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 ( 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 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

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.