The rival ideological narratives in Tunisia

The Tunisian elections will be held amid growing frustration over the country’s Islamist-secular divide.

Tunisia, which prides itself on being an island of secularism, is now facing the rise of Islamist movements. [Rabii Kalboussi]

Tunis – Nobody would have ever believed that the famous Habib Bourguiba Avenue in the heart of the Tunisian capital, that used to symbolise modern and secular communal city life, would be adorned with symbols of the once-banned conservative forms of religious dress code.

Tunisia, which used to pride itself on being an island of secularism, is now facing the rise of Islamist movements, that have grown increasingly powerful since the 2011 revolution.

Bearded men in full-length robes and veiled women are increasingly seen in the European-style cafes and public squares. Even street vendors’ businesses have boomed because of the rise of Islamism.

Those vendors have occupied the pavements of the most prestigious avenues and squares of Tunis, displaying books on Islam, sermon CDs and videos, prayer carpets, and women’s veils.

Such practices have fueled an important debate about society and identity in a country where until recently nobody would have thought that Islamist movements would be able to gather steam.

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According to Alaya Allani, a researcher in Islamist movements and lecturer at Manouba University, the current mood reflects the hopes and anxieties of a nation in transition as well as how the 2011 uprising has divided its citizens into secularists and Islamists.

“Political and socio-economic factors helped in nourishing such conflicting trends. The weak presence of the state after the revolution, the absence of a clear religious strategy by the government, and the deterioration of the situation in impoverished regions and marginalised districts in cities helped fuel resentment among the people,” he said.

“Islamism has become an ideology of protest that attempts to avenge decades of ruthless crackdown on all forms of clerical sentiments that prevailed in Tunisia under the 23-year regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.”

According to Allani, the phenomenon can also be considered as the antithesis of the westernisation policy that was imposed by the former regime.

The authorities have recently resorted to security measures after things reached the point where isolated incidents of violence – blamed on Islamists – occurred. 

This is not the time for ideological divides. Tunisian parties should focus on programmes and on what can be done to save the country. They should learn from the transitional period

by Salim Bouhlal, a financial advisor

The crackdown, according to professor Allani, “is part of the measures adopted by the security officials to prevent jihadist thoughts that penetrated Tunisia from taking an organisational form such as the case of Ansar Al Sharia, the jihadist group, which presents a potential danger to the security and territorial integrity of the state.”

Rival parties swap accusations over who’s responsible for fanning security fears in Tunisia.

Some secular parties accuse their Islamist opponents of being unable to control their supporters and for using mosques as a platform to preach their ideology.

In return, the Islamist parties put the blame partly on their secular rivals whom they accuse of blowing the events out of proportion in order to promote their own parties and ideology.

“Secular political parties are playing the security card as an excuse to drive us away from the real debate,” 25 year-old Omar Trabelsi, a self-styled Salafist, told Al Jazeera.

“They are trying to make people scared of bearded men in order to harm the Islamists’ reputation as well as to obtain an international sympathy and protection,” he added.

The ongoing ideological polarisation has led different local media outlets to open debates on the dilemma and to call on the country’s political parties to refrain from promoting themselves as the actual representatives of Tunisian society.

This came amid mounting fears of the spectre of terrorism in the country and the rise of violent groups, which analysts say, have proven themselves successful in both brainwashing and recruitment.

Such groups say they wage a war, in the name of god, on infidels, illegitimate regimes and corruption, in a bid to create an Islamic state based on the principles of divine justice and welfare.

“This is not the time for ideological divides,” Salim Bouhlal, a financial advisor, told Al Jazeera.

Tunisian parties should focus on programmes and on what can be done to save the country. They should learn from the transitional period, which has proven that there was no way out of the political crisis but through a consensus and compromise,” added Bouhlal, who is also a member of Tunisia League for Citizenship, a Tunisian NGO.

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“They should try to find a common ground to best serve the country by putting aside small political calculations that can harm the harmony of a country which is trying to find its path towards democracy that takes onboard the aspirations of all Tunisians from all walks of life.” 

The current Islamist-secular divide has also led to the emergence of a third wing that remains undecided and prefers not to get involved in the current political games.

Supporters of this third-way trend have lost faith in politics and in politicians.

They argue that the political elites in the country are either cronies of the old regime, who are too corrupt to be given another chance to rule, or too naive in politics and governance to be able to handle the challenges facing the country.