of affairs in the land of the Nile and the Islamists will gain new supporters.

Tunisia follows the same dynamics. But the bloody coup in Cairo should give all sides a pause and calls for a different solution. Such a solution could lead to a true democratization, which would give at least some room for manoeuvre to an anti-capitalist movement, more than it ever had for half a century in the Arab world.

At a pinch we can even press Syria into this mould. The strict repression of the democratic demands and the military oppression has created a great political platform for Islamism and its Jihadist variant in particular. This will also be the case in Egypt, the difference being that foreign aid is not going to go to the Jihadis but to the military regime.

10. An idea for a strategy: let the masses experience Islamism

The basic idea of the political line sketched here is to give the subaltern masses the chance to make experiences with Islamism. Islamism isn’t just a brief, ephemeral phenomenon. Since 1967 and the demise of Arab nationalism as an opposition force in the world system, and particularly since 1989/91 and the end the bi-polar global order that had non-capitalist states as an alternative, political Islam has put down deep roots among the subaltern masses as the only relevant alternative to the ruling system . How could anyone think that it would disappear within just a few months?

Actually the author does not consider political Islam a possible alternative to the rule of the capitalist oligarchy. On one hand, due to its communalism or sectarianism it is not able to create sufficient consensus. With the line of exclusion it cannot win. (Lebanon’s Hezbollah, for example, does not applied this line.) On the other hand, it does not provide and does not want to provide an alternative to really existing capitalism, as it is part of the latter, albeit in an indirect way. For it also represents parts of the upper classes.

Politically, Islamism is blocking the way to an anti-capitalist alternative. But to ally oneself with the old secularist regimes, whose failure had nurtured Islamism and has made it big, is equivalent to political suicide.

The worst thing that can happen to the Arab Spring is the return of the old regime by exploiting the disappointment with and the repulsion of the Islamists. Of course, the Islamists themselves bear the main responsibility for that reaction. However, the political key is in the hands of the Left, because without the Left, the coup generals and the old regime’s milieu lack legitimacy.

The basic task for revolutionary democrats in the coming period is to give political Islam a chance to demonstrate what it actually is and what it is able to do. The masses themselves must be allowed to realise what they are dealing with. The secularist educational dictatorship has failed irrevocably, even more as the capitalist classes used it to justify their rule. Only after this period, which also serves to overcome communalism and religious sectarianism (which must be to some extent accepted as reality), an anti-capitalist force can win mass support. However it can and must put down its roots today, by standing up for democratic and social rights for the subaltern classes. Give political Islam some time – and at the same time defend the democratic and social interests of the people against the capitalist regime namely global imperialism as well as the local elites.