David Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Wilson Center who has recently returned from Tunisia. The following piece is an overview of his observations of current challenges faced by Tunisia’s leadership.
Tunisia’s new Islamist-led government is finding governance a daunting challenge in the midst of an economic crisis and conflicting militant secular and religious forces, whose battle over the future character of this highly Westernized Arab nation is intensifying.
Islamic zealots known as Salafis are asserting their presence as never before in the streets and on university campuses. They are demanding the new constitution, still under debate, commit to Islamic law as the sole basis for legislation and that women don traditional dress, including face veils. The French-educated elite, long-liberated Tunisian women, and leftist labor union activists are fighting to prevent any backsliding in the country’s strong secular traditions ever since its independence 56 years ago.
In the middle of an increasingly tense “cultural war” stands Ennahda, the Islamic party that won 40 percent of the vote in elections last October, the first since the popular uprising in early 2011 that toppled the 23-year-old regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Similar street revolts have since swept away Arab dictators in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen and triggered a civil war in Syria.
Tunisia’s uprising has proven the least violent and raised the highest hope for a successful fusion of Islam and multi-party democracy that will provide a model for the Arab world. It would also reassure European nations and the United States that they can deal with the new Islamists coming to power in a number of Arab countries.
By David Ottaway
Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
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