Are the radical Islamists winning in Tunisia? It doesn’t sound good:
Thousands of hardcore Muslims chant against Jews. Youths rampage through cities at night in protest of “blasphemous” art. A sit-in by religious students degenerates into fist fights and the desecration of Tunisia’s flag.
Tunisia was the birthplace of the “Arab Spring” and it is the poster child for those who hope that the popular unrest sweeping the Arab world from Morocco to Iraq and from Syria south to Sudan would result in liberal, secular republics. A relatively small country (population 10,000,000) with an educated populace and a long tradition of looking north to Europe, Tunisia looked like a place where western values and Islamic roots might combine to build something interesting, hopeful and new.That may still happen, but the big news from Tunisia these days isn’t about liberal hopes. It is about radical fears, and specifically the progress that radical Salafi groups are making at mobilizing angry young people to pull the country onto a more radical and Islamist path. This AP dispatch paints a grim picture:
Thousands of hardcore Muslims chant against Jews. Youths rampage through cities at night in protest of “blasphemous” art. A sit-in by religious students degenerates into fist fights and the desecration of Tunisia’s flag.In the birthplace of the Arab Spring, the transition from dictatorship to democracy has been mostly smoother than in neighboring countries, with no power-hungry military or armed militias to stifle the process. But as a moderate Islamist party rules with the help of secular forces, an unexpected threat has emerged: the increasing boldness of ultraconservative Muslims known loosely as Salafis, who want to turn this North African country of 10 million into a strict Islamic state.Tunisia’s hardcore Salafis are estimated to number only in the tens of thousands. But their organized and frequent protests against perceived insults to Islam, especially by artists, have rocked the country and succeeded in mobilizing disaffected and angry youth much more effectively than secular opposition parties.Experts warn that an economic downturn could turn these spasms of religious-tinged rage into the new language of the opposition. Tunisia’s economy shrank by 2 percent last year and unemployment stands at 18 percent — even higher among young people.
The signs are not good for a Tunisian economic recovery. Weakness in Europe means that both tourism and trade can be expected to suffer—and stories about Salafi protests and rising radicalism in Tunisia will hardly lure more EU tourists to the country’s beaches and nightclubs. With Egypt, Libya and above all Syria facing huge problems of their own, donor countries in the west and the Gulf have many calls on their resources, and there is less political energy for dealing with Tunisia’s problems than one would ideally wish to see.This is a shame. Tunisia has a long indigenous history of thoughtful Islam and in many ways is among the best placed countries to see the consolidation of an authentically Arab form of democracy. If the Arab Spring fails to produce a stable democratic system in the land of its birth, the outlook for countries like Libya and Syria will be even worse.