In conversation with President of the American Tunisian Association
Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat—Few Americans are as qualified to discuss the state of politics in North Africa as Dr. William Lawrence. About three decades ago, he spent three years as a volunteer with the Peace Corps in Morocco, and then spent nine years in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, and Mauritania. All in all, he worked in North Africa for almost 30 years, which included several years with the State Department at the US Embassy in Tripoli and as the officer in charge of Libyan and Tunisian affairs in Washington. For the past two years he has served as the director of the North Africa Project at the International Crisis Group (ICG).
He was recently appointed as the President of the American Tunisian Association (ATA). He is a visiting professor of politics at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs, and a senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), in Washington DC.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Dr. Lawrence—in a personal capacity, he took pains to add—about the situation in Tunisia and why he thinks it has been the most successful of all the Arab Spring countries in managing the transition towards democracy, and the complex interplay between politics and religion.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What are your thoughts, overall, on the situation in Tunisia following the third anniversary of its revolution, the first Arab Spring?
William Lawrence: The Tunisia revolution has so far had the most successful democratic outcome of the 18 countries that rose up during the Arab Spring. Yemen and Libya also had regime changes; Egypt had a popular military-backed coup against a democratically elected president; and Syria descended into crisis.
But Tunisia has had not only successful elections and a watershed political deal leading to a constitutional vote, but has also made the most forward progress in terms of democratic praxis.
This success has been due in part to the pragmatism and political savvy of Tunisians. Also, it has been due to the willingness of many elements of Tunisian society to compromise. There are still enormous political, economic, and societal challenges, but Tunisia’s fragile democratic transition is moving forward.
Q: What about the new constitution? Why is it described as “secular” in some press reports
According to the [constitutional] articles voted on . . . Tunisia has not made Shari’a a main source of law.
There are many reasons that this was voted down, but one reason was that it was the result of a political deal between Islamists and liberals and left-wing politicians.
The reason given by people close to the negotiations, and there is a truth to this claim, was that Shari’a means different things to different people.
There are very conservative interpretations of Shari’a that are not appropriate to Tunisian politics and society. In addition, some elements in society worked hard to bring in these conservative interpretations and force them on the Tunisian people, which was one of the reasons for the political crisis last July, after the assassinations of left-wing members of parliament.
So there are jurisprudential reasons for this, social reasons and political reasons, among others.
However, there are many references in the constitution to Islam being the main religion of Tunisia.
Q: Does this guarantee the separation of religion and state?
There are Tunisians on both the liberal and leftist side of the ledger and on the Islamist (especially Salafists) side of the ledger who seek to separate religion from politics. Some see the corrosive effects of religion on politics and others see the corrosive effect of politics on religion.
Obviously, a complete separation is never possible. Not even in states such as France and the United States. Here, the separation is not about a total separation, but about the non-establishment of a state religion. It is about strong constitutional protections on the practice of religion, including freedom of conscience and, for example, the right to change religions.
In stark contrast to the US Constitution, the Tunisian constitution establishes Islam as the religion of the state. But it also establishes freedom of religion. This middle ground has angered some more conservative Islamist politicians. It has also led to death threats, which has affected recent constitutional debates.
Q: Will mosques be out of politics?
Again, as noted above, mosques are never completely out of politics. But, there is certainly a need for institutional walls between mosques and, say, parliament. Imams should not dictate at all on politics, nor should politicians dictate anything on religious practice.
But those are never very high walls, particularly in countries with high levels of religiosity such as Tunisia. Furthermore, prohibitions are likely to continue on criminal rhetoric in a mosque, such as exhorting worshipers to kill someone. Just as there are religious norms built into state law (against murder, for example).
The two will continue to influence each other, but not inappropriately or excessively. And a balance will be achieved through multi-layered negotiations across society. Not just within the walls of the parliament and through the laws enacted therein.
Q: Is there something in the Tunisian character or history that is behind the success of their revolution, so far?
The Tunisians, since the middle of the 19th century, have had a long history of progressive, constitutional politics. In fact they were the first in the Arab world to have a constitution, in 1861. They have had a continuous constitutional conversation since then—“constitutionalists” of various kinds being major forces in Tunisian politics. They have tended, throughout their history, to works towards national consensus.
But, this time, the Islamists are playing a newly dominant role.
Q: Whereas the Arab Spring seems to have failed, the Eastern European one has clearly succeeded. Why?
