The perils of identity politics in Tunisia

The outcome of the Tunisian revolution still hangs in the balance.

The January 13 attack on a prominent shrine in Sidi Bou Said has been blamed on hardline Salafists [AFP]

The increasing attacks on saints (awliya’) and shrines (zawaya) up and down the country, defacing and burning over 20 such sites so far, reached its climax in the burning of Sidi Bou Said’s shrine on the eve of the second anniversary of the revolution.

The picturesque Sidi Bou Said that drew Paul Klee and Kandinsky in the early part of the twentieth century continues to attract millions of tourists every year, and boasts high profile residents, including the American ambassador and a raft of businessmen, artists and old aristocracy. It is also Tunisians’ favourite place to visit by far.

An attack on al-Beji’s shrine, known as Rais Labhar (Captain of the Seas) for his “legendary” protection of ships and sailors since the 13th century, together with the tradition of Sufi songs and celebrations around him, touched a nerve across the country. There is an economic, political and an aesthetic quality to this place that explain the galvanised response. In turn, President Marzouki; Ennahda Party leader Rachid Ghannouchi; former Prime Minister Caid Essebsi, and the Culture Minister rushed to the place within 24 hours. But so did angry local residents who received them with either the famous slogan, “degage” or lukewarm applause.

The incident brought head-to-head what I would term a proxy-identity politics, exercised under the global umbrella of Wahhabism, and locally-based identity, which defends emblems and icons, on sacred grounds for some, and, for others, on the grounds of the aesthetic, historical and social significance of a Tunisian specificity. The Sidi Bou Said vs Mohamed ibn Abd al-Wahhab clash brings in focus and extends the long-term Wahhabism vs Zaytouna conflict, which started in the early part of the nineteenth century when Zaytouna scholars wrote their famous response to debunk Wahhabism, “al-minah al-ilahiyya fi tams al-dhalala al-wahabiyya” (God’s Gifts in Obliterating the Wahhabi Deviation). In it, they specifically defend the legitimacy of shrines, burial rites and sacrifices. That clash is now in full swing again and to a far higher pitch.

But what do these identity conflicts have to do with the causes and aims of the revolution? What fed them and by what means? Can they find sufficient ground to take hold in Tunisia?

An Islamist project

It is important to stress from the start that expressions of identity, be it ethnic or religious, were one of the victims of dictatorship. It is also equally important to recall that repression of identity and the responses it elicited may have fed into the general climate of discontent but they did not drive the revolutionary movement, nor did they bring down the dictatorship. However, two years on, to take the example of the draft constitution released in December, 2012, as summative of debate and negotiations, it has become clear that concerted attempts have been made to textualise, and thereby, make permanent, a recasting of identity in Tunisia with a clear Islamist accent.

Indeed, buoyed by victory in the polls and a sudden surge in visibility of religiosity and religious culture – dress; beards; public preaching; spectacular communal prayers in stadiums and on beaches; colossal meetings, such as the one held in Qayrawan’s historic mosque; influx of preachers from the Arab East and the Gulf; explosion in religious book sales, etc – Ennahda and other groupings, such as Hizb Tahrir and Ansar al-Sharia, invaded the public sphere and behaved with nothing short of entitlement.

This was of course understandable in light of the repression they had been subjected to, the public sympathy they deservedly enjoyed and the tight group solidarity they fostered over decades of isolation and common purpose. This sense of self importance was amplified by local as well as international recognition, which took the form of the high-profile and privileged position given to Islamists in foreign missions, media appearances, national-level negotiations, and so on.

During this stage of the revolution, there was what one might call an Islamist continuum, by which I mean Islamist figures, parties, associations or informal networks, acted as one and supported one another. It was remarkable to notice, for example, that the radical Egyptian preacher Wajdi Ghunaym, invited by associations close to Ansar al-Sharia was also welcomed and hosted by the Zaytouna University as well as Abdelfattah Morou, founding figure of Ennahda, and self-styled moderate. The leitmotif was the Islamist project as a shared aim, or re-Islamisation of a society believed to have been led astray by decades of secular rule and culture. The riding perception was that the “soul” of Tunisia was, thanks to the revolution, made available for the saving. From setting up religious nursery schools and Quranic associations, to taking over mosques and intensive presence on the airwaves, religiosity and the need to regain it became the shared motto among all Islamist tendencies. Yet, Ennahda in particular, being the largest group and the leading block in government, often found itself embarrassed and exposed.

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After a number of incidents, largely around the limits of artistic and media freedoms, such as vocal and violent protests against the film Persepolis aired on a private TV channel and the Abdellia art exhibit, the deadly attack on the US embassy in Tunis in September 2012 exposed Ennahda’s inability to reassure its new local and international allies and appease Salafis at the same time. The incident put the government in hot waters with local opposition, as well as with its American and European supporters. Further embarrassment was to come.

In October 2012, a leaked video featuring Ghannouchi, the party president, in conversation with Salafi leaders seems to have revealed a side of the leader that many have feared all along. It has been used by Ennahda opponents to show how the Salafis were part of this party’s strategy, and to suggest that the two movements agree on the ultimate goal of the re-Islamisation of the people and the institutions, such as the army, the police and the media. Ghannouchi says in the video: “Secularists still control the economy, the media and the administration… the army and police also are not guaranteed.” He advises the Salafi leaders to “use the popular associations, establish Quranic schools everywhere and appeal for more religious preachers because people are still ignorant of Islam”. Attempts to discredit the video and to diffuse the crisis did not succeed in dispelling the growing mistrust. 

