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F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / M A Y 2 0 1 2
homogenous, secular, well-edu-
cated population, Tunisia was
often called “a country that
works.” Its government boasted
that 80 percent of its population
was solidly middle class, with a
poverty rate of less than 4 per-
cent. The population was noto-
riously apolitical and many were
apathetic about the absence of
democracy, arguing that stabil-
ity was all that mattered. In addition, few Tunisians at-
tended mosques or sported any of the outward
expressions of religiosity.
The 2011 revolution revealed that this carefully cul-
tivated image bore little resemblance to reality. En-
nahda’s overwhelming victory in the Constituent
Assembly elections last fall was a wake-up call to the
country’s secular elite, who had long believed that they
were the majority. Although analysts have pointed to
superior organization and the multitude of center-left
parties dividing up the vote to explain the Islamist vic-
tory, it seems clear that many Tunisians voted for En-
nahda because they believe in its message and what it
After years of religious repression, Tunisians are
again veiling themselves or growing beards, and filling
formerly empty mosques to capacity. Television stations
have traveled into rural areas to demonstrate that the
4-percent poverty rate was nothing but a myth. Cap-
turing the very real surprise of the Tunis-based elite,
one prominent Tunisian reflects: “We thought we were
all the same, but it turns out we are extremely divided:
rich and poor, religious and secular, urban and rural.”
Secular Panic
Ennahda’s electoral dominance and the fractured
state of the center-left opposition have only increased
the panic felt by secular Tunisians. Statements by sev-
eral Ennahda members about references to sharia law
in the constitution have riled the center-left, despite
moderate and reassuring speeches by Ennahda’s
scholar-leader, Rached Ghannouchi, that sharia law is
not a goal. Tunisia’s secular elite must not only come to
terms with the party’s electoral victory, but recognize
that most Tunisians would like society to reflect mod-
erate Islamic values.
Meanwhile, the unruly and
sometimes violent Salafists have
prompted many Tunisians to
question the direction of the
country. While attending the
Jan. 23 trial of a TV station
owner in Tunis, two veteran
journalists were assaulted by an
angry Salafist mob. Similar in-
stances of intimidation in the
town of Sejnane led some resi-
dents to complain that the Salafists are trying to estab-
lish a caliphate there.
Several universities have faced Salafist protests over
the niqab (worn by Muslim women to cover the face)
that have led, in some cases, to clashes with the police
and school closures. During one demonstration in Tunis,
police had to use tear gas to disperse a knife- and baton-
wielding mob.
The Salafists are a small and marginal element un-
likely to shift the course of society, but these incidents
have fueled the debate on religion in an unhelpful way.
Ennahda has roundly condemned the use of violence,
but the government and security forces have not yet
demonstrated that they can rein in these groups.
Will Press Freedoms Endure?
Due to strict government control, as well as self-cen-
sorship, the press during the Ben Ali era was often lit-
tle more than a mouthpiece for the government. The
revolution has given Tunisian journalists unprecedented
freedom, but there are signs that this newfound free-
dom may be captive to the debate over religion and sec-
ularism. For instance, Nebil Karoui, owner and director
of Tunis-based Nessma Television, is being tried for
blasphemy for an October broadcast of the French-
Iranian animated film “Persepolis.” (The film, which
had already been shown in Tunisian movie theaters,
contains a scene that personifies God.) If convicted,
Karoui could face five years in jail.
Nassridine Ben Saida, publisher of the
newspaper, was imprisoned for more than a week in
February for publishing a photo from the German edi-
tion of
that showed Tunisian soccer player Sami
Khedira covering the breasts of his nude model girl-
friend with his hands. On March 8, Ben Saida was fined
1,000 dinars (roughly $665) for “disrespecting public
After years of religious
repression, Tunisians are again
veiling themselves or growing
beards, and filling formerly
empty mosques to capacity.