First, from an historical and institutional point of view, Eastern Europe was, before the fall of Communism, far more advanced industrially, economically, and institutionally than the Middle East and North Africa.
Second, Western Europe quickly and effectively hurried to help their Eastern neighbors, as in the case of West Germany which invested massively in the former East Germany.
Third, democratic forces in Eastern Europe were more mature than those in the Middle East and North Africa—and older.
Remember that in 1848 in Europe, opposition movements against monarchies swept through about 30 countries in what was dubbed at the time the “Springtime of the peoples.” These transitions from monarchy to democracy all succeeded eventually.
So, in some ways, the young revolutionaries in the Middle East and North Africa have a longer way to go and face bigger obstacles. But, in other ways things are easier now, especially with the communications revolution. In the long run, I am optimistic that they will succeed.
Q: Are the Islamists an obstacle to these revolutionary changes?
Islam is, of course, a basis of [social and political] life in the Middle East and North Africa. And the Islamic awakening of the past two centuries or so is an historical phenomenon that will, of course, continue to have repercussions in the future.
But I have noticed that while many Muslims in the region aspire to an Islamic way, a much smaller number aspire to an Islamist way.
Added to that, in light of events in some Muslim countries during the past few decades, the Islamists have been viewed by many as incapable of ruling. Most of the elites say that, and much of the middle classes say that.
This is not to say that the Islamists are destructive, because, if for no other reason, they have greatly succeeded in social and charitable activities and established their bona fides in a wide variety of areas.
I believe that the Islamists are often just misunderstood or misjudged partly because of general impatience, and strong countervailing ideologies.
Yes, there is less faith in the Islamists now, but I believe they will be around, and powerful, for the foreseeable future.
Q: You have been acquainted with senior Ennahda leaders for many years. What are they telling you?
They have been saying that they want democracy in Tunisia. They want to play the long game, and to be an accepted party in Tunisian political life for the foreseeable future.
But, facing the above-mentioned problems, they were ready, for many months, to quit ruling and move out of government. That seems to me problematic, at least a precedent, and in terms of democratic praxis. Why can’t a leading party that won an election remain in power?
But, I understand the calculations. Ennahda leaders are aware that the problem is not entirely an opposition to the Islamists as much as criticism of them for two major reasons. First, their failure to solve the socioeconomic problems, and second, to a degree among young Tunisians, their “attitude” —their heavy-handedness [in government].
Q: Islamists in Tunisia and Islamists in Egypt. Same problem, same fate?
The first similarity can be seen in the reluctance of both groups to run for elections after the revolution in their respective countries. In Tunisia, before the 2011 elections, there was a debate inside Ennahda about whether to run or not, and how to position themselves.
Younger partisans were enthusiastic about running, but the old guard was more reluctant and wary. The veterans were concerned with the authoritarian context at that time. The old regime, which had been very antagonistic to them, did not really disappear overnight after the revolution. And they feared a situation like the one Algeria experienced in 1992.
There was a similar reluctance in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood, at first, announced that they would not run in the elections, but, later, they backtracked on that pledge.
Now, in retrospect, as the military-backed government in Egypt seems determined to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Tunisian Islamists are stepping down from power, some in the old guard of Ennahda are in a position to say “we told you so.”
If the Tunisian elections were held now, would Ennahda still be the major party?
Polls say that it would be neck-and-neck between Ennahda and Nida Tounes, the leftist and liberal coalition. But, in recent history, polls have been notoriously bad predictors, as we saw in the 2011 elections.
The power of the liberals, leftists and trade unionists has grown, but the extent of their popularity remains untested.
Look back at what happened in Egypt. There, the conflict is mainly between the military and the Islamists, with the other major two forces (the judiciary and the street) playing on-again, off-again central roles.
But, in Tunisia, the two big formations are the trade unions, which played a major role in the revolution, and the Islamists who had long played a major role in opposition to Ben Zine El-Abidine Ali. Unlike Egypt, the Tunisian military is out of the picture. Even the police don’t have a big political role.
If the elections were held soon, I believe Ennahda would still win, and their recent political deals would help their long-term prospects. Remember, the powerful trade unions are not a political party, and some of their members are Islamists too. And there is no other national party with electorally demonstrated support all over the country.
Ennahda may not win the number of seats it won last time, but it will do well. So, at the end of the day, the Islamists and the unionists will continue to need to deal with each other.