The Arab uprisings have brought the Islamists to power in places such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco. In Tunisia and Egypt, religious institutions are taking on more public significance. Al-Azhar, already present in the public sphere under Mubarak, has engaged with political questions about democracy, the constitution and fundamental rights after the resignation of Mubarak. In Tunisia, al-Zaytuna has not taken on an obvious political role yet. This is because it was reduced under Bourguiba and Ben Ali to a small institution of higher learning, separated from the Zaytuna mosque, and tightly put under the grip of the regime. In post-colonial times, Al-Zaytuna was prevented from playing a political role, even in the service of the authoritarian state, and its educational role was also limited by the regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Therefore, it could not acquire the political leverage that I showed al-Azhar had gained after the 1970s in my book Gardiens de l’Islam (1996).

However, more than a year after the revolution of January 14, 2011, the Zaytuna mosque is slowly re emerging by taking on the challenge of teaching.

Responding to a complaint filed by a group of lawyers, the court of first instance in Tunis ordered on March 19, 2012 to unseal the administrative offices of the “hay’a ‘ilmiyya” (the scientific committee) in the Zaytuna mosque. The offices had been sealed since Bourguiba’s time. These lawyers are linked to the association “Friends and alumni of the Zaytuna Mosque.” As shown in this case, as well as in the case of the trial against the director of NessmaTV for the broadcast of the Persepolis movie, courts and litigations are playing an important part in the politics of post-revolution Tunisia.

As a result, on March 31, 2012  the doors of the administrative offices of the scientific committee in the Zaytuna mosque in the old city of Tunis were unsealed. This was done on the basis of the court order and of a document signed by the current government of Hammadi Jebali and the shaykh of the Zaytuna mosque, Houcine Laabidi.

On May 12, 2012, the reopening was celebrated in a ceremony in which Rashid Ghannushi, the leader of the Islamist Nahdha party, the minister of religious affairs Noureddine Khadmi, and the ministers of higher education and education were present. The government is therefore showing support for the project, but does not seem to want to make the mosque a state administered teaching institution or to be involved in the devising of the curricula. The Zaytuna mosque will offer a four year education track for graduates of primary schools and a baccalaureate that will lead to higher studies at the Zaytuna. Boys and girls will be separated. The boys will study at the Zaytuna mosque and the girls at the close-by mosque Sidi Youssef. But the government, led by a coalition between the Islamist party al-Nahdha and two center left parties, did not initiate the project. Rashed al-Ghannushi evoked his years of learning at the Zaytuna in the 1950s and reminded the audience that modern sciences and Islam were taught together without contradicting each other. For him, it was in the post colonial period that a policy of marginalization and silencing (insilākh) made modernism and Islam contradictory. After the revolution, he added, Tunisians are reconciling with their past history.

Indeed, Bourguiba put an end to Zaytuna’s primary and secondary teaching in 1958, two years after the independence of Tunisia. The Zaytuna higher teaching (in the mosque and beyond it, for instance in the provincial annexes of the mosque) was replaced by a small faculty of theology in the Faculty of letters in Tunis. A whole world, with its culture and traditions were ended by the Bourguibian project of unification and reform of education. The post-colonial reforms were prolonging a long period of colonial transformations of education in Tunisia, which saw the emergence of new schools that were intended to produce new elites at the service of the modern administration.

Bourguiba’s policy was very badly taken by traditional elites, the Zaytunis, students and ulama who had played a role in the nationalist struggle against the French occupier. For Bourguiba, Zaytuni education was backward, and it was necessary to control it and “rationalize” it in order to make it “modern.”

After 1987, Ben Ali continued the same policy, accusing Zaytuna’s graduates of disseminating Islamist ideology in the public schools, where many of them taught religious education. The Zaytuna University, which was co-educational, was censored like all the other Tunisian institutions of education. Its library was emptied of any books that could become politically subversive. A rationalist and liberal interpretation of Islam was imposed to faculty and students. Therefore, the post-revolution teaching project is presented by its proponents as a reversal of the politics of tajfīf al-manābi’ (the policy of drying up the sources of religion). Doubtful commentators recently asked if the new Zaytuna project will help Tunisia improve its ranking at 6700 in the Shanghai academic ranking of world universities. However, the reopening of teaching in the Zaytuna mosque is first and foremost presented as a religious, moral, and cultural enterprise that should reinforce the Islamic and Arab identity of Tunisians. Hopefully, the freedoms that have developed since January 14, 2011 will allow for rigorous intellectual debates on the content of religious education and for a plurality of styles of teaching and interpretations, unless the rift between the secularists and the Islamists continues to overwhelm post-revolution politics.

