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In Tunisia, Some Fear Violence Could Replace Political Process


Shadi Hamid is director of research for the Brookings Doha Center. He left Tunisia for Paris yesterday, and joins us from there. Welcome to the program once again.

SHADI HAMID: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And for a country that has barely emerged from dictatorship - just a couple of years ago - how threatening to the prospect of democracy are this week's events in Tunisia?

HAMID: I mean, what we've seen this week is unprecedented polarization between Islamists and the secular opposition. And we're seeing now an environment where political violence is - it has happened, and there's a real fear that this could become the new trend in Tunisia; that people do not feel that they have a stake in the political process and they resort to violence, and they use that against their opponents.

So I think there's really a need for, you know, both sides to take a step back. And we'll have to wait and see whether it's possible, you know, for dialogue, to try to cool down some of the passions here. But it's a really - you know, being in Tunis this past week, you know, you really felt a tension, a frightening tension in the air.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about both sides. First, on the Islamist side, critics charge the leading party Ennahda, an Islamist party, with indulging the much more militant Salafis. Are they right in that charge?

HAMID: Yes, well, that's been the accusation that we've been hearing this past week; not only that the ruling Islamists have indulged Salafis, but that they've indulged the so-called revolutionary committees, who have been implicated in certain acts of violence. And Ennahda has been reluctant to totally shut them down. But I think it's difficult to draw a direct link, but that is what a lot of the opposition are saying. They're pointing the blame directly at the Ennahda Party.

And if you talk to one side, you hear a totally different narrative than when you talk to the other side. So they've never been further apart. And I think that's the real fear here; that up until now, Tunisia has been seen as a promising exception that liberals, leftists and Islamists have been able to work together to resolve their difficulties. But now, it seems like that's coming to an end.

SIEGEL: You talked about the Islamists - I asked you about them. On the other side, Chokri Belaid, the opposition leader who was assassinated, had been accused by the interior minister - who belongs to the Ennahda Party - of instigating riots last year in a city where there was a general strike. Is the Tunisian secular left also militantly opposed to Islamists in the government?

HAMID: There's no doubt that the secular left does not like the ruling Islamists, and there have been riots and protests that have sometimes turned violent, in the past. So I mean, there are accusations on both sides that have been hurled back and forth. There's no doubt about that. And I mean, what the ruling Islamists will say is that the opposition is not respecting their democratic legitimacy because they were, obviously, elected in free elections.

But there's a sense, from the Islamists' point of view, that the secular opposition is trying to bring them down by any means necessary. So I think - you know, I think it's fair to say that both sides are to blame for encouraging this culture of polarization, and not finding ways to resolve the tensions through the political process.

SIEGEL: Given the divisions, the polarization that you've described, are there any institutions or individuals in Tunisia today who somehow, bridge that division and might command the respect of everybody, and try to pull things together?

HAMID: Those in the middle, in Tunisia, are actually part of the coalition government with Islamists, including the president - Moncef Marzouki, who's part of a liberal party. But they've lost a lot of their legitimacy because they've been seen to be complicit with the Islamists. They've been part of the government and therefore, they've lost some of their street credibility. So right now, it's hard to find voices in Tunisia who are truly in the middle, who are truly trying to bring the two sides together.

That said, there is still a political process. There is an institutional process that people can resort to so luckily, I don't think there is a - you know, there isn't a necessity for people to take their grievances every day to the streets because there is a constitution that will hopefully, be coming out in a couple months; there will be presidential elections. So I think the hope is that over the next few months, the political process will be able to absorb some of these grievances and some of this anger, going forward.

SIEGEL: Well, Shadi Hamid, thank you very much for talking with us.

HAMID: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, was in Tunisia earlier this week. He spoke to us from Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.