Tunisia’s Secular Parties: Reconciling Ideology with Political Reality

Reports on Tunisian secularism prepared by foreign researchers often reference the Tunisian leaders of the nationalist movement, and Habib Bourguiba in particular, who were influenced by the French vision of secularism as articulated in the 1905 French law. This law enacted the separation of religion and the state in France, a concept that was included in the French constitution of 1946 and later in the 1958 draft constitution. Influenced by the French experience, this vision was considered appropriate at the time among certain echelons of Tunisian society; however, the discourse surrounding the ideals of secularism in Tunisia remains in contrast with the real influence of such concepts among broader Tunisian society.

 

In the 1959 constitution, provisions regarding the separation of religion and the state are largely absent: Article 1 tates, “Tunisia is a free, independent, and sovereign state, with Islam as its religion, Arabic its language, and republicanism its order.” Likewise, a significant part of the legislation drafted at the time took into consideration the issue of the religious identity of the state. Such contradictions found in the Tunisian national and religious identity are at the heart of the current societal and political divisions that have continued to stall Tunisia’s transition. If the secularist political trends do not learn from their failures in the October 2011 elections and remain disconnected from the broader Tunisian population, they will become politically powerless in the long term, and Tunisian politics will become further polarized.

 

The Bourguiba Experience: Reconciliation between Islam and Modernity

 

Commenting on the constitution drafted under the leadership of Bourguiba, Tunisian Professor Abdallah al-Ahmadi says that “despite the fact that a certain group of people of varying inclinations disagreed on some aspects of its articles, [the constitution] was influenced by the laws of Islamic sharia.” Even the issue of having multiple wives was put forth for discussion and debated by Arab reform leaders. Indeed, religious figures such as Egyptian Muhammad Abdo were among those who considered the matter on a number of occasions.

 

When Bourguiba was asked “Are you for laïcité [French secularity]?” he answered that he was “not Ataturk,” affirming that despite Bourguiba’s direction of reform and modernity, it was accompanied by a policy of reconciliation between Islam and modernity rather than a strict secularist approach aiming for the separation of religion and politics. In fact, President Bourguiba often relied on Quranic verses and prophetic Hadith in his political speeches, and he consulted with sheikhs of the prominent al-Zaytuna mosque to support his political decisions.

 

Discussion surrounding the implementation of the French vision of secularism in Tunisia must be approached in relative terms; after all, at the time of Bourguiba, Tunisia was not only open to France, but to the world. This was made apparent by its ratification of international treaties in the fields of human rights and women’s rights. While these dynamics paved the way toward a fundamental shift within the intellectual and legal spheres, broader Tunisian society was not indoctrinated by these ideological changes. As such, the evolution of secularism must be approached as a phenomenon which occurred specifically among Tunisia’s elites.

 

Thus, it can be concluded that prior to the 2011 revolution, Tunisia was not generally secularist, and the implementation of this concept, whether according to the French vision or otherwise, had not been established. This reality of secularism in Tunisia today helps explain the results of the October 2011 elections.

 

The October 2011 Elections

 

The elections of October 2011were viewed as an ideological battle between political factions, in which varying parties competed for a stake in the foundation of a new Tunisia.

 

Some secular candidates saw victory as inevitable, thinking that their participation in the revolution would vindicate them at the polls. Many thought that it was necessary to lay down the foundation of secularism according to the French model, and that it would not conflict with the collective consciousness that had developed in light of a secularist environment. This incorrect reading of reality reflected the great gap between the elites’ imaginations and the reality of the population.

 

Religion is important to the Tunisians, most of whom are Muslim, and for whom the mosque represents a part of their identity. The secularist parties could not sell the idea of secularism to the broader Tunisian population. This was due to their hostile discourse on religion, at least as it was perceived by the general public, in addition to the smear campaigns launched against secularist parties by religious figures in mosques, especially after they fell under the control of Islamist leadership.

 

Some secularists were so optimistic about the prospects for change after the revolution that they incorrectly associated regime change with a broader intellectual revolution. In the wake of an environment that discouraged freedom of expression, and where the people preferred to sacrifice personal freedoms for the sake of security, such an intellectual awakening among broader Tunisian society was hardly possible.

 

In a reading of the October 2011 elections results, American researcher Quinn Rask wrote, “despite Ennahda’s victory and the continual expansion of its political network, secularism remains a strong political force in Tunisia after independence. Despite the fact that the secular vote was dispersed among a large number of individual parties, they constitute 34% of the seats in the Constituent Assembly, faring far better than the secular left wing parties [in other Arab countries such as Egypt].”

 

In Egypt, for example, the secularists have remained scattered and divided. It is possible that Tunisian secularists have learned their lesson, especially after the success of former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi in uniting parties of various ideological backgrounds in their common defense of a modernist vision. Likewise, the parties have matured, changing their political rhetoric from speeches exalting the French model of secularism to more practical speeches tackling issues that directly affect the Tunisian people.

 

Secularist parties in Tunisia will certainly play an important role in defending the country’s modernist stance. Even if they remain in the opposition, they have the capacity to exercise oversight of the government. However, in the long run, Tunisian society will continue to witness great transformations. If the secularist factions and intellectual elites remain removed from the realities of the Tunisian population, there is a good chance that they will become politically obsolete.

 

Montassar Jemmali 

 

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