Coffee House

Tunisia is not following Egypt’s path

1 August 2013

In recent days Tunisia has seen major unrest after the assassination of opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi. Faced with growing unrest over a faltering economy and rising violence by extremists, Tunisia’s moderate Islamist led government is facing its biggest test.

But this is not Egypt. Nascent democracies in the region are not acting in a uniform fashion. Each has political and socio-economic issues that make them unique. But what unites the new democracies in the region is an urgent need to accommodate the religious and secular communities in their new democratic systems.

Many thought the Arab uprisings would marginalise religion’s impact in those countries. But this simply isn’t the case. The revolts were not about Islam. Yet the countries’ religious complexity, held in check by dictators, quickly came to the surface following the removal of the authoritarian regimes.


We shouldn’t automatically blame the Ennahda party, which forms the largest party in the governing coalition, for Tunisia’s problems. The extremist forces at work in Tunisia are multi faceted and complex, and not all of them are religious. We don’t know who is responsible for the assassinations of prominent secular politicians, but Ennahda is clearly not benefiting from them.

What we do know is that Tunisia, after years of autocratic rule, has started to establish a system that has the hallmarks of a modern democracy. The new draft constitution contains recognition of universal human rights, religious freedom and a clear definition of the relationship between the state and religion. Ennahda has at least shown a continuing commitment to establishing a common platform between them and their secular opponents.

In Egypt, Morsi’s knee-jerk authoritarianism totally destroyed his own attempts to construct a new constitution in a way that would satisfy the country’s varied religious and secular communities. The divisiveness with which this process was carried out alongside other disastrous policies, such as appointing as governor of Luxor someone who was affiliated to the group responsible for Egypt’s worst-ever terror attack in that city in 1997, caused chaos. With no one to mediate between the two sides and build bridges between the secular and religious, the army stepped in.

Tunisia is in a different place. In the aftermath of the recent troubles, Tunisia’s government said that the new constitution will be completed by August and that elections would be held on 17 December. These steps wouldn’t appear to be the actions of an undemocratic government full of religious extremists. If the people are unhappy with either their government, or the new constitution, they can throw them out through the ballot box. Not an option in Egypt where the next elections were three years away.

It is nihilistic to say that democracy is not for certain religious groups. Muslims across the world, from Turkey to Indonesia, are working towards reconciling how religion and democracy can work together. Christian Democracy in Europe offered those on the right a chance to move away from extreme politics post World War Two. In a similar way, Tunisia could still provide a template for how democracy and religion can work side by side in places where religion is on the rise.

Charlotte Keenan is the Chief Executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation

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  • itdoesntaddup

    Here’s an example of religion and democracy working together in the UK:

    Round up the usual suspects.

  • Daniel Maris

    Well here’s the English text of the constitution.

    The consitution makes clear the religion of Tunisia is Islam – that already drives a coach and horses through the rest of the document. Article 4 relates to religion and there is no guarantee of religious freedom.

    I suggest Charlotte Keenan apologise for misleading people about the nature of the document.

    • Noa

      Just another ‘sexed up’ dossier!

  • Daniel Maris

    The author seems not to know the meaning of the word “nihilistic”. Does she think it means defeatist? Whatever, it is certainly not “nihilistic” to conclude that some religions are incompatible with democracy. For instance, emperor worship as practised in ancient Rome and modern Japan is not compatible with democracy.

    She seems to take evidence of plans for elections as evidence of democratic intent – this on the day that Mugabe claimed yet another election victory! How naive.

    She seems to have got her history from the Ladybird book series. Christian democratic movements were formed in response to Marxist and socialist movements, not as a counter to the right.

    The Tunisian revolt began as one man’s outrage at being bossed around by a woman. It clearly had an Islamic flavour whatever she may claim.

    Where can we read this draft constitution for Tunisia? I wouldn’t trust the author to give an accurate account of it, since she seems so inaccurate on all other fronts.

  • andagain

    Many thought the Arab uprisings would marginalise religion’s impact in those countries.

    On what timescale – a year or a generation? Since the old order tended to suppress all non-religous parties, the religous parties have had a head start over everybody else. That advantage might be expected to fade with time.

  • Augustus

    “Muslims across the world, from Turkey to Indonesia, are working towards reconciling how religion and democracy can work together.”

    This view is very difficult to take seriously. Despite very real theological disagreements and differing strategic interests, they are united in their commitment to what they see as the moral imperative of Islamic supremacy and domination. Their shared goal is a global revolution leading to the defeat and/or submission of those they regard not just as inferior, but also as ‘enemies of God’, with America and Israel topping the list. There is no ‘template’ on earth how democracy and religion can work side by side politically with such holy warriors throughout the Middle East and beyond.

    What happened in Egypt was that Morsi came to power via an election that the U.S. demanded be held after it casually flung off its decades-long alliance with Mubarak. While Obama abandoned Mubarak, a veteran U.S. partner, due to the undemocratic nature of his regime, and which had begun to lose the support of the Egyptian people, he was prepared to work with a regime whose behaviour was light years away from the basic principles of a Western democracy, It was fundamentally autocratic and anti-democratic, and its religious views were anti-Western at their core. But in the White House’s eyes, this was a legally elected representative government, so it gave Morsi its support. Obama’s short-sighted policies have turned over much of the Middle East to al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, who are in the ascendency throughout the Middle East and across the Maghreb.

