05/22/2013 08:13 EDT | Updated 07/21/2013 05:12 EDT

Will Tunisia Become an Islamic Dictatorship?

FILE - In this Jan,14, 2013 file photo, a supporter of the ruling Islamic party Ennahda protests against another march during ceremonies marking the second anniversary of the Revolution, in Tunis. Long before Tunisia ousted its dictator and inspired the North African pro-democracy movement, the small, relatively prosperous country had the more dubious distinction of exporting Islamic militants. Now, as the country wrestles with the creation of a new government after the killing of a liberal opposition leader, experts say the flow of fighters is getting worse. (AP Photo/Amine Landoulsi, File)

Less than two years ago, on the eve of the first democratically run election for a constituent assembly since their country's independence in 1956, Tunisians' hope for good governance was still running high; this following the revolution that ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's secular dictatorship in January 2011. Eager for change, Tunisians went ahead with the election notwithstanding that many were anxious about the true intentions of the pro-Islamic Ennahda party that was poised to win. It was hoped that an elected Ennahda government would behave democratically and respect the objectives of the Tunisian revolution.

Now back in Tunisia, less than two years after the Ennahda Party won the constituent assembly election of October 23, 2011, I cannot help notice that for a very large segment of the Tunisian population, initial concerns regarding the moderate-Islamist Ennahda Party turned government have been confirmed. Despite the Ennahda party having won a plurality in the constituent assembly election, Tunis remains the seat of a government under siege -- protected by as much (if not more) barbed wire, policemen, and soldiers than during the previous Ben Ali government. Tunisia's government has been openly criticized by both the population and the opposition for its permissive attitude toward the conservative religious movements that arose after the fall of the Ben Ali's regime. During the post-revolutionary period, these groups have moved aggressively to gain supporters, alarming the more secular middle class in this country of 10 million. Somewhat disconcerting, is that unless in a private environment, I have observed that secular elements of the society are frightened to speak openly of the government policies or about the influence of the Salafists. This has created a social sclerosis while waiting for this fall Presidential elections.

Elected with 37% of the popular vote, the Ennahda government has been accused of employing undemocratic manoeuvres to institutionalize a hard line Islamist agenda and thereby extend their control over the country. The strategies reportedly include: replacing moderate Imams with hard-line Imams in mosques; infiltrating government institutions with hardliner Islamists regardless of the individuals' competencies to perform the functions; closing their eyes to the assassination of the political opponent Chokri Belaïd; and manoeuvring to produce a new constitution that would de-facto neutralize democratic opposition to the government. These accusations occupy considerable space in the various mass media and are the subject of many heated discussions within the general Tunisian population.

Whether true or false, many Tunisians have come to believe these accusations. The fact that the Tunisians' government finds itself under siege by both Salafist organizations and the average man on the street, is largely a problem of its own making. The government has waited far too long to distance itself from the Salafists and disavow their tactics. The Salafists have now effectively infiltrated some segments of the government apparatus; a government that continues to push for the inclusion of elements in the new constitution that are entirely out of sync with most of the Tunisian population's vision for that country's future. All this serves to reinforce and lend credence to accusations of linkages between hardline Salafists and the government.

The Tunisian government is now at a critical juncture. It will have to decide whether to continue pushing for an Islamic dictatorship through the drafting of a new constitution; or to recalibrate its vision for the country's future and pursue the implementation of an Islamic democracy that reflects the population's will.

Clearly, the decision to ban the Congress of the Ansar al-Sharia last weekend is an indication that the government realizes that association with hardliner Islamist organizations has tarnished its image and its credibility. Stating that the Ansar al-Sharia meeting posed a threat to public security, the government deployed police to confront hundreds of hardliner Islamists in the Tunis suburb of Ettadhamen and in the central city of Kairouan. For many Tunisians, though, the government decision to ban the Congress of the Ansar al-Sharia was simply a show to alleviate public anxiety vis-à-vis the Salafists.

Having lost the confidence of a large segment of the Tunisian population that took a chance and voted for the Ennahda party during the last constituent assembly election, the party's temptation to influence the outcome of the upcoming fall presidential election in order to stay in power will be great. One thing is certain: Having been elected with barely 37% of the popular vote, the Tunisian government is presently under intense scrutiny by its population. If attempts are made to manipulate the outcome of the presidential election, mass protests, violence, and possibly another revolution will most likely ensue. The Tunisian government must not forget that its population has the revolution seed in its womb.

Protests In Tunisia