That Other Tunisia

That Other Tunisia

Without social justice for unemployed youth, revolutionary hopes may descend into class war.



This past May Farhat Rajhi, one of several former interior ministers in postrevolutionary Tunisia, mused on Facebook about what could happen if the country’s Islamist Nahda (Renaissance) movement came out on top in the October elections for a new Constituent Assembly.

“Since independence, political life has been dominated by people from the Sahel [coast],” he said. The class included the country’s founder and first president, Habib Bourguiba, and his successor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, whose ouster in January announced the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring.

“They are not ready to give up ruling,” he warned. Elements of Ben Ali’s ancien régime were, in fact, plotting with the army to prevent the coming to power of Nahda or any other party not of their ilk. “If the results of the forthcoming elections go against their interests, there will be a military coup,” he predicted.

Fired across Tunisia’s blogosphere, Rajhi’s comments ignited four days of protest in the capital of Tunis. Banks were burned, police stations stoned, shops looted. The country’s still mostly hated police force (a crucial prop of the Ben Ali dictatorship) beat back protesters with batons and tear gas. Two hundred people were arrested. After four days of rioting, a night curfew was imposed.

It brought only a lull. In July antigovernment riots flared again in the capital after police fired tear gas inside a mosque. In solidarity, hundreds fought the police in Sidi Bouzid, leaving a 14-year-old boy dead from stray gunfire. Adrift in Tunisia’s impoverished interior, Sidi Bouzid is the fly-blown town where the revolution began when an unlicensed street vendor set himself ablaze.

Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi blamed “religious extremist parties” for the latest violence. Rachid Ghannouchi, Nahda’s septuagenarian president, spoke darkly of plots to tarnish his movement.

The violence was the worst since mass demonstrations rocked Tunis’s Avenue Habib Bourguiba and Casbah Square in January, scuttling Ben Ali and his family onto a one-way plane to Saudi Arabia. It also told us what had changed in postrevolutionary Tunisia.

“The police are the same,” one man told Reuters, his mobile phone relaying pictures of cops trashing young men off Casbah Square. The rapid inflammation of the protests showed how parties like Nahda and politicians like Essebsi can still be goaded to confrontation by dubious theories long on conspiracy but short on fact: how rapidly, in other words, the unity forged by the struggle against Ben Ali has been rent by differences among those who would claim his mantle.

The events also reaffirmed Tunisia’s status as regional bellwether. With its small and homogeneous population, educated workforce and vibrant civil society, Tunisia remains the best hope of an Arab revolution minting a durable constitutional democracy out of the debris of dictatorship. Yet success is hardly assured. Tunisia will have to negotiate three rapids if it is to reach any kind of settled shore. First, it will have to make certain the transition to democracy is owned not only by a new clique but by entire social classes in what remains a deeply unequal society. Second, it will have to integrate an Islamist movement deemed anathema by important parts of Tunisia’s existing political elite. Third—and most important—Tunisia will have to satisfy a sullen mass of jobless young who believe they have sacrificed the most for the revolution, which has so far brought them little except penury. It was they who did the burning and looting.

From Coalition to Conflict

There were two Tunisian revolutions over the winter of 2011. Whether there will be a third depends on the second realizing at least some of the hopes of the first.

The first has become folklore. Twenty-six-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, in an act of outraged despair over the indignity of not being allowed to work, enveloped himself in flames and released a contagion among his peers that went from Sidi Bouzid to the coast and thence to the region, toppling dictators of twenty-three years (Tunisia) and thirty years (Egypt) on the way.

The second was as remarkable, even if eclipsed by upheavals in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and, somewhat later, Syria. From January 14, when Ben Ali fled, to March 3 a grassroots national/popular coalition of trade unions, leftists, lawyers associations, human rights organizations and Islamists mainly but not only from Nahda laid siege to Casbah Square and other sites in the capital to protest any and all attempts by the ancien régime to steal back the revolution. Having refused to open fire on demonstrators in the first revolution, Tunisia’s 30,000-strong army kept to its constitutional role in the second: it guarded public spaces but allowed the struggle to play out between serial interim governments and what became known as the Casbah coalition.

Play out it did. Rolling campaigns of civil disobedience swept away two cabinets, forcing the resignation of Ben Ali–appointed governors in the provinces; the dissolution of his ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD); and the disbanding of the state security apparatus, including the hated political police. Banned parties like Nahda were legalized, and amnestied political prisoners were allowed to run for office.

The coup de grâce came on March 3. After avalanching sit-ins in Casbah Square, Essebsi bowed to the coalition’s core demand: elections for a Constituent Assembly that would be empowered to draft a new Constitution and convene parliamentary and presidential elections. In a speech broadcast live on Tunisian TV that day, President Fouad Mebazaa vowed that there would be “a new political system that definitively breaks with the old regime.”

The scale of Tunisia’s achievement can be contrasted with what has happened elsewhere. In Egypt voters approved the kind of regime-steered transition that the masses in Casbah Square fought so hard to prevent: Egypt is now paying the price for having an army midwife a democracy. In Syria and Yemen dictators turned bloodily on their people. In Libya there was civil war and foreign intervention. In Bahrain, occupation and show trials.

Yet no sooner had “the people brought down the regime” (to echo the revolution’s most infectious slogan) than the national alliance that enabled it fell apart: the Casbah coalition devolved into discrete, fractious and antagonistic parties.

