Analysis

Tunisia's Left Grapples With the Same Dilemmas as Israel's

As Tunisia's president pushes forth human rights reforms, the left-wing parties are silent, fearing that supporting equality and liberty will cost them too much at the ballot box

Tunisians demonstrating with a sign that reads: 'Quran before any other text' on August 11, 2018.
Hassene Dridi,AP

Souad Abdel-Rahim’s red scarf covered her hair, but not her ideology. Abdel-Rahim is the first woman elected mayor of Tunis. It happened in early July. She is also the representative of the Islamic party Ennahda and symbolizes the new strategy of that party, considered the descendent of the Islamic Brotherhood.

Ahead of next year’s elections, the party plans on rebranding itself as a democratic Islamic party, an appropriate move given the democratic winds blowing strongly in Tunisia since it became the harbinger of the Arab Spring in 2011. Abdel-Rahim, who paved her way to victory with the help of social media, can run as an independent and might even win, but she preferred to be courted by the religious party, turning her into a symbol, not only a mayor.

>> Read more: Tunis elects its first female mayor - from the Islamist party ■ Islamic party's secret weapon in Tunisia local elections: A Jewish candidate

It befits flourishing Tunisia for a woman to lead it. The citizens of the country and the city, from left to right, religious and secular, congratulated her after she was photographed helping streetcleaners scrub the sidewalks of Tunis. But the congratulations have ended in short order because now the left fears that Abdel-Rahim’s election, which under normal circumstances would earn liberal-leftist support, might steal many votes from them in the general election next year.

This is not the only contradiction in the position of the Tunisian left, which could be a twin of the Israeli leftist movement. About a month ago a report was published by the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee, appointed by President Beji Caid Essebi. The report was cheered by human rights groups not only in Tunisia but around the world. It recommended, among other things, full equality for women, abolishing the death penalty, decriminalizing homosexuality, granting rights and status to children of unwed parents and even replacing religious terms – such as sharia (Islamic religious law) and mahr (payment for a bride by the groom or the groom’s family) with “modern religious terms that conform to the aspiration of Tunisia to be a modern civil state."

This is an especially interesting and important report because if its recommendations are adopted, it could establish not only a new legal language, but also dissolve the formal and informal influence of religion in the forging of Tunisian identity. The report does not yet suggest full separation of religion and state, but the direction is clear. This is without a doubt preparation for a constitutional and national revolution, which, if it comes about, will make religion part of the identity of anyone who wants it, but will prevent it from being part of the identity of the state.

There is no movement or party in Tunisia that does not realize the huge significance of the report, which the president has promised to present to parliament to make its clauses into law. There was also no doubt that the report would spark major debate and harsh criticism, personal and political, against the committee chairwoman, a member of parliament by the name of Bochra Belhaj Hmida. Hmida, who has been called a traitor and an infidel, has rejected her critics’ demands to hold a referendum on the report before it is submitted to parliament. In a sharp retort that riled even her supporters, she said: “The Tunisian people have still not reached the required level of consciousness to use a referendum as a democratic means of choice."

Hmida did not mean to insult the Tunisian level of consciousness. She simply knows that a referendum in which the populist, religious and traditional forces could buy off and threaten voters, might bury the report before it goes to parliament. Her supporters say that slavery in the United States would not have ended if emancipation had been presented for a referendum, and women would continue to be imprisoned in their homes if equality laws had been placed before the public for approval.

People demonstrate in Tunis in front of the nation's parliament to decry proposals in a government report on gender equality, August 11, 2018.
AP Photo/Hassene Dridi

But the report and its principles are being put to the test not only of values and identity. Support or opposition to it is a political question that places the left on the horns of a dilemma. If the left-wing parties robustly back the report, they might pay a high price at the ballot box. But if they oppose it, they could be in for a knock-out by their traditional supporters. Over the past few days, Tunisian media has been full of articles wondering why the voice of the left is not being heard and where the principles have gone that its leaders boast of.

This criticism recalls the criticism that has been aimed at the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid because of their lack of ideological backbone. The stuttering of the left in Tunisia, which in the past knew how to effect constitutional changes, makes their distress abundantly clear. Some are trying to prove that they support equal rights, others are pointing out that the traditional character of the country must be taken into consideration and conflict must not be sparked with the religious and traditional public. But it is hard to find a prominent left-wing leader who will clearly state whether he or she supports the report. Because when the large religious party and the radical groups define the report as a declaration of civil war and damaging to religion and the faith, that is, damaging nationality, the left and the center in Tunisia paddock themselves in the same corral as the left and center in Israel.