February 8, 2012
The mosque at Amilcar
A little more than a year after its onset, some of the bloom is off the Arab Spring rose. The region looks to be a much more sober place a year on than it was then.
Tunisia is often portrayed as a bright spot in this increasingly somber regional picture. It did have an orderly election, has put together a three party coalition transitional government and now has a constituent assembly in its legislature working on a new constitution. The country appears on track to elect a more permanent government, as promised, during the next year. It is not inaccurate to note, that despite the problems it faces, that compared to its neighbors – ney – to almost any country with a Mediterranean sea coast, minus perhaps only one or two, that Tunisia is more stable, and seems to have the possibility of coming out of this crisis for the better than the others.
The Obama Administration generally supports the changes in Tunisia. In attempt to resurrect the American image throughout the region and to give credence to U.S. support for the Arab Spring, Obama is `playing the moderate Islamic card’ and gambling on the prospect that ultimately the structural changes taking place in Tunisia will not be that great. For all its problems, Tunisia is the most stable place in the Magreb for a major U.S. embassy to monitor the Magreb and the Sahara. It’s new `moderate’ Islamic direction includes an unambiguous commitment to neo-liberal economic policies, achieved ironically without a Chilean-like C.I.A. directed coup or an Iraqi-like U.S. led military intervention. For Washington it’s like `having their cake and eating it too’ on both counts.
But all this is somewhat overstated and misleading in some ways.
The overthrow of the Ben Ali government was a genuine revolutionary upsurge with the whole country involved. A year later, the whole country remains proud of what they have achieved, relieved Ben Ali was overthrown. They are basking it what continues to be a spirit of openness and political dialogue unknown for the past quarter of a century.
At exactly 1:02 pm on December 17, 2011 – one year to the minute that the Mohammed Bouazizi lit the match that set both himself and the region aflame – a giant portrait of Zine Ben Ali was lit aflame in downtown Sidi Bouzid and burnt to the ground. In its place was raised a giant portrait of Bouazizi. It was all very dramatic, symbolic, moving, what have you. A mere 3 and a half weeks after Bouazizi lit the match, on January 14, 2011, Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi, and many members of both extended families fled the country, opening a new era in Tunisia’s politics. A year later both December 17 and January 14 have become national holidays. Sidi Bouzid – and through it all of Tunisia – marked the year anniversary of Bouazizi’s immolation.
What has changed? Are the changes deep or simply cosmetic - those necessary to maintain the status quo? Are all the changes positive?
No doubt, the Tunisians have won the freedom of speech and expression long denied them and getting through the election process relatively smoothly has given the country some political stability (in contrast to Libya that is rather far from putting together an election). The new ruling coalition led by Ennahdha could be a stabilizing force. But…
The `buts’ are many’…
In some ways, the political atmosphere has hardened. There is a new polarization along cultural lines which has relegated the deepening socio-economic crisis to the sidelines – at least in the media headlines.
A week before the October 23 elections in Tunisia, a political storm broke out in the Tunisian media over the showing of an Iranian award winning cartoon, Persepolis, based upon Marjane Satrapi’s novel of the same name. An animated cartoon, a scene that personifies Allah as a kindly elderly man, offended some of the more fundamentalist elements. A storm of protest followed, led by the Ennahdha Party, the moderate Islamic political party supported by the Obama Administration. It shifted the discussion away from the socio-economic crisis to religious issues.
There is some speculation that Ennahdha initiated the campaign through its media to strengthen its position in the elections as its economic vision for the country was to that date, poorly defined. A week after the Persepolis controversy broke, Ennahdha won 41% of the vote in Tunisia’s constituent assembly election, and as a result, a defining role in the country’s transition government.
Curiously, Persepolis had played in Tunisian movie theaters several years prior without much fanfare or local criticism from Islamic elements. But this time round, the uproar triggered by the film showing continues till this day. This protest coincided with nothing less than an ideological offensive by the country’s Salafist (hard core Islamic fundamentalists heavily influenced by the Saudis) Islamic constituencies. This offensive includes campaigns to allow more religious women to wear the niqab (full veil) at Tunisian universities, the radicalizing the mosques and religious preschools along Salafist lines, an unambiguous targeting of the country’s more secular oriented women and cultural figures.
The Persepolis campaign, to some extent, also changed the political playing field in the country. Before the flap, the main issues featured in the Tunisian media concentrated around the country’s socio-economic crisis, the dismantling of the Ben Ali extensive security apparatus, the issues that had triggered the Tunisian Arab Spring in the first place – greater economic security and greater democracy.
Since the Persepolis flap, while the country continues to bleed jobs and the country’s interior remains in a state of near collapse, the socio-economic crisis has been `hijacked’ by these religious- cultural issues. Unfortunately this trend continues. 
Among those things that have not changed is the Security Apparatus (secret police). In a country of ten million plus, no less than 250,000 were hired by the Ben Ali government to spy upon, intimidate, torture, frame and murder their fellow citizens. While there have been a few changes at the top, most of the personnel hired by the Ministry of the Interior remain in place. The extensive spy files collected during the Ben Ali years remained closed to public scrutiny.