It is striking that the revival of teaching in the Zaytuna mosque is not the result of government policy making but originates from the mobilization of civil society groups who use the courts of law to change the culture of their society. In addition, it seems that those at the origin of this new project do not call for the help or the control of the state. They have appealed to private donations, and the daily newspaper La Presse of May 8, 2012 reports that around 800 boys and 300 girls have already registered. There seems to be an ambitious project that echoes Nasser’s vision of Islamic education in the Azharite primary and secondary institutes in Egypt: an Islamic teaching founded on a combination of religious and secular subjects, to prepare for any professional field.

It is too early to say if and how the project will take shape, but it is worth noting that religious education has flourished after the revolution, especially for primary and secondary schooling. One question that begs to be answered is if and how the state will regulate these new initiatives. The Zaytuna university, still administered by the state, and situated on the outskirts of the Southwestern part of the old city where the Zaytuna mosque is located, is also experiencing internal transformations in post-revolutionary Tunisia. I will write  about it in a future post.

Hamadi Jebali, secretary general of the Islamist Nahdha party, winner of the Constituent Assembly election of October 23, 2011, declared at a meeting of his party on November 13, 2011, that Tunisia was entering the 6th Caliphate. This comment provoked strong reactions and condemnations from the Tunisian political elite, as well as political cartoons lampooning Jebali as the next “caliph” of Tunisia. Jebali and his lieutenants attempted to deflect the controversy by saying the quote had been taken out of context. What is this all about?

In the Muslim political imaginary, the khulafa’ al-rashidun represent an idealized moment in history, that of the first four caliphs, the rightly-guided, who came after the prophet Muhammad: Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, Uthman Ibn Affan, and Ali Ibn Abi Talib. The period from the death of the prophet in 632 to that of Ali in 661 marks a golden era after which political history is conceived as having degenerated. However, Umar Ibn Abd al-Aziz (717-720) from the Umayyad dynasty is often seen as part of the rightly-guided Caliphs and defines what is often dubbed the “5th caliphate”. He exemplifies the possibility of being a pious and just ruler in times of corruption.

Jebali used that reference from Islamic history to speak about political regeneration within an Islamic idiom. Representatives of al-Nahdha insisted afterwards that the reference to the caliphate was symbolic, and did not put into question al-Nahdha’s commitment to the republican regime and to the people’s will as the foundation for government. However, their adversaries responded that words mattered, and that the evocation of the caliphate in public political discourses was not simply a “symbolic matter.” Indeed, the notion of Caliphate is also related to that of the Islamic state, and mentioning the caliphate in times of political transition is not a small matter.

The controversy around the 6th caliphate illustrates the new public contentions emerging in Tunisia around the language that Tunisians now use to discuss politics. For 55 years, the language of liberal democracy was used in an authoritarian context. During the first months of a more democratic context, Tunisians have been giving free reign to their freedom of expression in the streets, the new media, the written press, the radio and the television, and the new tribunes of political parties, state institutions and civil organizations. A new variegated terrain for politics and new political idioms are emerging, and this new phase of the political history of Tunisia will certainly be punctuated by this sort of controversies. A new political language is being negotiated, and one point of contention will be if and how the Islamic tradition will be woven in this language, and what legal and institutional impact it will have.

The other political parties have reacted strongly, so strongly that Ettakattol has suspended its participation in the negotiations for the formation of the new government, asking Jebali to clarify his position. Although al-Nahdha has won the election, being the party that obtained the most but not the absolute majority of seats, the Islamist party faces the constraints of having to govern in a coalition. More broadly, it is now in the public eye: its leaders’ discourses are closely watched and echoed by the new media. Paradoxically, their discourses did not count much in Tunisian politics before the revolution since they were not in power or not even part of the legal opposition, whereas today their margin of maneuver is limited by the strong resistance they encounter from the rest of the political elite.