  • Noa

    “…Christian Democracy in Europe offered those on the right a chance to
    move away from extreme politics post World War Two. In a similar way,
    Tunisia could still provide a template for how democracy and religion
    can work side by side in places where religion is on the rise…”

    Wow! Those are two assertions of breathtaking sociialist complacency and arrogance!The statist agenda, laid forth as though it was the gospel truth.

    Both are wrong.

    Christian democracy existed before, during and after the war. However it was not ‘the right’ who attacked it but the left, in its twin murderous and athesitic guises of Stalin’s totalitarian communism and Hitler’s national socialism. The ‘right’ consisted of tolerant, western democracies,religiously founded but secular in operation, like the USA, Great Britain, France, Poland, etc.The post war movements which emerged in Europe were often heavily influenced and funded, like the Labour party, by communist dogma and hard line soviet supporters.

    It was not Conservatives who moved towards extreme politics, but the socialists of the left who assimilated and promulgated the ideas and practice of ‘communism-lite’.

    The results are plain to see, a europe increasingly under the thrall of the deeply undemocratic, post socialist EU; statist, atheist, and deeply intolerant in its nature, divided between north and south, economically and culturally bankrupt.

    In a similar way,

    “Tunisia could still provide a template for how democracy and religion
    can work side by side in places where religion is on the rise…”

    When you consider that statement it becomes apparetn that it is both breathtaking ignorant and stupid.
    Should the Maghreb in particular and the muslim arab world in general actually want such templates they already abound. They need look no further than the various liberal democracies of the west, including Israel, to which I have already referred. But the religion on the rise is not Christianity, but islam. Miilitant, intolerant of any other belief or faith, itself divided by its bigotries and internicine hatreds. As a divided and tribalist iron age cult which is incapable of evolving philosophically, it never be accommodated, only be fought and defeated.

    • Shazza

      Well said! Bravo!

  • Martin Adamson

    It’s been obvious from day one that Ennahda and the Salafists were running a classic good cop/bad cop act. The Salafists effectively work as a kind of privatised Gestapo – Ennahda would speak in favour of women wearing burkas, the Salafists would rape women who didn’t. Ennahda would worry in public about alcohol sales – the Salafists would firebomb cafes. Ennahda would be accused of corruption – the Salafists would assassinate the politicians or journalists who did it. The only reason why Ennahda is “not benefiting from the assassinations” is that everyone in Tunisia has now worked out that they are actually behind them.

    There is no such thing as a “moderate” Islamists. Islamism is inherently extreme. What exists are gradualist Islamists like the Brotherhood – prepared to bring about the righteous Koranic state over a period of decades – and revolutionary Islamists, like the Salafists – determined to switch to absolute Koranic rule overnight. Obviously wise Islamists – like Erdogan in Turkey – know that it takes decades to undermine a sophisticated, semi-westernised state like Tunisia. (At the time of its founding, Tunisia actually had more advanced women’s rights’ laws than France, the ex-colonial power, had.)

    Of course there are rivalries, egotism and tensions, but ultimately they both know that liberal muslims, secularists and the European-style left are common obstacles to their mutual ambitions.

    • Ron Wilson

      Quite agree. The police are now harassing courting couples holding hands down by the beach – and I witnessed 2 policemen with truncheons walking along the shore ready to deliver a beating to anyone considered to be immodestly dressed or behaved. Ben Ali had to go, but at least this type of intimidation wasn’t permitted.
      The ‘bearded ones’ are beginning to throw their weight around as Tunisia’s infrastructure crumbles, tourism melts away & unemployment rockets. The EU needs to step up to the plate & fully engage constructively with Tunisia, the ordinary people are educated and generally pro Western, losing this to the Salafists would be a disaster for both Tunisia & the security of the EU.

  • zanzamander

    It is Obama’s mollycoddling of Islamist MB that has created the mess in Egypt. Same with Hamas, Hezbollah etc. It is our fear of Islamists and our desire to accommodate them that is making the lives of ordinary Muslims a misery – both here and in the Muslim world.

    Look at our pathetic compromise on Hezbollah where the EU (nodoubt under pressure from Obama) have cowardly only banned its military wing and let the entire entity free to sponsor terror in the region – not least in Syria where they have now made themselves indispensable, much like the Taliban in Afghanistan, where US (yes them again!) continues to fund Pakistanis who in turn keep Taliban alive and well to cause havoc in the region.

    Sometimes I wonder if it is US’s policy to keep the Muslim world (and us) under the thumb of Islamist terrorists. Why else would it keep appeasing them?

  • Shazza

    When is the Left going to wake up? By the time I got to the end of the article, I thought I was reading something in the New Statesman. Then i saw it ‘Tony Blair Foundation’. Says it all. Lesson for the Left – There is no such such thing as democracy in Islam. Do not equate Christianity with Islam; the differing views to put it crudely are ‘love your neighbour’ as opposed to ‘slay the infidel’. Their fascist ideology does not allow for any form of reformation – the penalty for apostasy is death.

    • Martin Adamson

      Shazza, the left will wake up only when they feel the chill breeze of the scimitar on their necks.

    • Noa

      Indeed, Charlotte Keenan, CE for the Tony Blair Foundation, preaching ‘right on’ one world socialism from the pulpit of the Social Democrat Spectator.

      • Shazza

        Tony’s ‘faith’? £££££££££££££££s

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