Frequently described as the most democratic country in the Middle East and North Africa region, it still seems difficult to make a democratic case for Tunisia. It goes without saying that in order to be democratic, a country has to do more than simply organise successful elections. For the sake of establishing a democratic system in a free society, various conditions need to be fulfilled. In other words, individual liberty and economic freedom cannot be guaranteed in a religion-based political context – even less so under crony capitalism and a corrupt judicial system.
Secularism is not an anti-religion system; indeed, it even aims to protect religiosity from the misuse of religion in politics. Under a secular system, all citizens are equal, regardless of their religious convictions.
Separation between the State and religion also supposes separation between the public sphere and private sphere.
In the public sphere, we are supposed to be regarded only as citizens with duties and rights. Nevertheless, in the private sphere, we are no less than individuals with absolute freedom. Furthermore, secularism finds its roots in the need for liberty. In other words, if a State is not secular, it would certainly be theocratic, and being theocratic inevitably means restriction on individual liberty.
Tunisia has a long history with secularism, but not an ideal version of it.
Contrary to what Tunisian pro-secularism analysts say, the first President of the Tunisian Republic, Habib Bourguiba, was never a secularist reformer. During the Bourghibian era, the religious discourse was officially determined by the political authorities. Moreover, imams were selected based on political criteria. They worked under the control of the police. And those who reacted with distrust against that terrible arrangement were immediately eliminated. Unfortunately, the second President of Tunisia (1987-2011) not only maintained the same religious policy, but also imposed a more restrictive one.
As history attests, the hijab was prohibited in the public sphere. So, seemingly, there was no separation between the State and Islam, and hence no secularism. The Tunisian version of secularism turned into dictatorship.
We hope that the Constitutional Court will do what is necessary to lay the legal foundations for secularism in Tunisia. We also hope that principled political parties will find reasonable compromises about neutral and functional secularism, so that such a system could provide political and popular legitimacy.
We should keep in mind that violent extremism is not the only enemy of liberty in the Arab world. Violent extremism has been empowered by other anti-liberal policies, such as:
- Interventionism: The State is a significant economic actor, benefiting certain special interests over others with freedom-limiting regulations.
- Political despotism: Single-party state, censorship, and unrestrained government.
- Social conservatism: Misogynistic policies, religion-based laws, and violations of individual liberty.
These three axes constituted the ugly face of the Arab world for decades. Thanks to the Arab Revolutions (2010-2011), dictatorship has been dethroned. But, unfortunately, the two other axes are still significantly present, and Tunisia is no exception, as some romantic analysts try to prove.
Nowadays, Tunisia is suffering from the lack of liberty-defending ideas. We are talking about a country that is unable to prepare its own future independently of State diktat. If we observe the political scene in Tunisia, there is a complete absence of pro-liberty elites. There is no libertarian party, and indeed, not even a well-organized libertarian movement.
This may have two historical explanations.
Firstly, having a strong State was critical for Habib Bourguiba, who aimed to impose reforms aimed at modernizing Tunisia.
Secondly, the labour union UGTT, thanks to its historical role against French occupation, got incessantly more powerful. The UGTT has stayed true to its unionist ideology until now.
Hence the State is seen as a significant and idealistic symbol by the people of Tunisia. We do have a deep respect for it, but as time changes, we should also change our mindset.
In The Struggle for Law, Rudolf von Jeering said, “If we would know how a people, in case of need, will defend their political rights and their place among the nations, let us examine how the separate members of the nation assert their own right in private life.”
Consequently, every context in which individual liberty is considered a luxury, does not, in reality, offer to democracy the necessary conditions for viability.
In addition to all that, Tunisia needs to satisfy some other conditions before it could be considered the unique democratic country in the MENA region. Fighting corruption in the judicial system, heavily reforming the educational system, and reviewing all public policy, can be the first step towards a better future.
Author: Amir Mastouri was born in July 1994 in Beja, Tunisia. After having served as a member of Doustourna and Amnesty International, he joined Libreafrique.org in 2014 as a contributor. He is currently studying law at Toulouse 1 Capitole University, in France.