The Islamic public figures who will govern Tunisia will now be forced to define their political language with more clarity, in particular in the ways this language relates to Islam and to the future political reforms. Their platform speaks of a “civil state,” which is in contrast with the institution of the caliphate. Al-Nahdha’s leadership knows very well that these two concepts have been in conflict in the modern history of Islam: Muslim intellectuals have discussed the legitimacy of the caliphate as well as alternative forms of political institutions in the 20th century, from Egyptian Ali Abd al-Raziq to  Tunisian Abd al-Aziz al-Thaalibi. These are not debates that one can describe as “foreign” to the history of the intellectual life of Tunisians. Will al-Nahdha demonstrate its political and intellectual rigor by providing public intellectuals who will fully and thoughtfully engage with such urgent questions? After 55 years of authoritarianism, during which the very articulation of truly public political discourse was of the order of the impossible, will we be able to think clearly and deeply about the language we want to articulate when we speak about politics? This will involve much more than mere words pronounced in Arabic or French to please specific constituencies. In the end, whether we want a “republic” or a “caliphate” will depend on the specific meanings we give to these two institutions, how we relate them to past political histories and how we imagine their future.

Hamadi Jebali’s comment is not just a matter of “symbols.” If the mention of the caliphate was simply the consequence of a moment of carelessness, he needs to clarify his position. Today in Tunisia the mention of a republic is less contentious than that of a caliphate, but we should not forget that it was under a republican regime that authoritarianism flourished for more than half a century. In the new post-revolutionary Tunisia, language –its form and its meanings– matters. How the elected government, and the parties participating in it, al-Nahdha, the Congress for the Republic, and Ettakatol, describe and define the future political institutions matters, because Tunisians want to know how those whom they have elected will reform their political institutions to ensure democratic life and political accountability.

By Khadija Mohsen-Finan (Université de Paris VIII) and Malika Zeghal (Harvard University)

On October 23, Tunisians went to the ballot to elect a 217 member constituent assembly. After the uprisings of December 2010-January 2011, which took place in the streets and squares of Tunisia, this is a second revolution that translates the first revolution in electoral terms. In a remarkably well organized electoral process, based on a well designed electoral law that ensures transparence and neutrality, Tunisians have freely expressed their choices through the ballot box. Compared to the elections that took place under Bourguiba and Ben Ali, where electors could only be apathetic in a context where they were constrained in various ways to vote for the regime and the results were rigged, this is indeed a turning point. The stakes are important and multilayered, and their implications will take time to emerge, notably through future political alliances. However, for the moment, we can offer a few points for analysis.

The Constituent Assembly will draft the constitution of the second republic and will define the operations of the institutions.  The members will elect a president. According to the new electoral law, the prime minister will come from the winning political party and will form his government. The assembly will also function as a legislative assembly and will have one year to draft the constitution. This is a foundational moment that is not without dangers, especially instability and the inability to finish the constitutional task. The proportional representation has ensured representativeness and will also force political parties to enter into coalitions. Therefore, no political formation can claim an overwhelming number of seats: in this sense there will be no major winner.

The massive rate of participation, more than 90% of the registered voters, was unexpected. The massive character of the electoral moment made it impossible for the ISIE to announce the results today, Monday October 24. The results will be probably announced Tuesday October 25, only two days after the election. Only then will we know the exact number of seats won by each list (whether representing a party or independent), as well the regional differences.

But for now, it seems that three political parties are emerging in the new political landscape.  The current leader in the polls is al-Nahdha, headed by Rashed al-Ghannouchi, which seems to have won, unsurprisingly, at least 40% of the seats, while a month ago the polls gave it a score of 20 to 30%.  Al-Nahdha seems to be followed by two other parties, Ettakatol (the Rally), headed by Mustapha Ben Jaafar, and probably the Congress for the Republic headed by Moncef Marzouki.

These three parties have built their structures and ideas on a position of dissent against the previous regime. Two of these parties heads, Ghannouchi and Marzouki have been living in exile in Europe, while Ben Jaafar’s party was legalized in 1994, but never accepted any compromise. The emergence of these three parties as the strongest illustrates the Tunisians desire to break as much as possible with the past. The personalities of these three characters have also to be taken into account: they have showed pragmatism, proximity to the voters, and openness to future alliances. On the contrary, other parties like the Progressive Democratic Party (Ahmed Najib Chabbi, who recognized today his party’s defeat) and the Qutb (Ahmed Brahim) have showed less disposition to form alliances with other formations.

