Tunisian protesters hurl stones towards police during clashes following a demonstration in Siliana, on November 27, 2013
Tunisian protesters hurl stones towards police during clashes following a demonstration in Siliana, on November 27, 2013 © Fethi Belaid - AFP
Tunisian protesters hurl stones towards police during clashes following a demonstration in Siliana, on November 27, 2013
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Antoine Lambroschini
Last updated: December 13, 2013

Arab Spring legacy in tatters, hopes pinned on Tunisia

With chaos in Libya, military takeover in Egypt and Syria's brutal conflict threatening to extinguish hopes fuelled by the Arab Spring, only Tunisia stands out even as its stability hangs in the balance.

By the end of 2013, the political forces that emerged from the tumultuous changes in the region nearly three years ago have yet to build the new democratic order or bring about the social transformations demanded by the millions who took to the streets.

Some argue that the Egyptian army's decision in July to depose democratically-elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi was the death knell for any remaining hope of real change that accompanied the mass uprisings in 2011.

"The July 3 coup confirmed the end of the Arab Spring given Egypt’s importance in the region," said Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Doha Center.

"No one can argue that Egypt is moving towards democracy. It is actually going in the opposite direction ... There is now an effort to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force," he added.

The military takeover in Egypt has certainly cast a shadow over the democratic transition in Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, where the ruling Islamist party Ennahda has accused its secular opponents of seeking to replicate events in Cairo.

"(Tunisia's) Islamists experienced the military coup as if it happened in Tunisia. Various politicians continue to talk about the putschist threat even though there is nothing to prove it," said Selim Kharrat, an analyst with the NGO Al-Bawsala.

Such fears have only aggravated the mistrust between the country's rival factions that has dogged negotiations to appoint a caretaker government of technocrats and resolve the political crisis sparked by the murder of opposition MP Mohamed Brahmi in July.

Suspicion has also been stoked by the rise in attacks this year by armed Islamists, who are blamed for the killing of Brahmi and another secular politician in February, and whom the security forces have been battling in the Mount Chaambi region near Algeria.

Tunisia's militants have benefited from the chronic instability in neighbouring Libya and the surge in arms trafficking since former dictator Moamer Kadhafi's ouster.

More than two years after the NATO-backed rebellion toppled Kadhafi's regime, Libya lacks a stable government, with jihadist groups mushrooming and the authorities struggling in vain to integrate former rebels into the army.

Starkly illustrating the growing lawlessness plaguing the country, gunmen briefly abducted Prime Minister Ali Zeidan from his Tripoli hotel in October, and the following month seized the deputy intelligence chief as clashes in the capital left nearly 50 people dead.

"In Libya they have to build a state from scratch. That is going to take time and prolong the transition period which has been marked by armed violence in a country largely controlled by militias," said Libyan political analyst Khaled Bouchoucha.

By contrast, Tunisia's revolution has a much better chance of succeeding, Bouchoucha argued, essentially because it has managed to "preserve a strong state" and because the army remains neutral.

Distant hope

But as the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, warned last month, the "alarming rise" in jihadist attacks in Tunisia, while still low in intensity, threatens to weaken the state and further polarise the political scene.

In its report, entitled "Tunisia’s Borders: Jihadism and Contraband", ICG said the worrying increase in cross-border arms trafficking was enhancing the jihadists' disruptive potential and intensifying corruption.

"In the long term, only minimal consensus among political forces on the country’s future can enable a truly effective approach to the border question," it said, adding that an end to the country's political crisis "seems distant at the time of writing."

As in countries across the region, concern is also growing in Tunisia about the likely blowback from the fighting in Syria, when the thousands of foreign jihadists thought to have joined the rebel ranks there return home.

The conflict, which erupted when a brutal government crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy protests in March 2011 inspired by the Arab Spring escalated into full-scale civil war against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, has now killed an estimated 126,000 people and left millions displaced.

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