Tunisia is grappling with immense security and economic challenges more than two years since pro-democracy Arab Spring protests toppled the government of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, leader of the Tunisia’s ruling moderate Islamist party said on Friday.
Economic woes, the main spark for the revolution, still remain, Rached Ghannouchi, co-founder and president of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, said at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“We are faced with many problems. The first is that people’s expectations are very high and their patience is very low,” he said.
“The revolution has weakened the state … this has given an opportunity to different groups to try to push the boundaries and cross the law,” said Mr. Ghannouchi. “Extremists on both sides, whether on the religious right or the extreme left have tried to impose their views with no respect for the law.”
Hardline Islamist Salafists have sought a broader role for Islam in Tunisia.
The State Department said in its annual terrorism report released on Thursday that Tunisia has witnessed an increase in religiously motivated acts of vandalism and harassment, generally carried out by Salafist extremists.
“With the ouster of Ben Ali’s regime, Tunisia experienced a rise in political Islam and the emergence of hardline Salafists, who reject Western values, seek the re-establishment of an Islamist Caliphate, and contend the Islamist [Ennahda] Party is too accommodating to the West,” it added.
Mr. Ghannouchi said not all Salafis are violent.
“Some Salafis are violent, some are peaceful. Therefore we need to push as many of the Salafis away from violence in order to isolate the violent ones,” he said. “The phenomenon of Salafis is a complex one, therefore it needs a complex solution. It exists in the poor areas, therefore development needs to be part of the solution.”
The Arab Spring, which engulfed North Africa and the Middle East, first erupted in Tunisia in December of 2010.
Mr. Ben Ali fled the country on Jan. 14, 2011, in the wake of violent protests triggered by the self-immolation of 26-year-old street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi who was upset at being harassed by a municipal official.
Despite the many challenges, Mr. Ghannouchi was optimistic about the future of his country.
“Tunisia has shown that the Arab Spring is not turning into a fundamentalist winter,” he said. “Today we can assure you it will not turn into a fundamentalist, religious or secular winter, but into a democratic spring where all have a place.”
A National Constituent Assembly committee, meanwhile, has finalized the last draft of the new constitution, which will soon be presented to entire assembly.
“The guiding principle for this constitution is that it should not just be a constitution for the simple majority, but it should be a constitution for Tunisians as a whole,” said Mr. Ghannouchi. “All Tunisians should see themselves in this constitution.”