“[Tunisian dictator] Ben Ali’s departure on January 14, 2011 released a host of formerly unaired and long-suppressed grievances. After decades of repression, many Tunisians are talking openly across the political table—hearing one another’s views in an atmosphere of free debate for the very first time. This process of self-reckoning has proven both exhilarating and immensely frightening for many Tunisians, some of whom are shocked to see their so-called Islamist party rejecting a fully sharia-based constitution, others of whom find it difficult to fathom that their seemingly secular state could be the site of antiblasphemy protests and pro-niqab rallies.”
This observation from the Tunisia scholar Monica Marks remains as relevant today as when she made it six months ago and very much resonates with my own experience over the last ten days in the small but hugely pivotal North African country. It was here, after all, in December 2010, that the cascade of uprisings that would convulse the Arab world got going.
This was my first time in a country so soon after a revolution. I was in Cuba forty years after its revolution and Iran twenty-eight years after its own. But in Tunisia the revolution is hot off the presses—literally. Since the dictatorship of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled just over two years ago, Tunisia has seen an explosion of newspapers, TV stations, and websites giving voice to a plethora of opinions. Under the twenty-three years of Ben Ali’s rule, Tunisian media were purely an organ of state propaganda. No independent outlets were allowed, no dissent tolerated.
I never visited Tunisia before the revolution, so I can’t speak from first-hand experience, but Tunisians are quick to emphasize how different the atmosphere is today. Last Monday I spent the afternoon with Mongi (pronounced “Moan Jee”) Smaili, a professor of economics at the University of Tunis and a researcher with the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT). We were discussing Tunisia’s increasingly contentious political landscape while strolling down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the central thoroughfare of Tunis, when he paused to reflect on the experience. “Before the revolution,” he remarked, “this conversation that we’re having would have been dangerous.” Ben Ali’s security forces, he said, would have approached him after our visit and grilled him about who I was, how he knew me, why we were together ,and what we were talking about.
“Now,” he explained, “we’re free to talk to anyone we want, about anything we want, without fear.”
And this from someone who is sharply critical of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that has been at the helm of Tunisia’s current governing coalition since winning the country’s first postrevolutionary elections, held in October 2011. But on this point every Tunisian I spoke with, across the political spectrum, agreed: the one unquestionable achievement of the revolution is the freedom of expression now enjoyed in the country. And Tunisians are taking advantage of that new breathing space. This new spirit in the country was palpable everywhere I went. Taxi drivers, students, waiters, bureaucrats, intellectuals, housewives, and trade unionists all volunteered passionate opinions about the current political situation, and dramatically different ones. Some expressed strong approval of Ennahda, others strong disapproval. And Ennahda’s opponents claim allegiance to several different parties: some to the centrist secular party Nidaa Tounes, others to the Popular Front, a coalition of left-wing parties. For all the challenges Tunisians face—and there are many—they have now entered the realm of multiparty democracy and are engaged in a spirited debate about the country’s future.
Anxiety is also widespread, and on the rise—particularly since the assassination in early February of leftist opposition leader Chokri Belaid. The investigation into his murder is ongoing, and impatience is growing. This event has rattled Tunisian society, in part because political violence is so rare in the country’s history. The last time a Tunisian political figure was assassinated was sixty years ago, shortly before independence, when the trade unionist and anticolonial leader Farhat Hached was murdered, and agents of French colonialism are widely believed to have been responsible. Many Tunisians were left wondering who might be next.
“People are really freaking out,” one young Tunisian told me. And not just over Belaid’s assassination, but over the growing atmosphere of violence and intimidation in the country. Salafists, though small in numbers, have been making their presence felt, staging attacks on cultural events and fellow Tunisians they deem un-Islamic. This too is something that many in Tunisia, where secularism enjoys deep roots—and where the practice of Islam has historically been decidedly unextreme—find perplexing. Then there are the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, vigilante groups of morality police who patrol the streets to keep people in line, in a manner evocative of Iran’s thuggish basij militias.
A debate is now raging among Tunisians over Ennahda’s role in these developments. Many blame the Islamist party for fostering this climate of intimidation or at least for turning a blind eye to the rampages of such groups. Why, many Tunisians ask, hasn’t Ennahda disbanded or at least reigned in the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution? Why has the party not cracked down on these thuggish elements who seem to be roaming more freely than ever before?
Ennahda counters that Tunisia under its rule is no longer a police state, and it can’t control everything that goes on in the country. “If crimes are committed we should prosecute them, but we can’t arrest people for their beliefs,” Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader, has said. The party officially denounces Salafist violence and complains that these groups, which outflank Ennahda on the right, are a thorn in its side. But Ennahda also points out that there are divisions among Salafis, and not all of them are engaged in troublemaking. Secular and liberal Tunisians are unsatisfied by this response and hold Ennahda responsible for the climate of fear that has begun to permeate everyday life and polarize the society.
The good news is that because Tunisia is now democratic, these disputes are being hashed out in the court of public opinion and will be resolved at the ballot box. Elections are likely to be called in November or December.
At a conference on “Democratic Transitions in the Arab World” I attended in Tunis over the weekend, the comparativist Marina Ottaway observed that conflict grows out of all democratic transitions. All revolutions, she pointed out, produce winners and losers, and postrevolutionary situations involve clashes of visions. The war of position in Tunisia between Islamists and secularists today is nothing unique. Indeed it’s a vital sign for a postrevolutionary society. The fear is that the growing climate of violence, intimidation and polarization could rip the fabric of Tunisian society apart, just as this new democratic space and culture of pluralism are forming. But I left the country feeling optimistic that, despite all its challenges, Tunisia will navigate these waters and find its way forward.
My next post will feature my interview with Mongi Smaili, the economist and labor researcher I mention above, about the state of the labor movement in Tunisia and the Ennahda-led government’s economic policies. Stay tuned for that.