There were several reports of negotiations taking place between the ruling Ennahdha Party and the Ministry. Rather than dismantling the Ministry and replacing it with a more democratic structure, deals are being apparently negotiated. In exchange for amnesty, the Ministry will work for Ennahdha the way it worked for Ben Ali?
Seeing the Interior Ministry negotiating with the new government, the police have followed suit, more or less asking for a similar arrangement. In the same vein, while it is true that Ben Ali’s political party – the Rassamblement Constitutionel Democratique (RCD) has been dissolved – many of its cadre and members of the Ben Ali government are, a la Fouché, moving towards Ennahdha either formally or informally.
It is unfortunate but not particularly unique that the people who made the revolution – youth, poor people, of course everyone was involved at some level – are not the ones elected to power – those elected being far more traditional and conservative. Sometime during the election campaign the energies of the population shifted from solving the economic crisis – which looms over everything – to cultural questions – role of the niqab (the veil), definition of `a good citizen’ is shifting from someone who is civic minded to `are you a good muslim’.
Ennahdha is a mixed bag – the top layers are genuinely `moderate’ but much of the base is fundamentalists if not Salafist. To date the leadership has hardly reigned in the base – nor is it clear they want to. The other two parties in the ruling coalition – the so-called `more secular parties’ are hardly parties, having been scraped together after Ben Ali departed to permit their representatives to run for office. This is contrast to Ennahdha which has a rich history of more than thirty years.
Of the three parties, Ennahdha essentially holds most of the real power in its hand, giving the moderate Islamic party pretty much of a free hand to rule as it wants. Most of the powers formerly held by the country’s president have been eliminated and shifted to the prime minister, leaving Moncef Marzouki, the country’s president, with little more than ceremonial responsibilities; what the president has lost, the prime minister has gained powerwise, a position controlled by Ennahdha.
Then there is the enhanced role of the Salafist element whose social base in the country is narrow, but growing. Like in Egypt (whose themes they seem to parrot), Tunisia’s hard core Islamic fundamentalists have targeted a number of institutions they hope to reshape: the mosques, the universities and the media. They agitate for their positions, but are not averse to using thug tactics to get their way. Although they easily could, to date, Ennahdha has done little to reign them in.
But by far the greatest challenge Tunisia faces is its economy that includes building rural infra structure and developing a workable vision for its future. Like so many peripheral and semi-peripheral countries in the global economy, Tunisia is, in a way, two countries. There are the more prosperous urban areas, most especially Tunis, Souse, Sfax, Bizerte and the areas surround it. They are highly developed and although one can see and feel the overall social crisis there, its effects are far more muted.
Then there is the interior which remains in a state of near collapse and the level of anger and frustration so thick and obvious. Ten miles outside Tunis already one enters a different world. Security there is almost non-existent as angry demonstrators attacked and burnt down many of the police stations in the smaller towns (in part in response to sniper attacks on their demonstrations). The unemployment rate in the rural areas is soaring and could be – official and unreliable statistics aside – as high as 50%, even higher.
Despite having unquestionable potential to rework its economic fabric – the country’s economy is quite diversified compared to its neighbors – since Ben Ali was kicked out of the country, there has been an explosion of strikes affecting virtually every sector of the economy and every region of the country, but especially the interior rural areas. Although reported only scantily – their focus is on creating jobs, infra-structure, on raising wages and working conditions for those employed. While the Tunisian military refused to fire on demonstrators, easing the way for Ben Ali’s departure, now more and more it is used to break striks and demonstrations.
Very little has been done to date to address this crisis which threatens the entire reform structure. Most of the solutions offered have been along the same neo-liberal lines that triggered the social explosion in the first place. `The market’ alone is incapable of turning the country around but discussions of the ways in which state intervention might help the economy get back on its feet are hesitant for fear of driving away foreign investment from the Gulf States and the IMF.
There have been other political mass movements more or less a la Gene Sharp which showed great promise but when all is said and done fizzled – Philippines, Indonesia are the more striking examples as well as the `colored’ revolutions in Esatern Europe. Tyrants were overthrown through generally peaceful but militant mass movements, freedom of speech resulted. But in the end the political changes were more cosmetic than far reaching. The economic structures, whose malfunctioning were key to triggering the social crisis in the first place, changed little. If they did, it was more along neo-liberal, Naomi Klein, “Shock Doctrine” type lines.
Tunisia is at a crossroads. Which way will it turn?
.During my 3 week stay in Tunisia in December, a half dozen people told me in confidence of having been threatened by Salafist elements during the past few months. These people included university students, a number of cultural figures, two prominent journalists, a trade unionist. Most – but not all of them – were women. The women were struggling with whether they should change the way they dress; one commented that while she liked an occasional glass of wine, that `for political reasons’, she had decided to abstain from now on.
The first time I was told about the threatening phone calls (“we’re watching you; we’re going to get you, etc”), I thought perhaps my friend was exaggerating. By the third or forth time, I began to wonder. Several asked me to please NOT send them any of my blog entries because it is entitled `Colorado Progressive Jewish News’. Being in contact with me or my blog would be seen as having an indirect link to Netanyahu himself. One of the people I interviewed was physically and publicly attacked by Salafists, business journalist Hamadi Redissi, as reported in the NY Times
Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He publishes the Colorado Progressive Jewish News. (robertjprince.wordpress.com)