Tunisia: Secularism, Political-Islam, and Democracy

On December 17th, 2011, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in what many perceived to be a protest against police corruption, a crumbling economy, and the lack social mobility in Tunisia. Bouazizi’s protest, which ultimately led to his death, initiated a series of events that are now called the “Arab Spring.” Tunisia, Bouazizi’s country, and the site of the Jasmine Revolution, the first of the pro-democracy uprisings in the Arab world, is also one of the few success stories of the so-called Arab Spring because of the successful constitution drafting process and peaceful transfers of power. Historically, Tunisia has been one of the most moderate, pro-west, Muslim countries. A strong secular predisposition in former French colonies provided for a more agreeable societal context for a Western style liberal democracy. Because of its history as a former French colony, Tunisia holds a great propensity for successful democratization through its secular predisposition and pro-western leanings.

Tunisia has been part of European colonial interests dating back to at least the Roman Empire. France colonized Tunisia in 1881, and like all colonial entities, attempted to eradicate indigenous culture and replace it with its own. Most notable is the cultural significance of Laïcité, or, secularism. In French culture, it iswidely accepted that a person’s religious identity is private. As Tunisia decolonized, Laïcité remained a valued aspect of Tunisia’s culture. Tunisia held a strong policy of secular rule, which was never seriously contested until the events following the Arab Spring.

Political Islam originated in Egypt as a way to combat European colonists. A French colonial expedition in 1798 routed Egyptian forces, and Egyptian officerslearned that they could not successfully counter European military prowess. In order to counteract European meddling within the Middle East, Muslim leaders formed the Salafiyya movement, which stipulates a parochial interpretation of the Quran. In 1929, an Islamic scholar named Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood, the first iteration of modern political Islam as it is understood today. Political Islam was initially an anti-colonial opposition movement to Western and Christian influence on Egyptian politics, swiftly spreading throughout the region. Religious opponents of the secular regime in Tunisia subscribed to political Islam as a form of contention.

In Tunisia, religion served as a catalyst for democratization, Ennahda, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood was a central player in all aspects of Tunisia’s transition. As an Islamist party, Ennahda was in a position to centralize power in the hands of religious leaders rather than political ones, yet they did not, helping to further Tunisia’s transition. One of the requirements of a democracy is the dilution of power through multiple centers of power. Religion could be a tool for democratization, as it was in Tunisia, or one for enforcing authoritarian rule, as it is in other countries. When civil rights, including religious rights, are respected, as in Tunisia, religion enhances democracy. In countries like Saudi Arabia, for example, religion is used to suppress rights. In the latter case, minorities are marginalized and oppressed, because the will of the majority trumps minority beliefs. Without multiple centers of power, individuals can consolidate power and create an authoritarian regime.

Tunisia’s attempt at democratization has been, relative to other Arab Spring countries, a resounding success through its transitory and consolidating periods. Power between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, a secular party, was peacefully transferred in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Tunisia’s decision to opt for a parliamentary system will prevent consolidations of power like those that occurred under the Imperial Presidencies of Habib Bourguiba and Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali and will allow a more diverse range of political parties to come into the fold. In 2014, Tunisia’s voter turnout was 68%, which is above the average turnout for new democracies. Civil society is respected, Islamic elements are allowed to contribute to politics, and there have only been peaceful transfers of power. While time will tell, it is becoming increasingly clear that Tunisia’s attempt at Western style democracy stands a robust chance of long-term success.

Modern Tunisia

In 1957, Tunisia achieved independence from France largely due to the efforts by the Neo Destour, or the New Constitutional Liberal Party (NCLP). The NCLP was a Tunisian nationalist party subscribing to Bourguibism, a term named after Habib Bourguiba who was independent Tunisia’s first president. Bourguibism mandated policies of state capitalism, or blurred lines between the public and private sectors, and Tunisian nationalism and secularism, of which the main goal was a repression of political Islam. According to Middle East expert Michael Hudson, Bourguiba wished for Tunisia to act as a conduit between the Western world, and the Islamic world. The NCLP’s policies concerning the modernity of Tunisian culture can be named as causes for the more egalitarian Tunisian stance on women’s rights and diversity. Finally, Bourguibism was non-militarist. Bourguiba frequently argued that Tunisia had more pressing concerns than maintaining a powerful military apparatus. Funding that under other circumstances would be directed towards the military, instead went toward the development of the economy and other civil or state institutions.

After exiling or imprisoning his rivals, Bourguiba finally consolidated power and he outlawed all parties besides his own. Western countries tolerated Bourguiba’s regime because he was secular and open to Western investments, despite his authoritarian policies. Bourguiba’s Tunisia was run as a secular state, and although religion was allowed, the state brutally repressed any political applications of religion, preventing a large percentage of more conservative, rural, citizens predisposed towards Islamist-politics–something that would come to a head when the Ennahda party came to power in 2011. The suppression of political Islam under the imperial presidents facilitated its explosion during the onset of the Arab Spring.

In the early 1980s, Europe’s economy was faltering, and Tunisia, dependent on a thriving European economy, suffered as well. Bourguiba sought a loan from the IMF in order to bolster Tunisia’s economy, and it was granted in 1983. Strict austerity, however, was an IMF prerequisite for the loan and ultimately caused inflated bread prices, which further damaged the already weak agricultural sector of Tunisia’s economy. Riots began in the poor Nefzaoua region in Tunisia’s south, and ultimately spread throughout the country. Bourguiba’s attempt at quelling civil unrest killed over 100 civilians. Thousands of people were jailed and critical newspapers were shut down. The Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI), founded and led by Rashid Al-Ghannushi, faced the harshest retribution. MTI was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the forerunners to the Ennahda party.

