In recent days Tunisia has seen major unrest after the assassination of opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi. Faced with growing unrest over a faltering economy and rising violence by extremists, Tunisia’s moderate Islamist led government is facing its biggest test.
But this is not Egypt. Nascent democracies in the region are not acting in a uniform fashion. Each has political and socio-economic issues that make them unique. But what unites the new democracies in the region is an urgent need to accommodate the religious and secular communities in their new democratic systems.
Many thought the Arab uprisings would marginalise religion’s impact in those countries. But this simply isn’t the case. The revolts were not about Islam. Yet the countries’ religious complexity, held in check by dictators, quickly came to the surface following the removal of the authoritarian regimes.
We shouldn’t automatically blame the Ennahda party, which forms the largest party in the governing coalition, for Tunisia’s problems. The extremist forces at work in Tunisia are multi faceted and complex, and not all of them are religious. We don’t know who is responsible for the assassinations of prominent secular politicians, but Ennahda is clearly not benefiting from them.
What we do know is that Tunisia, after years of autocratic rule, has started to establish a system that has the hallmarks of a modern democracy. The new draft constitution contains recognition of universal human rights, religious freedom and a clear definition of the relationship between the state and religion. Ennahda has at least shown a continuing commitment to establishing a common platform between them and their secular opponents.
In Egypt, Morsi’s knee-jerk authoritarianism totally destroyed his own attempts to construct a new constitution in a way that would satisfy the country’s varied religious and secular communities. The divisiveness with which this process was carried out alongside other disastrous policies, such as appointing as governor of Luxor someone who was affiliated to the group responsible for Egypt’s worst-ever terror attack in that city in 1997, caused chaos. With no one to mediate between the two sides and build bridges between the secular and religious, the army stepped in.
Tunisia is in a different place. In the aftermath of the recent troubles, Tunisia’s government said that the new constitution will be completed by August and that elections would be held on 17 December. These steps wouldn’t appear to be the actions of an undemocratic government full of religious extremists. If the people are unhappy with either their government, or the new constitution, they can throw them out through the ballot box. Not an option in Egypt where the next elections were three years away.
It is nihilistic to say that democracy is not for certain religious groups. Muslims across the world, from Turkey to Indonesia, are working towards reconciling how religion and democracy can work together. Christian Democracy in Europe offered those on the right a chance to move away from extreme politics post World War Two. In a similar way, Tunisia could still provide a template for how democracy and religion can work side by side in places where religion is on the rise.
Charlotte Keenan is the Chief Executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation