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.