“Tunisian Zorba” Returns Home in Pursuit of the Possible

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Labib looks to the nature of Tunisian society to reaffirm his confidence in the fate of the revolution, which in his view no one can hijack, neither the Islamists nor anyone else. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Elie Abdo

Published Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Longtime resident of Beirut, Tahar Labib quickly returned to his home country when the Ben Ali regime fell. The overly optimistic Tunisian writer spoke to Al-Akhbar about his positive outlook.

When the revolution first broke out in Tunisia in December 2010, many Arab intellectuals kept a distance from the events. Tahar Labib, whose Lebanese friends call the “Tunisian Zorba,” did not. The sociologist, who had been living in Beirut for 13 years, was engaged in discussions about the nature of the revolution from its very early days.

The spark that Mohammad Bouazizi lit in Sidi Bouzid – which also happens to be Labib’s hometown – made the writer of Sociologia al-Ghazal al-Arabi (The Sociology of Arab Romancing) decide to leave Beirut for good.

He left his position as director of the Arab Organization for Translation and chose to return to Tunisia as a full-time writer in order to live in the post-revolutionary era, with all its hopes, dreams, and challenges.

He considers himself lucky to have witnessed in his lifetime a revolution that he did not expect in his country: “The revolution is that of the possible, and thus, its mere occurrence is encouraging. If we invoke Gramsci’s argument, I would be closer to the optimism of the will than the pessimism of the mind.”

“The optimism of the Arab mind transformed into misery and did not bear anything. The optimism of the popular will has resulted in the Arab revolutions,” he adds.

Labib believes that his background as a sociologist contributes to his optimism. He says that the youth who revolted, and who are anxious to see results, are definitely less optimistic.

“Their demands are now in the hands of representatives, who are not necessarily part of their movement. And political considerations and their position in society put them at a distance from these demands. If that is the case, then this is not unusual, because revolutions often eat their children,” he says.

The writer, who supervised a number of collective works, including Gramsci in the Arab World and Imagining the Arab Other, believes that “the rise of Islamists to power through elections is expected in a society with an Islamic nature.”

However, he notes that “what is surprising is that they won 40 percent of the vote in the elections. This high percentage in Tunisia and Egypt is what made the Arab Spring seem Islamic, even if for one season only.

However, it is fortunate that, in principle, we in Tunisia can rule out the militarization of the spring.”

“I worry about politicizing religion and ruling in the name of religion, whichever it may be. Of course, I am concerned about the situation in Tunisia, but I am not afraid quite yet. Concern is an expression of personal dissatisfaction with the results, whereas my fear is political, over the fate of society,” he says.

Labib looks to the nature of Tunisian society to reaffirm his confidence in the fate of the revolution, which in his view no one can hijack, neither the Islamists nor anyone else.

“Tunisian society is relatively coherent. It has civil traditions that are influenced by Islam, an open intellectual tradition, and social tolerance, with a general tendency towards modernization. I do not see how this society, with all its effective civil forces, can tolerate a religious authority as a political ruler.”

For Labib, it is not a matter of optimism, but a bet on society: “The Islamists’ presence in power requires that they accommodate society and back down from some of their religious principles, like the strict application of some sharia laws.”

“I believe that the al-Nahda movement has understood that: It is aware that those who voted for it, voted primarily for those who were persecuted by the previous regime and that not all voters are Islamists.”

“Religious voters themselves may have voted for Islam rather than the Islamists. Thus, the electoral victory of Islamists may be considered an urgent and spontaneous first rehearsal for a democratic play, pending the settling of options and paths that have not yet matured. Let us wait for the upcoming parliamentary elections to be sure,” he adds.

Labib believes that society will find its way in the end: “It seems that al-Nahda has understood that. It began to announce – at the level of rhetoric at least – its transformation from a movement that wants to rule in the name of religion into a conservative movement that accepts what is known as the democratic game.”

This can be detected in the fact that “religious slogans did not dominate celebrations of the revolution’s first anniversary. Instead, the initial slogans of freedom, dignity, and bread were used. Political slogans were limited to the trinity of civility, democracy, and consensus.”

As for the much touted “Turkish model” and the extent to which the Tunisian situation is similar, Labib explains: “Regardless of its particularity, the al-Nahda leadership’s rhetoric seeks to suggest the possibility of an Islamic rule in a secular society. But regardless of what it may say, there is always fear of al-Nahda’s base, which has not been clearly defined, especially now that it has attracted terrifying Salafi elements.”

“If I were to be overly optimistic, I would not exclude the possibility of the Islamists one day finding themselves facing an overwhelming secular society, especially if they attempt to legislate morals and ethics that would compensate them for what they may consider as concessions they made on implementing sharia,” he predicts.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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