The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, where – on the whole – it continues to prosper, by comparison with Egypt, Libya, Yemen and especially Syria. The government is a coalition led by Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, but including liberals as well. But it needs to stand up to extreme Islamists, who are now putting pressure on Ennahda. They recently rioted in reaction to an art exhibit they believe was blasphemous.
The Tunisian economy was quite stable to start out with, with fairly solid public finances and no serious balance of payments problems. Unemployment was high and remains so; it was one of the main causes of discontent that led to the fall of the dictatorship of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. The obstacles to the licensing of street vendors – that is, to self-employment – was all the more infuriating to the Tunisian public. Tourism has partly recovered from the disruption of the mostly peaceful revolution; regime change naturally made visitors cautious in 2011.
Unlike in Egypt, the Tunisian politicians sensibly managed to establish a Constituent Assembly that drafted a new constitution before they attempted a new government and parliament. Ennahda was at one time a radical faction, but in government together with secular parties, it has confirmed its pre-election claims to moderation. Though the Constitution says that the country’s religion is Islam, it does not say that sharia is a basic source of law – as Egypt’s has done for decades.
Ennahda is itself a broad coalition of religious Tunisians. Harder-line Islamists, generally classified as Salafists, are testing their strength. On June 10, a group of them invaded an art show called Printemps des Arts and defaced some works. Most of these were directed at the characteristically bushy-bearded Salafists themselves, but one of them consisted of the name of Allah written as a pattern of dead flies.
Riots in Tunis and other cities ensued. The police arrested 165 people. Dozens of people were arrested, and a curfew was imposed. But the founder of Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, among others, has proposed a law prohibiting art that violates religious sensibilities.
Tunisia will thrive if reasonable people continue to work together – but not if religious extremists are repeatedly appeased.
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