The rupture was apparently over the pace of elections. Nahda and the centrist Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) wanted to keep the original polling date of July 24: the longer Tunisia goes without the legitimacy of an elected authority, they said, the likelier outbreaks of lawlessness. But most of the ninety or so parties wanted a deferral. Overwhelmingly neophyte, they said a July date would give undue advantage to parties with an established base and national organization—like the PDP and Nahda.

The country’s new electoral commission agreed: it ruled that the vote should wait until October so that Tunisia’s 3 million voters could register. All parties bowed to the decision, the Islamists through gritted teeth. They charged that the spat over tempo masked a deeper one over politics.

Despite Nahda’s avowed commitment to multiparty democracy, much of Tunisia’s liberal and secular elite (the “people from the Sahel,” in Rajhi’s phrase) view any kind of Islamism with paranoia: once in power, they say, Nahda will impose Sharia law, ban alcohol, enforce the veil and destroy tourism, on which one in five jobs in Tunisia rely.

Women especially fear for Tunisia’s personal status code, the most liberal in the region: this bans polygamy, grants equal pay and permits the legal right to abortion. Ghannouchi has vowed to keep the code, but few secular women believe him. “He says one thing to you and another to his people,” said a woman who works with an international NGO specializing in “democratic transitions.” “To his people Ghannouchi says one way to reduce unemployment among Tunisian men is to keep Tunisian women at home.”

A new “modern democratic alliance” has been formed—made up of social democratic and ex-communist parties as well as women’s groups—with the aim of keeping Nahda from power. In response, Nahda has resigned from a government committee in charge of the transition to elections, protesting its “takeover” by the left. The new secular bloc is “possibly aimed at postponing the elections” out of fear that Nahda will do well, charged Ghannouchi (polls show the Islamists are the most popular party in Tunisia, with 14–20 percent support).

The acrimony not only shadowed the violence in Tunis and Sidi Bouzid; it revived old feuds. Nahda cadre remind all that it was an alliance of Ben Ali’s RCD, certain professional syndicates and women’s organizations that backed his dictatorship, including his ruthless persecution of their movement in the 1990s, when thousands were killed, tortured, exiled and jailed. Ben Ali justified what he called “eradication” as necessary to stop Tunisia from going the way of Algeria, where a savage civil war between Islamist insurgents and the army left hundreds of thousands dead. It was a spurious charge, but it can still be heard among Tunisia’s Westernized elite.

The fear of Nahda is exaggerated, says a PDP leader. So too are Nahda’s charges of conspiracy against the left. The real threat facing Tunisia’s fledgling democracy is not that the Islamists could emerge as the biggest party in the Constituent Assembly or that the left is a surrogate for counterrevolution. It’s that 67 percent of Tunisians have little trust in any politician, Islamist, secular or liberal.

The Sahel and the Lumpen-Intelligentsia

Joblessness is Tunisia’s most incendiary issue. Unemployment is said to be 15 percent, but the figure masks large regional and generational discrepancies. In coastal cities like Tunis it may be as low as 7 percent. In Sidi Bouzid it may be as high as 30 percent. In the interior’s Gafsa district, where strikes in phosphate mines in 2008 are deemed the real harbinger of the 2011 revolution, it is said to be 40 percent, with perhaps one in four families in poverty. Among Tunisians under 30 (54 percent of the population, according to the National Institute of Statistics), it is 26 percent, with 170,000 out of 400,000 university graduates without work. Again, the deprivation is harsher in the interior and south.

By common assent, this was the class and age cohort that brought down Ben Ali. You see them everywhere: killing time in Sidi Bouzid, packed into slums in Tunis’s grim northern estates, milling on street corners near the Casbah. After “the revolution of the youth,” they remain all fired up but with nothing to do. Most are poor and rural in origin. They become proletarianized after their drift to the coast in search of work. They are mostly religious in outlook and conservative in habit, embodying the anomie of a generation that is overschooled, underemployed and with little hope of a job except the menial, unskilled and dead-end. They are “a kind of lumpen-intelligentsia,” said one pollster. And they are Nahda’s natural constituency, the reason he thinks the party will do well in the elections.

But for the coastal elite they represent another, suddenly visible and enfranchised Tunisia, one with which it has never had to share power. This is not to say the rich were all allied with Ben Ali. By the 2000s they, like most Tunisians, were disgusted by the kleptocracy of his clan and the mafia rule of his regime. But after independence the elite had struck a pact with the state: minimal political rights in return for relatively high rates of growth, uneven development in favor of the coast and a national identity that was homogeneous, modern, Francophile and secular. Nahda embodies the antithesis of all this, and so do the people who support it. The elite’s fear of the Islamists is thus not really about religion; it is about culture and class.

And it could become class war. For many Tunisians the only way this can be averted is if the national unity among parties and civil society groups initially achieved in the Casbah over the transition to democracy can be resurrected over issues of social justice.

This will mean moving away from an economy in which cheap labor and tourism are the main draws for European investment to one where jobs are created, factories built and resources redistributed from the coast to the interior. Otherwise, the violence seen in Tunis and Sidi Bouzid may not be the last throes of the old Tunisia but dire omens of the new.

In such a future, it seems odd to cast Nahda as the problem. The party’s espousal of democratic politics, its willingness to work in alliances, its preference for “a government of national unity” and base in the interior suggests, rather, that it is a necessary part of the solution—if that young, poor, other Tunisia is not to turn as violently against democracy as it did against dictatorship.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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