The first steps of the Arab Spring pointed to pessimism. The fall of Ben Ali and then Mubarak led to the mobilization of forces in which any doubt as to the political validity of Islam was seen as a sign of Islamophobia. To begin with, it was not the same thing to bring down authoritarian regimes such as those of Tunisia and Egypt as to challenge real tyrannies such as those of Libya and Syria. The problem of relations between Islam and democracy emerged from the terrain of mere words, and became a capital question for the organization of newly liberated societies. Nor was the role of religion the same in all cases. The Islamists were the nucleus of the anti-Gaddafi resistance in Benghazi, but they were more or less absent from the revolts in Tunis.
The standard-bearers of Islamism — the Muslim Brothers and their political parties (Ikhwan in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia) — were not contaminated by collaboration with the dictatorships. Islamist rhetoric adapted itself to new circumstances. The absolutism of “the Koran is our Constitution,” with Sharia as its instrument, had long coexisted with a pragmatic line aimed at consolidating hegemony in society. In Tunisia a tripartite government was formed, with two secular parties, while the Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi spoke of democratic pluralism. However, all is not for the best in the best of all possible worlds. In Egypt, the entry of extreme Salafism, which demands the integral restoration of the original forms of Islam, on the one hand places the Muslim Brothers in an uncomfortable centrist position as defenders of democratic Islamism, and on the other creates a continual pressure from positions of orthodoxy.
An invisible barrier arose against laicism, as well as against the effective rights of women. The Brotherhood declined to condemn the sexual assaults in Tahrir Square. While the systematic extermination of Christians by the jihadists of Boko Haram in Nigeria is an extreme case, inter-confessional incidents elsewhere have led, for example, to the flight of Copt families in Egypt, described by the Interior Ministry as “voluntary abandonment of their dwellings.” The Islamist design for control of the state emerges, and with it the pretension that the Sharia be central to any future Constitution.
In Tunisia the tripartite government proceeds apace. The Salafists have gone into action, first attacking shops that sell alcoholic drinks, then destroying the Spring Art Festival near the capital Tunis on the basis that some works of art were “blasphemous”. Such is the Islamization driven by the horizontal totalitarianism of the Salafists. The culture minister was quick to condemn the exhibitors at the show, announcing measures conducive to respect for religion, which ties in with the plan in the Islamist-influenced Congress to “criminalize any attempt to attack sacred things,” and to introduce this as an article of the new Constitution. A well-known journalist has been brought before a judge for drinking alcohol, whilst the police closed non-tourist restaurants during Ramadan. Another ministerial jewel: it is not going to authorize a performance by the Lebanese pop singer Nancy Ajram, stating freedom of expression must respect “the guidelines of good morals.” We see, too, the campaign of moralization, in which young policemen put into practice the Islamic principle of “promoting good and prohibiting evil,” accosting women who in their view are dressed incorrectly or are walking with a man — about whom they ask, in the Iranian manner, if he is their husband or their brother. They may be struck or arrested, like the singer Rim-el-Banna. Mere isolated cases? Equality between the sexes, a heritage of the days of Bourguiba, is questioned in article 28 of the proposed Constitution, which establishes the complementary character of the woman in terms of the “role of the family” and “different responsibilities.” The massive women’s demonstration on August 13 was the answer. Islamism and freedom do not easily combine.
The standard-bearers of Islamism were not contaminated by collaboration with the dictatorships