Political battles overshadow Arab Spring gains

by Islah Bakhat, swissinfo.ch

The Arab Spring represents a tectonic shift in the region’s political landscape. Yet two years on, divisions between secularists and Islamists risk stalling the revolutions. Simmering angers over poverty remain and women’s rights progress is sketchy.

“Every time society feels its hard-won gains are in danger, civil society groups go out on the streets to protest alongside political parties to make their voices heard, and defend freedoms and the rule of law,” said Rachid Khechana, head of the North Africa section at the satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera.

In Tunisia, a compromise deal was signed on December 12 between Tunisia’s Islamist-led cabinet and the UGTT, the country’s largest and most powerful labour union. UGTT had called for a general strike on Thursday to protest attacks against its members in Tunis by supporters of the government.

In a statement released before the deal was announced, the union, which says it has around 500,000 members, blamed the government for the violence that affected civil society.

Observers had feared that a strike – the latest escalation in the clash between the union and the ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda party – would plunge the economically struggling country back into chaos, threatening its government and its transition to democracy.

However, Tunisians’ discontent with their post-revolution government has yet to reach the levels in Egypt, where hundreds of thousands are protesting President Mohammed Morsi’s recent decision to expand his powers.

Egypt’s political crisis may deepen: a referendum on a new constitution is planned for December 15. But the proposed charter has divided Egypt, with Morsi and his Islamist backers, including ultraconservative Salafis, in one camp, and secularists and leftists, including minority Christians and women, in the other.

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