A new era for the Arab world

Is Tunisia opening a new era for the Arab world?

The latest announcement by the government to separate politics from religion is likely to have far-reaching political consequences in the region and foster economic development through inflows of foreign investment in Tunisia.

he initiative comes from the Nidaa Tounes-led government, a secular leftist party which has been at the helm of the country since the December 2014 free presidential election and has ruled with a broad unity coalition since 2015, including moderate Islamic Party, Ennahada. A party which gained popularity after it came back from exile in the wake of the Arab Spring but lost credit after the assassination of two secular politicians. 

What may seem as a sign of modernity was indeed a stance that the first president, Habib Bourguiba, adopted after Independence in the 1950s and stood out as an advocate for Arab modernity and a pioneer for women’s rights. It gave Tunisia a relatively modern outlook compared to its neighbours. However, lack of opportunities for widespread education nourished prejudices and bigotry mostly in the rural areas. The Constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic ensuring pluralism, etc. 1n the 2014 election, another secular party, the Social Democratic Party advocated strict division between state and religion, and won no seats. The minority party in the government, Ennahada, stands for Islamic democracy like Turkey’s ruling AKP, Justice and Development Party.

Economic survival may be a key factor in the will to protect the democratic ideal from any religious connotation. Unlike neighbouring countries, Tunisia is not rich in natural resources and relies heavily on tourism. Economic slowdown following attacks on foreigners in the past years has greatly reduced the inflow of tourists, and 2016 is showing no signs of picking up especially after terrorist attacks in Europe raise serious security issues for visitors in Arab countries.

How determined is the present government to redefine the country’s identity without the ambiguity which allows religion to meddle with politics, remains to be seen. If it succeeds in standing for Republic and Democracy without other words attached, Tunisia will stand out as the first country in the Middle East to officially call a spade a spade, and come to terms with principles regarded as democratic and rejected by Arab politicians in the post-colonial era. It will set the example for other countries facing similar political identity crisis across the world.

 Interestingly, this is happening at a crucial time when hardly a week ago, Arab governments were given up as hopeless regimes which have taken advantage of widespread destruction and chaos to reinforce control on society, media, key institutions, and become increasingly oppressive and authoritarian.

Equally worth mentioning is that, at the other end of the spectrum, extremist movements among which Islamic State is the most barbaric and ferocious, are gradually losing ground. The Tunisian aliveness to modernity and urgent action taken to this effect will, no doubt, open the door to brighter horizon for civilians caught up in chaos and misery brought about by the explosive cocktail of religious radicalism and politics.

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Kosovo, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc., were once peaceful societies. And today? Thirty years of petrodollars flowing in from mainly Saudi Arabia has created division and instilled animosity and hatred for other faiths and ethnic groups. The worst hit by a proliferation of religious halls preaching radical Wahhabi ideology is Kosovo where people have been grateful to the U.S. for the NATO intervention during the Clinton era in the 1990s which liberated them from Serbia, and have been looking forward to promote freedom and rights. Kosovar clerics are known to be liberal and largely tolerant. They protested from the outset against Saudi intervention in their internal political and religious policy just as clerics and intellectuals protested in Algeria before the Civil War. In vain. The Wahhabi extremism made its way into the minds of a generation of young Kosovars; it brainwashed and transformed them into radicals. Kosovo has thus become the largest pool of recruitment for IS ideologues in Syria and Iraq.

Given this, can the PM of Mauritius and the Minister of Integrity, Good Governance and Financial Services give us more information regarding the funding of Heritage City by Saudi Arabia? And the purported purchase of luxury villas and apartments in the future city by hundreds of Saudi families? Rumour or fact, the minister had better inform the public right now. Most Mauritians are wary of any disturbance to the peace by any extremist infiltration over here. The plan to allow a Saudi embassy in Mauritius and reciprocate in Riyad was kept away from public notice during the last electoral campaign. This kind of twist in policy has not been endorsed by the public at large. The government is expected to preserve the customary peaceful outlook of our people.

Investment in real estate property abroad is one of the Saudi’s latest policy to diversify its economy following the fall of oil prices. Any keen observer knows that Saudi Arabia goes abroad with an agenda. Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Emirates and the Gulf countries are advocates of Arab supremacy in the world and to the return of the old glorious era of conquests and expansion. Educated Pakistanis call the period when General Zia opened up to Saudi influence and petrodollars, followed by other leaders ‘the black rule of Saudi Arabia’ in Pakistan. One should watch videos of Pakistani young women, mothers and intellectuals who have had enough of division, violence and loss of lives as a consequence.

We have to also take stock of the helplessness of Tunisians, Moroccans and Algerians to counter Saudi power. We might also listen to the plight of Iraqis and Syrians who have a ground experience of the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in their lands. Putting Saudi Arabia, India and China in one common statement aired on national television, smacks of demagoguery. In a small country with limited resources, we’d better avoid unnecessary complications.

* Published in print edition on 27 May 2016

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