Bourguiba’s health declined in the 1980s and ultimately left him unable to rule. In 1987, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali came to power in a bloodless coup. Ben Ali began his career as a military officer, and became the Interior Minister before his appointment as Prime Minister in 1986. Ben Ali’s regime, like Bourguiba’s, was authoritarian. Censorship of the press continued, the constitution was amended to allow for Ben Ali to remain in power, and Islamist groups, many of which existed under the al-Nahda party (formerly the MTI party), were repressed and hundreds were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Islamists in Tunisia helped to facilitate the democratic transition, and because of their experience as an oppressed group, helped to enhance it as well.

In 2011, the first of the popular “Arab Spring” uprisings, called the “Jasmine Revolution” began. Many people were upset with the continuance of the totalitarian system under Ben Ali, along with the poor economy and rampant corruption. Islamist groups, however, did not orchestrate the Jasmine Revolution, and secular traditions were still dominant. Unlike Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood co-opted anti Mubarak protests, Tunisia’s Islamist-party never became the major the anti-government actor.

Amid raging protests, sustained levels of economic depression and a lack of political and military support, Ben Ali resigned and left Tunisia for Saudi Arabia. A new constitution was drafted, going through many incarnations with Islamists playing a large role in its formation. The Ennahda party (formerly the MTI and al-Nahda parties) initially advocated for a more Islamic government rooted in Sharia, but tempered their demands when faced with the political realities of a culturally secular Tunisia. Monica L. Marks, a political scientist at the Brooking’s Institute argues that:

On the place of sharia in the constitution, for example, the party ultimately opted not to include the word. While Ennahda members do look to sharia as an ideal ethical framework, most members accept a more abstract, ethical definition of Islamic law (focusing on social justice, equality, and good governance). Key members of the Shura Council were persuaded that this was the appropriate course of action for the party, keeping itself a relevant and viable political player.

The Ennahda party recognized that in order to institute any modicum of Islamic values in Tunisia, it would have to moderate its platform from the outright Islamic rule that is the position of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. In the 2011 parliamentary elections, Ennahda led the “troika,” a coalition of Ennahda, the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties, and the Congress for the Republic to a resounding victory. The Troika controlled 117 seats, and Ennahda held 89 seats itself. It is clear that Ennahda held a significant amount of support within Tunisia, but its inability to maintain that majority in the 2014 elections (Ennahda went from 89 seats to 69, and lost the plurality to a secular party), suggests that its dominance of the political realm directly after the uprising was more of an anti-establishment explosion than a recognizable trend in Tunisian politics.

Although Ennahda lost seats in 2014, it is second only to the majority Nida Tounes, a center-left, secular party. Of the five strongest parties in Tunisian politics, four of them are secular. The plurality of secular parties prevents their constituents from uniting unless a coalition is formed. Ennahda is one of the only representatives for Islamists. For the most part, tensions between political Islam and secular parties in Tunisia have thus far been handled through negotiation, rather than violence. Despite a significant portion of the population supporting Ennahda, the government established by the constitution has remained solvent, rather than backsliding into dysfunction.

Although Tunisian civil and political societies are largely dominated by a plurality of secular groups, political Islam is a considerable force in both the country and the region. Approximately 99% of the country is Sunni Muslim, and after surviving the anti-religious policies of Bourguiba and Ben Ali, they would not want their rights to be suppressed again. The type of oppression Egyptian President Sisi instituted over Islamists led them to violent extremism in the Sinai Peninsula. If Tunisian secular groups prevent Islamists from participating in government, it is possible that they will turn to violent opposition as well. So far, Ennahda’s inclusion in Tunisian politics presents a hopeful scenario because political Islam is included in Tunisian politics, if the current trend holds, any future disputes will be settled democratically.

Tunisian society appears both more inclusive and more moderate than other Arab countries. Tunisia’s embrace of women’s rights, political Islam, and secularism facilitate a culturally diverse and vibrate country. Tunisia’s decision to implement a parliamentary system instead of a presidential system is a further indication of its inclusiveness and willingness to tolerate a diverse range of political views, as well as to prevent power from being consolidated by one person.


Tunisia’s democratization is thus far a success. A culture of tolerant secularism and inclusion has allowed Tunisia to incorporate Islamist elements into its politics without centralizing power. Tunisia’s two post-revolution elections–2011 and 2014—were conducted fairly. Ennahda moderated its position instead of acting intransigently, allowing Tunisia’s democratization to progress. A multitude of political perspectives, though secular at their base, are represented in Tunisia’s government, and such inclusiveness will help combat future instability. The common ingredients for a democracy are present: minority rights; frequent and fair elections (so far); dilution of power; increasing freedom of press; and most importantly, Tunisians themselves want it. After struggling against two dictatorial leaders and through an arduous revolution, Tunisia stands on the precipice of a truly consolidated democracy.

Adam Goldstein is a student in the School of Public Affairs class of 2017. He can be contacted at ag8045a@student.american.edu.

All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds

About Adam Goldstein

American University senior on the BA/MA track for Comparative Politics. Unapologetically obsessed with Iranian politics, political science, and Phish. Contributing editor and Middle East/Africa columnist.