Tunisia: Activists Must Reclaim a Co-Opted Movement

The New York Times

As in Egypt, Muslim fundamentalists in Tunisia have tried to use 2011’s opening to impose their own repressive agenda. The challenge today is to effectively counter that fundamentalist agenda in non-violent and rights-respecting ways. Democratic forces need international support to achieve that.

Fundamentalists have tried to use 2011’s opening to impose their own repressive agenda. Activists must counter this in non-violent ways.

Since late July, activists have protested peacefully at the Constituent Assembly in Tunis. The upheaval began after the assassination of politician Mohamed Brahmi, which many blamed on the growing climate of extremist violence fostered by the ruling Ennahda party. Now, the opposition is launching the Irhal (leave!) campaign - borrowing from an anti-Mubarak slogan - that calls for replacement of the Ennahda-dominated government by a time-limited technocratic government that will organize free elections. Irhal has widespread support, including among women’s rights advocates, thousands of whom marched recently for “a Tunisia that progresses and does not regress.”

As the Egyptian women’s rights activist Doaa Abdelaal wrote the day of Cairo’s violent clashes: “We worked hard to turn years of authoritarian rule into something better. The Islamists hijacked the scene and took us backwards. The worst thing is that they are attacking Copts, and all who are different. For them democracy was only about elections, not about rule of law and freedom... If the world keeps claiming that ‘representative democracy’ died in Egypt in June, this will not help, because what we need is democracy that respects all.”

The Tunisian human rights lawyer Bochra Belhaj Hamida told me on the phone from Tunis this week--despite threats she'd recently received--that the spirit of the Arab spring persists in today’s “extraordinary resistance” to Islamism. She urged the international community to pressure Ennahda to find a solution for Tunisia “before it is too late.”

We must heed the words of such peaceful opponents of fundamentalism now, especially women’s rights advocates. Determined to remain optimistic, Doaa Abdelaal wrote again: “The region is on fire, but we will win.”

By Karima Bennoune