With political upheaval in Egypt and Libya and calamitous violence in Syria, the one stable point of the Arab Spring seemed to be Tunisia, where the wave of revolutions began 19 months ago. Now even that looks in doubt. Before dawn last Sunday, Tunisian officials dragged the country’s highest-value detainee — Muammar Gaddafi’s last Prime Minister, Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi — from his prison bed, then handed him to Libyan officials, who flew him to a Libyan jail an hour away. Why the cloak-and-dagger extradition? The operation occurred under the nose of Tunisia’s own President, who at the time was sound asleep in his sprawling seaside palace, just a few kilometers away.
The political furor in Tunisia has since laid bare deep rifts between the country’s secular liberals and Islamists, two factions wrestling for the country’s future in wake of the dictatorship’s collapse in January 2011. In some ways, the conflict mirrors the political struggles playing out in Libya and Egypt too, as all three countries try to rebuild after decades of one-man rule. In Tunisia, a three-way coalition has ruled the country since the first democratic elections last October, with the popular Islamic party Ennahda — long outlawed under the dictatorship — controlling the government under a Prime Minister, and the two major secular parties in control each of the presidency and the constitution-writing assembly.
But the clamor over al-Mahmoudi’s fate now threatens to torpedo the arrangement, placing the Islamists in firm control over the most secular country in North Africa.
(MORE: Controversial Court Case Signals Political Divide in Tunisia)
For months, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki fiercely opposed Libyan requests to send al-Mahmoudi back. As the argument dragged on, it became a litmus test not only for what kind of justice system the new Tunisia might have, but also for what kind of President there will be once the new constitution is approved some time next year: one with big powers, like the American President, or a figurehead — as some suspect the newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy might ultimately be.
A longtime human-rights activist and a former political prisoner himself, Marzouki, who returned last year from exile in Paris, argued that the Libyan risked being tortured and executed back home and that under the Geneva Conventions, Tunisia was obligated to keep him until it ruled on his request for political asylum; al-Mahmoudi was nabbed by Tunisian border police after fleeing Libya last September, when Gaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship was on the verge of collapse. In a statement on Monday, Marzouki’s spokesman Adnen Manser said al-Mahmoudi’s extradition on Sunday was “unilateral and without consultation, approval or signature of the President” and that “it deviates significantly from the principles of the current coalition, which threatens the image of Tunisia in the world.”
It also deeply embarrassed Tunisia’s President — and not for the first time. In early May, a Tunisian court convicted Nabil Karoui, director of Nessma TV, a hugely popular cable-television network that airs across North Africa. Karoui had been charged with broadcasting Persepolis, a French-American animated film that features the Prophet Muhammad as a talking character — an offense in the eyes of conservative Muslims. Sitting in his palace that same day with the sun streaming through the open doors, Marzouki told TIME that he feared the Islamists might try to limit free speech under a new constitution and create a more stringent Islamic society. Tunisia depends heavily on European tourists (Paris is a two-hour flight away), and with no restrictions on alcohol — a rare feature in the Arab world — the country is known for its fine wines. Steps from the palace, women bathe in bikinis on pristine Mediterranean beaches. But the Nessma TV trial was seen as a test of whether such easygoing rules might endure, given that more Tunisians voted for the Islamists than the secular parties last October. Marzouki opposed the charges levied on Karoui. “I am opposed to any kind of censorship,” he told TIME. “I prefer the bad side effects of free expression.”
But Marzouki, and secular liberals like him, might now be in the minority. During days of rioting earlier this month, protesters slashed paintings, which they said were offensive to Islam, at a gallery exhibition in the upscale Tunis neighborhood of La Marsa; one painting spelled out the word Allah with ants, while another portrayed a nude woman. On Monday, a Tunisian court upheld the 7½-year jail sentence for a young Tunisian convicted of posting a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad online.
For Marzouki, Sunday’s extradition of the Gaddafi official might prove one slight too many. His spokesman Manser told the online news site Tunisia Live that “there is a possibility that Marzouki will resign in response to the extradition,” which he described as “a transgression of Marzouki’s prerogatives.”
While al-Mahmoudi’s extradition does not involve issues of religion, Tunisians have seen it as a sign of the Islamists’ growing strength and the weakening position of their secular President. “It is very, very clear now that the President has no power,” al-Mahmoudi’s attorney in Tunis, Mohammed Salah Hassan, told TIME by phone on Tuesday. “There is a strong brotherhood between the Islamists regionally, and between those in Tunisia and Libya, and the great majority of Tunisians voted for Ennahda.” That connection, he added, was behind the hurried extradition of al-Mahmoudi, over the President’s objections.
For Libyan officials, al-Mahmoudi is a prize catch. For months, they argued hard for his return, saying they intend to put him on trial in Libya. The extradition request to Tunisia included charges of abusing public funds, threatening officials with weapons and incitement to commit rape during the war last year, according to an account by Amnesty International on Monday, which said the organization had been shown a copy of the document.
Al-Mahmoudi is the first top Gaddafi official in exile to be returned to Libya, but hardly the only one Libyan officials are seeking. Others include Libya’s former security chief Abdullah al-Senoussi, who was arrested in Mauritania; Gaddafi’s former Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, who was recently filmed by the BBC eating at a five-star hotel in Qatar; and several Gaddafi family members, including his daughter Aisha, who have fled to Algeria and Niger.
But al-Mahmoudi himself is “very, very precious,” said his Tunis lawyer Hassan, who believes he could hold key information for Libya’s new leaders, including where the Gaddafis might have hidden billions of dollars. The former physician, 66, held a series of top jobs under Gaddafi and in recent years ran the Libyan Investment Authority, one of world’s largest sovereign-wealth funds. As secretary of Gaddafi’s General People’s Committee — the closest equivalent to a Prime Minister — during the late 2000s, al-Mahmoudi might also know intimate details about backdoor deals during the years when U.S. sanctions against Libya ended and Western countries poured billions into Libya. Al-Mahmoudi has claimed, for example, to have proof that Gaddafi gave former French President Nicolas Sarkozy $62 million for his 2007 election campaign — an issue that French journalists have debated furiously for months and which Sarkozy has denied. Al-Mahmoudi might now get his chance to present that proof in court.