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Tunisia's troubles

Ute Schaeffer / twMay 8, 2013

When demonstrators took to the streets in Tunisia at the start of the Arab Spring, they were calling for bread, dignity and justice. What they got was the end of a dictatorship and political uncertainty.

Tunisian vendors shout slogans during an anti-government demonstration EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

On the morning of March 13 this year, 27 year-old Adel Khedri set himself alight in the middle of the Tunisian capital, Tunis. "Look here," he is said to have shouted "this is a young man who sells cigarettes because he is unemployed."

His words and actions were a cry for help in the face of poverty and lack of perspective; indicative of all that has gone wrong in the two years since Tunisia's revolution, itself ironically triggered by a vegetable trader setting himself on fire. Both men came from the countryside.

The stolen revolution

In Adel's home village of Souk Jemaa, decisions made by the newly formed government, the Constituent Assembly, have done nothing to improve the standard of living. Like some three million Tunisians, the deceased's family live hand-to-mouth in simple, dark and barely heated houses. On the whole state politics pass them by.

But Adel's death is different. His funeral became a demonstration in which the poor furiously called for the government to step down. After years of being ignored by former leader Ben Ali, they have had enough of being at the bottom of the pile. So far, however, the post-revolution era has done nothing to change their lot.

Adel's cousin Ahmed Khazri says it is because people are not at the heart of politics in Tunisia. "Politicians do nothing but debate and fight about power," he said. It is disappointing for those who demonstrated and hoped for change, and many are now talking in terms of a "stolen revolution."

A different kind of despotism

A supporter of the Ennahda ruling party holds up a Koran REUTERS/Anis Mili
Their way or the highway?Image: Reuters

The fight for power in Tunisia is in full swing, and the country could go in one of two directions: Toward democracy with a clear separation between religion and politics, or to a theocracy governed by Shariah law.

Sofiane Chourabi, a blogger-turned-journalist, believes the majority of Tunisians favour a traditionalist Islamist political system that enjoys the financial and moral backing of rich, conservative Sunni neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

That same system, she says, has a place for a "new breed of tyrant," that replaced the despotic hand of an authoritarian state. She is referring to youth groups who reprimand women for wearing un-Islamic clothing, and young men for drinking alcohol.

Salafists make themselves heard

Amel Grami, professor for equality and intercultural studies in Tunis, knows how it feels to by tyrannised. Her desire for a modern understanding of Islam, and a liberal society, has led to death threats over the telephone and rants on social media sites. "The men with beards are angry," she said. "They call me a Zionist, a Christian preacher." Concerned for her own safety, Grami now steers clear of certain parts of the capital.

The Salafists, who are responsible for the threats, have only become visible since the fall of Ben Ali. Sofiane estimates that there are between 10,000 and 20,000 of them in Tunisia, albeit in different groups. Some are more violent than others, some are close to al Qaeda, but what they have in common is that they all defame so-deemed "infidels."

Some of the groups emerged from the "League for the Protection of the Revolution," which was responsible for order and security during the revolution. The Ennahda Movement, which is now the strongest party in Tunisia's legislature, relied on groups willing to use violence, forming militias by recruiting disaffected young men from the provinces. They were given money, a status and a combat mission, and suddenly their futures looked bright. These militias have since been officially registered, but are still not entirely above board.

Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda movement, Tunisia's main Islamist political party, speaks during a demonstration in Tunis February 16, 2013. In a speech to his supporters on Saturday, Ghannouchi said that the exclusion of Ennahda from government would threaten the national unity. REUTERS/Anis Mili (TUNISIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS)
A return to a new form of authoritarianism?Image: Reuters

Mosque and backroom discourse

Amel Grami describes Ennahda's internal policies as "mosque and backroom discourse," that the wider world hears nothing about. And it is that very lack of transparency that Sofiane Chourabi finds worrying. She describes it is a potentially explosive situation that could easily lead to a civil war, not least because Ennahda and the government turn a blind eye to the violence.

The fact is that Ennahda, which was not involved in the early days of the protests, is the only people's party with a presence throughout the entire country.

The movement has come a long way since the days of Ben Ali's rule, when supporters were persecuted and imprisoned, tortured and murdered. Its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi believes in slow societal change. "Laws," he says "can't change a society unless the society wants to change."

But Amel Grami and Sofiane Chourabi don't like the shift toward Islamic conservatism and dogmatism in the country's mosques, or the fact that alternative approaches to life are dubbed "un-Islamic." While Egypt has been through this development over the past two decades, it is new territory for Tunisia. Chourabi describes the development as the slow emergence of a dictatorship, and says the secular partners in the government coalition are too weak to redress the balance.

Democracy is considered "un-Islamic"

Doctor and activist Emna Menif is an active secularist, who spends what tie she can encouraging her fellow citizens to embrace the idea of a liberal and tolerant Tunisia. But given that many citizens consider democracy to be un-Islamic, and even linked to the secular system of dictator Ben Ali, she has her work cut out for her.

Woman standing on a street
Emna Menif says the country wasn't preparedImage: Privat

Menif says Tunisia went into the revolution without asking what would happen after the dictatorship and that the country is only now asking those all-important questions. Too little too late?

"Our politicians don't take people's worries and fears seriously enough," she laments. And as a result many are disillusioned with the whole concept of democracy.

Fertile ground for a new democracy?

They include well-educated young people who are unable to find work in the new Tunisia. Hamza is a case in point. He studied French, but when the tourism industry collapsed he was out of work. He doesn't see the point in voting in the next election, and says he would rather see Ben Ali back at the helm. "It might have been a political dictatorship, but it allowed normal people to lead normal lives." And he is not the only one who sees things this way.

Sofiane Chourabi says the problem is that Tunisian society is still living with the trauma of a dictatorship, and that the revolution was political, not cultural. The latter is a harder nut to crack because it requires changing people's basic thinking. "Our society was fertile ground for a dictatorship - there was a mental disposition," she says, adding that that has not yet changed.