Al-Nahdha, the main Islamist movement, has transformed into a legalized party since March. Its program is moderate and committed to the principles of democracy. It claims that they will not put into question the gains of Bourguiba’s regime regarding women’s right and education. They have transformed their old message about the Islamic state into a compromise on  general values relating to the Arab and Islamic identity of Tunisian society. This Arab and Islamic identity is also a central part of Ettakatol’s program and of the Congress for the Republic, who have not based their electoral campaign on the demonization of Al-Nahdha, contrary to others such as the Progressive Democratic Party. They seem to have put away the specter of the cleavage between Islamists and secularists. Therefore, the success of these three parties is the success of “the center” in the Tunisian political spectrum. This center cannot be defined as a go between “left” and “right.”  Rather, it reunites the conservative values of tradition and religion with a program for social justice and development. This is, perhaps, the new political identity in which Tunisians recognize themselves.

With the revolution of January 25, 2011, al-Azhar has seized the opportunity to participate in the political debates that began in the winter of this year, in particular on the nature of the new regime, its relationship with religion, and relationships between Christians and Muslims in Egypt. It is striking that al-Azhar has done so not only through its peripheral ulama, who are often immersing themselves in political and moral public debates, but particularly through the voice of its head, the Grand Imam, shaykh Ahmad al-Tayyib.

The “Al-Azhar document around the future of Egypt,” an 11-clause declaration read on national television on June 20, 2011 (see above) by shaykh al-Tayyib himself is significant. It signals the engagement of al-Azhar with post-Moubarak Egyptian politics. The text is the result of the consultations between the Grand Imam and “Egyptian intellectuals from diverse intellectual trends and religious affiliations, as well as important ulama and thinkers from al-Azhar.” It is striking that al-Azhar as an institution would associate itself with intellectual and religious authorities beyond its own circles and produce a public document on such a general and crucial theme as “the future of Egypt.” After having been criticized for its quietism before as well as during the revolution (see my piece in The University of Chicago Divinity School’s sightings here), al-Azhar certainly needed to show that it was on the right side of history and to clarify its own role as a religious authority after the revolution. With so many religious actors of all stripes present in the public arena, from the Muslim Brothers, to their newly formed political party “Fredom and Justice,” to the Salafis and all the mosaic of religious authorities expressing themselves in mosques and beyond, there certainly was also a need to reassert al-Azhar’s central position and to make alliances with religious and intellectual trends that could gather around it and defend the role of the thousand year religious institution. The project supported by al-Tayyeb to revive the hay’at kibār al-‘ulamā’ –the old high council of scholars– that would elect the head of al-Azhar is one way to reclaim a lost independence and boost the institution’s legitimacy.

In the continuity of the traditional narratives that have been used by the official authorities of al-Azhar in the last 50 years or so, the “Al-Azhar Document” recognizes al-Azhar as representative of the “Islamic thought of the middle,” and as the institution Egyptians must refer to “in order to define the way in which the state relates to religion (taḥdīd ‘alāqat al-dawla bi’l-dīn) and to clarify the foundations of the correct siyāsa shar‘iyya that it is necessary to pursue.” It is noteworthy that the al-Azhar Document does not use the phrase “Islamic state.” The concept of siyāsa shar‘iyya can be read merely as “legitimate/legal politics,” but should also be interpreted as a reference to the concept as developed by the Muslim tradition, that is the effort to make governmental politics converge with and be animated by Islamic law. The document demands “the establishment of a national, constitutional, democratic and modern state, founded on a constitution approved by the nation,” the separation of powers, guarantees for human rights, the power to legislate given to the elected representatives of the people “in accordance with the correct Islamic understanding.” The principle of “politics according to sharia” is hence merely defined by the convergence between the principles at play in governance and in the Islamic tradition. Indeed, adds the document, there is no “religious state” in Islam, be it in its history, its legislation, or in its “civilization.” Islam has left to people “the administration of their society and the choice of the tools and of the institutions that realize their interests, with the condition that the comprehensive principles of the Islamic sharia be the main source of legislation, and as long as those who follow other revealed religions may refer to their own religious principles (sharā’i‘ dīniyya) to deal with their affairs of personal status.”