The reality of being at the driving seat of Tunisia, a state with a particular world reputation and linkages, as well as a people with a complex political history, social composition and institutions, would soon reveal rifts and differences in style, if not always in aims between the ruling party and its ideological allies. Two years on, Ennahda is now torn between identity politics and politics tout court as never before. It is conducting both of these on a terrain it still cannot dominate. A number of climb-downs were needed, the most striking and spectacular of which has been on the subject of Sharia, which no longer figures in the first article of the draft constitution; another was to arrest several Salafis. The reasons behind the Islamists’ inability to fully dominate the field are multiple. Indeed, other than the fact that Islamists, of all hues, remain only a sizable minority, other factors are worth sketching here.

A grounded opposition

Tunisian self professed seculars among intellectuals and activists, at least but significantly, overwhelmingly espouse and promote the Arab-Islamic heritage. One would be hard pressed to find a significant exception to this. The explanation of this phenomenon is complex, and I will return to it in another article, but its main elements are the fact that the educational system, set up by close Bourguiba advisers, particularly the late humanist and writer Mahmoud al-Mas’adi, did not neglect the heritage, nor the humanist education and foreign languages and cultures.

The universal, free and compulsory character of education contributed to the homogenisation of an already fairly harmonious society. The nationalist elite was grounded in its own way: Bourguiba’s was a bilingual whose command of the Arabic language rivaled any Muslim scholar of his time, not to mention al-Mas’adi himself, as well as a raft of nationalist scholars like Tahar Haddad and Fadhel Ben Achour. This bilingual education, rooted in the reformist project of the 19th century, led by Khayreddine Pasha al-Tunisi and others, made of the nationalist elite a fairly grounded one. This is on one side, the “Bourguibist camp”, so to speak.

Opposition to Bourguiba, in the shape of Leftists and Arab nationalists, was also grounded to a good extent. Aside from Youssefists, who were pan-Arabists and largely Nasserist in orientation, the early Perspective Movement (Harakat Afaq), which would give birth to the radical left in place today, was clearly born out of the humanism of their own culture, mentioned above; Bourguibism, as well as the global humanism dominant at the time. Even the leader of the former Tunisian Workers Communist Party, Hamma Hammami, is specialist of Islamic civilisation, so is the Iraq-educated Chokri Belaid and many others. For this reason, it is not uncommon to find veiled woman and practicing Muslims in the ranks of Leftist parties.

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A third strand is led by figures who are primarily specialists of Islam (Abdelmajid Charfi, Hichem Djaiet, Mohamed Talbi…), and whose students can be found across the cultural and academic spectrum, gaining iconic status, leading some to speak of a “Tunisian” reformist Islam. This trend includes several prominent women, such as Olfa Youssef, Amel Grami, Latifa Lakhdhar, and others, who use new theoretical paradigms and methodologies, ranging from anthropology to discourse analysis, to feminism and psychoanalysis to study and interpret Islam. They are now leading figures in the traditional and new media and in civil society, largely defending personal liberties and positioning themselves against the “Islamist project”.

At the popular level, two things continue: respect, if not veneration, of saints and shrines and the practice of an Islam passed down from generation to generation, known schematically as Maliki Islam. Each of these features deserves more sustained commentary. Here, it is simply worth recognising this side of Muslim identity in Tunisia since it is extremely important in the competing identity politics in place today.

This is at the cultural and intellectual level. At the socio-economic level, people began to realise that identity politics does not provide jobs or daily bread. The economics associated with it – mainly, in the shape of timid Islamic banking, loans from Muslim countries and Gulf investment – has not really taken off, and was soon associated in the mind of a large section of the political class with new forms of domination, closely tied to the wider re-Islamisation project, mentioned above. This is not to mention the fact that it has been argued, from inside the current government itself, namely, by Tawfik Dimasi, the resigning Finance Minister, that loans from Qatar, for example, were far less favourable than those offered by Japan and the World Bank. Disheartening unemployment, rising prices and pressure for pay adjustments, not to mention compensation of martyrs, the wounded and thousands of former political prisoners, are far beyond what the economics of identity can handle or disguise.

This is one of the main reasons why the national labour union (UGTT) and the Left-leaning parties, such as the Popular Front (al-Jabha al-Sha’abiyya) and al-Masar as well as grassroots activist for economic and social rights have struck a chord and managed to fuel on-going protests.

‘Work, freedom and dignity’

Tunisia provides a striking example and an ongoing hands-on lesson for observers and activists alike, in how identity politics, even supported by an identity economics, is a perilous business at this stage of the revolution.

In fact, it may prove to be the end of Islamism as we know it in that country. This end would include the real possibility of further radicalisation and its ensuing violent consequences, signs of which have been too obvious to ignore. Whether through attacks on shrines, attempts to insert Sharia into the constitution, targeting secular and artistic practices, or violent responses, Islamists have been attempting to drag their opponents to the terrain they know best: identity politics.

If there is any meaning to the terms “hijacking” or “stealing” the revolution, this would be it. It consists in displacing the terrain, changing the slogans and inventing a narrative. Identity politics and its attendant economics are not commensurate with the revolution and are therefore seeds for further unrest and continued protest. The Tunisian revolution will fail or succeed depending on how Tunisians will handle this battle and stay on the original grounds of the revolution: work, freedom and dignity.

So far, and for the reasons outlined earlier, the outcome hangs in the balance. The fact that the geopolitics does not appear to be on Sidi Bou Said’s side; with Egypt, Syria, Libya and now Mali, being open battle grounds, makes it even more imperative that “Captain of the Seas” keep a clear head.

Dr Mohamed-Salah Omri is a University Lecturer in Modern Arabic Language and Literature at the faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University.