Right in the heart of Tunis, a dozen of bearded men, some dressed in robes, others in tunics, sat outside the Salafi-controlled al-Fateh mosque to sell various Islamic products such as religious books, men’s hand-knitted caps and prayer carpets as the full female Salafi outfit of dark robes and the niqab was on display.
Across the street, an ad for Tunisia’s first Salafi party hung between two streetlights. “The Sharia is our path and reform is our choice,” read the white banner.
The scene was unthinkable under the rule of the deposed president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Like his predecessor Habib Bourguiba, Ben Ali sought to derive legitimacy from secularizing the Tunisian society and combating Islamism.
But as soon as last year’s popular uprising forced him to flee, Tunisia’s six-decade-old secularization project has found itself face to face with a robust Islamist movement that sells itself as the actual representative of Tunisia’s Muslim society and as the antithesis of the ancien regime’s staunch westernization.
The vigor of this movement was well manifested in the elections of the National Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting the constitution. The nation’s oldest and most moderate Islamist organization, Ennahda, won 89 out of 217 seats, scoring the highest number of votes and emerging as the key player in post Ben Ali Tunisia. To prove its commitment to consensus-building, it formed an interim coalition government with another two secular parties, which has been dubbed as the Troika.
Egyptian pundits have long looked up to Tunisia, contending that its Islamists and secularists could overcome their ideological differences to move forward with democratization. They usually cite Ennahda’s progressive outlook. Yet, the situation in Tunisia today is not necessarily as rosy.
Although Ennahda is widely seen as far ahead of the Muslim Brotherhood in terms of its commitment to democracy and liberal values, and despite the absence of far-right Salafi parties from decision-making bodies, Tunisia has not been spared the secular-Islamist divide marring Egypt’s transition to democracy.
An Islamist-secular divide has been deepened by an emerging conservative wing within the Ennahda and a bourgeoning Salafi trend. Both find themselves in confrontation with Tunisia’s ardently secular constituency, which unlike its Egyptian counterpart refuses any compromise on secular values or aspects of modernity.
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