If there is no mention, however, of an “Islamic” or “Muslim state,” the document does not speak of a “civil state” (dawla madaniyya) either, because the adjective “civil” was interpreted by those who participated in the drafting of the al-Azhar document as evoking the possibility of a “secular” state (see the discussion of the al-Azhar document on al-Jazeera). The avoidance of the two adjectives “religious” and “civil” is also a way for al-Azhar to position itself outside of the polarizing debate between Islamists who want an “Islamic state” and the secularists who insist on the necessity of a “civil state.” Al-Azhar ended up describing the future state as “national,” “constitutional,” “democratic” and “modern” (dawla waṭaniyya, dustūriyya, dimuqrāṭiyya  ḥadītha).” In the end, these adjectives make al-Azhar’s perspective on the state not so different from the one laid out in the Muslim Brother’s Party (“Freedom and Justice”) platform, except that the latter uses the concept of a “civil state.”

The al-Azhar Document is much more vague than what the Freedom and Justice Party proposes. What exactly will be defined as “sharia,” and who will control the laws’ compliance to sharia? If it is the Supreme Constitutional Court, as it has been the case up to now, what role can al-Azhar play in this control? These questions are not answered in the document. The vagueness around the question of sharia also made the document come under the critique of some salafis, of members of the jamaa islamiyya, as well as of secularists. However, we should not expect  specific responses from al-Azhar: indeed, al-Azhar is keeping true to its traditional role, which is to provide a narrative under which most of the existing religious interpretations will converge, precisely the language of the “Islamic thought of the middle way” that the document expounds. If al-Azhar is ready to play a central role politically, it seems that it is more as a national institution rallying political actors around broad values, than as a political actor interested in the day-to-day governance and judicial power.

In 1966, Daniel Crecelius published a seminal article titled “Al-Azhar in the Revolution” in The Middle East Journal (vol. 20, no. 1). The article explored the role of al-Azhar in the 1952 revolution. He framed the role of al-Azhar in the context of a broad process of modernization that had weakened the religious institution, whose members were not able to respond intellectually to deep social and political transformations. Indeed, Nasser’s regime brought the ulama to heel and submitted al-Azhar politically. In my view, if the ulama did not “react” politically and ideologically, only acting by obstructing the Nasserist reforms, it was not necessarily because they were inherently “anti-modern” and conservative, but because they had no choice, as members of the institution of al-Azhar, other than to submit to the diktat of the regime. For many of them, the submission of al-Azhar to the state and its nationalization in 1961, which was officially described as a “reform” (iṣlā) or a modernization/evolution (taḥdīth/taṭwīr), was a trauma. They viewed it as the destruction (tadmīr) of al-Azhar. The ulama I interviewed in the 1990s in Cairo and in other cities and towns of Egypt did not uniformly criticize Nasser’s reforms modernizing the curriculum. In fact, some praised this transformation, and others condemned it. But they all complained about the loss of independence of their institution that made their interpretation of the tradition of Islam submit to the demands of the authoritarian regime.  Since 1961, the ulama have often expressed more or less explicitly desires to become independent from the state: not that they refuse to have a relationship with the state—they are attached to the centrality of their institution and to the power and resources being a state institution confers to them. However, they would like to become free of any pressures from the executive branch of the state in order to conduct their roles of educators, preachers, legal scholars, and religious intellectuals. The complexity of the current political position of al-Azhar is precisely related to the tension between its desire to become independent on the one hand and its interest to keep its weight and centrality as a state institution. The revolution of January 25, 2011 has given al-Azhar an opportunity to reiterate its demands to become independent and to start thinking about the details of its future relationship with the state as well as about its political engagement defined more broadly.

Tunisians are preparing for the election of a 218 members constituent assembly on October 23, 2011. This assembly’s task will be crucial: prepare and vote the new constitution of the second republic of Tunisia, appoint a new government, and legislate. Contrary to the Egyptians, they have decided not to amend their constitution before proceeding to elect a new legislative assembly. The old Tunisian Constitution was suspended on March 23, and the current interim government is governing by way of decrees. Headed by Kamel Jendoubi, a long time opponent to Ben Ali’s regime who was president of the Euro-Mediterranean Network for Human Rights, a High Independent Committee for the Elections is organizing the electoral process (http://www.isie.tn/). The old practice of organizing the election through the Ministry of Interior –a procedure borrowed from French electoral tradition—has ended. The registration process began on July 1 and will end on August 2, unless the deadline is changed. Overall 7.5 million voters, Tunisian men and women 18 or older, are expected to register.

