Maghreb Voices – Autumn in Tunisia

Part II: Hearing from Tunisians

?In all forms of Government the people is the true legislator.?

Edmund Burke

?Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry.”

Winston Churchill

Read Part I of this series here.

The Arab Spring’s weighty and far-reaching developments and repercussions have been both lauded and reviled, and even though the names and places keep changing the ball of revolt is still rolling. In the light of this, we need to keep an eye on what happens in Tunisia.

This tiny North African republic was, after all, the first Arab Spring country. Despite circumstances unique to Tunisia it might be helpful to study the aftermath of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution in order to foresee possible obstacles awaiting Egypt, Syria, and other Arab countries that launched their revolutions later on. I asked a number of young Tunisians for their views on the relative success of the revolution and their personal forecasts for the future of the country. They’ve asked that their names be withheld.

Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan outlines how the United States lured former President Ben Ali out of the country, later quickly moving in to try to manage the aftermath of the revolution in America’s favour. US President Obama was being predictably true to the dictates of American foreign policy, and he wasn’t alone. China also sought to profit from the shift in Tunisia’s power dynamics.

Such is the informed view from outside Tunisia. But for the Tunisians themselves, who have long demonstrated a level of political savvy That’s surprising given the years of silencing and media blackouts, other nations are also getting a little too close for comfort.

When Tunisians are asked which countries they feel are conspicuously involved in reconstruction, neither the US nor China stands out. I spoke with a student in Tunis who mentions the involvement of Turkey but even more of Qatar, which he calls ?America’s spoiled child? (suggesting the US’s indirect interference).

Another student in Souss claims that a number of Gulf countries have also put their oars in. He feels that accepting the help of foreign powers will in the long run limit Tunisia’s political and economic freedom. The problem, though, as a technician in Sfax points out, is that though It’s clearly a form of bondage staring at them from the backs of the foreign bank, after years of high-level corruption Tunisia is hardly in an economic position to go it alone.

Another perceived threat to Tunisian freedom is the fact that a moderate Islamist party now holds power. The student in Tunis is critical of the Ennahda party, which won the election to the Constituent Assembly with 90 of the 217 seats in October last year. He calls Ennahda incompetent and even suggests that having a religious party in power poses a risk.

?Politics and religion are alien to each other,? he says, echoing the Western liberal view. He adds that they ?need to be kept separate.?

The vast majority of the population identifies itself as Muslim, Islam is the official state religion, and the president is required to be Muslim. But there’s a relative degree of respect for individual rights and freedoms among Tunisians, who are sometimes criticized by other Middle Eastern nations for being too worldly, too tolerant, and too lax in their application of Islam. The right to religious freedom is enshrined in the country’s constitution, and the tourist trade bends Islamic morality to accommodate pleasure-seeking European tourists.

In Tunisia there’s a general belief that the outer trappings of Muslim faith (such as face covering for women and long beards for men) are foreign exports and not required by the essential dictates of the faith. Despite the adherence of local communities to a strict moral code, including high standards of modesty, several women have told me that the choice to wear the hijab is a personal one and that no woman should be condemned for not covering her head.

But an ultra-conservative minority doesn’t quite agree, and the government’s permissive attitude to the tantrums they’ve been throwing is the source of some anxiety.

The Sfax technician says that the Ennahda party is soft on the crimes of religious extremists because the extremists are among its supporters. When extremists react violently to perceived infractions (as they did recently to a university’s ban on face veils during exams and to an art exhibit they claimed was disrespectful to the Quran), the government simply looks the other way.

Secular social activists get quite a different reaction. The police response to alleged rabble-rousing is swift and punitive; for example, what happened to renowned activist Leena Ben Mhenniand her cohorts, who at a recent peaceful demonstration in Tunis were harassed and beaten by police.

The question of whether a just society is possible here hinges not on Tunisian tolerance and mutual respect but rather on whether or not Tunisians possess the fortitude to battle uphill against economic adversity, corruption, and religious extremism. On this question, the jury is still out.

(To be continued.)

Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.

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