In spite of a strong media campaign under the slogan uqayyit bish tqayyid: “it is time to register” (see the clips at http://www.isie.tn/) appealing to all walks of Tunisian society, the registration process has been disappointingly slow, which has alarmed the Committee as well as many Tunisians and foreign observers. To this day (July 29), 4 days before the official end of the registration process, only 16% of the voters have registered, approximately 1,350 000 Tunisians. The Committee’s Facebook page provides the new numbers everyday at http://www.facebook.com/isietn?sk=app_100499533382576.

How is it possible that after massively rising up against authoritarianism, screaming “dégage!” and being obeyed by their dictator, who left the country on January 14, 2011, Tunisians seem to lack enthusiasm toward the ballot box? Whereas women were present in the demonstrations against the regime and the new electoral law makes gender parity on electoral lists compulsory, female participation in the registration process is only 20%. The revolution was said to be the “youth revolution,” but the most represented age group among registered voters so far is the 40-50 years old.

How can we explain this paradox? Didn’t Tunisians topple down their president to be able to vote democratically in a transparent and truly competitive process after more than 50 years of authoritarianism during which no democratic electoral process ever took place? Or are we already in a situation not unlike that of liberal democracies plagued with voters disaffection?

There are several answers to this question, from the technical to the political. To begin with, the registration process was slow to start, because of technical malfunctions in many registration offices. However, if there are stories of technical faults in the registration process, many offices –there are more than 400 scattered on the national territory—have remained almost empty. This means that the main reason for the disaffection is political: to register is in itself a vote of confidence in the interim government and in the transition process. There is, indeed, a crisis of confidence in Tunisia today. The departure of Ben Ali has propelled institutional and political reforms, but for many, they are insufficient.  On the bright side, the Constitutional Democratic Rally –the ruling party before the revolution—has been dissolved by a court decision on March 9, political prisoners have been freed, new electoral and press laws have been voted, and political parties have been authorized. However, the justice system is slow to judge those responsible of more than 200 deaths during the protests. On the other hand, Ben Ali’s trials have been too speedy for the truth about the responsibilities of repression before and after December 17, 2010 to be revealed publicly. There is still deep popular distrust of the police and of the ministry of Interior more generally. The interim government, which was not elected, has little legitimacy and therefore is not ready to make in depth reforms. The economic situation is worsening, with an economic growth close to zero, increasing unemployment and higher inflation, a few days before the start of the month of Ramadan, a month during which Tunisians spend more and produce less.

At the level of the electoral process, Tunisians are not sure for which parties to vote. The partisan scene is crowded: more than 100 parties have been formed and authorized, and it is not easy to differentiate between them ideologically or even in terms of political programs, since not many of them have published their political platforms. According to a poll released by 3C Etudes on July 6, 67% of voters do not know for which list they will vote. The old guard is also back in newly formed political parties, which make Tunisians think that the representatives of the old political system will not disappear after the elections: it also brings back memories of the sham elections that took place under Ben Ali. Parties spend time fighting about cultural questions (religion and tradition vs. secularism) but do not present clear solutions to the disastrous economic situation that is impacting Tunisians in their everyday life. They are currently working on strategic alliances that would allow them to be better represented in the future assembly, but do not seem to be responding to the most pressing questions raised by future voters: what type of constitution will the parties support and how will they improve Tunisians’ daily lives if they govern. Democracy implies more than merely free and transparent elections. It also involves a promise of equal economic and political opportunities from which the majority of Tunisians was barred.  This lack of access to education, the job market, and the political arena was particularly acute for the youth and particularly for women, the segments of the population who are currently showing the least enthusiasm for the registration process. If Tunisians seem to lack enthusiasm for the registration process, it is not because they lack political awareness. They have shown to the world how politically aware they were when they continuously demonstrated after December 17, 2010, leading to the ousting of Ben Ali on January 14, 2011. It is not that they do not want democracy: they want it, but they are not convinced that this is it.

Since the departure of President Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali from Tunisia on January 14, polarization has been growing between “Islamists” and “secularists.” No Islamist or secularist slogans were heard during the uprisings, which were described in Tunisia and abroad as uniting all political trends in Tunisian society and as being “secular.” Ajmi Lourimi, a member of the Political Bureau of al-Nahdha, the main Islamist political party, told me on June 9, 2011, that the revolution was a secular revolution. Not a secularist revolution, but secular in the sense that it was neither Islamist nor secularist. Indeed, the Islamists participated in the uprisings, but kept a low profile, a strategic decision driven by their fear of being used as a pretext for repression. The revolution, whose roots were socio-economic, was also a reaction against authoritarianism and corruption and as such united Tunisians from all walks of society.

However, months after January 14, while Tunisians have started to register for the elections of the constituent assembly that will take place on October 23, 2011, the old rift between “secularists” and “Islamists” has deepened. Each camp seems more entrenched every day and fights against the other through the written press, as well as the audiovisual and electronic media. Mutual accusations are regularly launched: Islamists accuse secularists of trying to impose their own views on their fellow Tunisians, in particular through the High Committee for the Realization of the Objectives of the Revolution, the Political Reform, and Democratic Transition. Deep tensions have opposed the few High Committee members who belong to al-Nahdha and the High Committee’s president Yadh Ben Achour. Al-Nahdha has accused him of being partial to the secularist members of the Committee and of trying to impose a secularist agenda on the Committee’s deliberations. Secularists have in turn accused the Islamists of not being real democrats, clamoring that they use a “double language.” For the secularists, al-Nahdha’s representatives speak the language of human rights and democracy in the media but adopt a much more radical stance with their own electoral base. They are suspected of aiming to put into question the rights of Tunisian women through a revision of the Personal Status Code, which they have often denied.

The polarization is taking so much space in public debates that it could endanger public peace and the political transition itself. The members of al-Nahdha announced their withdrawal from the High Committee on June 27, 2011 and have not come back despite the efforts of some mediators such as Justice Mokhtar Yahyaoui to negotiate an agreement. Al-Nahdha continues to denounce the lack of representativeness of the High Committee–the Islamists being a minority–and the High Committee’s absence of legitimacy, since it was not elected but was instead put together in an ad hoc and protracted process that started right before the departure of former President Ben Ali. According to Ghannushi, leader of the Nahdha party, the High Committee overextended its role by acting as a parliament and by drafting laws that should have been the responsibility of the upcoming elected parliament. However, al-Nahdha’s criticism of the committee goes beyond procedural issues. According to some analysts, it was the drafting of a law on the financing of political parties prohibiting any foreign funding that provoked the ire of al-Nahdha. Whatever the explanation is, there is a fear, among secularists and Islamists alike, that a political transition will not take place if the gap between these two camps is too wide and is politically instrumentalized.

The debate has gone beyond the High Committee and al-Nahdha, with issues emerging around the arts–a movie (titled Neither master nor God) showing was violently disrupted by Salafists in Tunis recently—and the need to protect “the sacred values” of society. A collective of imams has sent a letter to the prime minister to request a criminalization of any attack against “sacred values.” This atmosphere of mutual suspicion and fear related to the role of Islam in society is not new and not restricted to Tunisia. It begs the question of the limits that a society might assign to its freedoms, and of who defines them following what procedures: after all, all secular liberal democracies have their own “sacred values,” even if they are not necessarily religious. One can envision that article 1 of the old 1959 constitution will be reasserted in the new constitution: “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state. Its language is Arabic and its religion is Islam. Its regime is a Republic.” This seems to be the only statement on which secularists and Islamists agree on. There remains to be seen how they will interpret the statement that “the religion of the state is Islam.” For Ajmi Lourimi, who articulated a minimalist interpretation of the article when we met on June 9, article 1 simply describes the identity of the majority of Tunisians. It is not certain that all al-Nahdha representatives think in these terms, and it will be interesting to observe the internal differences of interpretation as they emerge over time.

What is sure is that the principle of a religious establishment will carry on in the “new state,” an expression I often heard in Tunisia recently. The exact extent of that establishment will have to be determined. The good news is that after more than 50 years of a foreclosed space for public deliberations, Islamists and secularists now express themselves openly on the question, even if not always clearly. These contentions around religion signal that the electoral campaign has already started –despite the fact that it does not officially start until October 1st, 2011- and that we can expect cultural wars to play a deep part in it.

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