Post-Revolution Tunisia: Still Fighting for Rights
By: Ghassan Saoud
Published Thursday, October 18, 2012
Many Tunisians feel their revolution was hijacked and the current ruling party has not improved their lifestyles. There are many who will not rest until their demands are finally met.
From the tenth floor restaurant of the El Hana Hotel overlooking Bourguiba Street, the stage of the Tunisian revolution, some of its intellectuals peer down. “Don’t be too impressed by the city’s lights,” advises one. “They’re deceptive. The alleyways aren’t so pretty.”
All agree that the overthrow of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was a good thing. But they are upset about almost everything else. One veteran of the struggle risks spoiling the alcohol-enhanced mood of the entire gathering by announcing his retirement: “Ben Ali was enough for me. I fought him for you, so I’ll leave you to fight the other dictators for me.”
He is not alone in feeling that way. There are activists throughout Tunisia who feel confused about what they should be doing after their revolution was hijacked by the Islamist al-Nahda party, using a potent combination of money, media and religion. Some have become convinced that hidden hands were at play all along in the removal of Ben Ali.
These revolutionary intellectuals are immeasurably better off than the real revolutionaries who, all over the country, have not yet surrendered to al-Nahda or anyone else.
They are dispersed: a political party here; an association there; another party; a musical group; bloggers; a third party; another association.
Parties disintegrate and coalitions form. There are parties that did not take part in the elections who have more seats in parliament than parties that did. Tunisians feel disoriented.
Alone among the country’s political forces, al-Nahda, Tunisia’s Muslim Brotherhood, knows what it wants and how to achieve its goals. Unlike the others, it has the financial, media and human resources and international connections needed to obtain what it seeks. Its critics complain that it has yet to achieve anything for Tunisians, and popular disaffection with it has reached such an extent that several of its offices have been torched. Yet none of its opponents can even dream of beating it at the ballot box.
Since Ben Ali’s ouster, al-Nahda has been systematically building up a network of employment, educational and health services and media and religious institutions, while retaining its pre-existing clandestine network. The party’s leaders are also good at keeping their differences under wraps, appreciating that is not the time to let divisions show. There is no evidence that the next time they go to the polls, a majority of Tunisians will not once again deem a vote for al-Nahda to be a vote for Islam.
In opposing al-Nahda, the left-wing Popular Front coalition is preoccupied with legal battles rather than political and other forms of struggle, while the Wafa movement – along with some leftist parties and the Salafis – amuses itself with petty issues. The mettle has meanwhile yet to be tested of Ben Ali’s former premier, Beji Caid Essebsi, who is trying to group al-Nahda’s opponents together in what has come to be called Neda Tounes (Tunisia’s Call).
The group has attracted well-known opposition figures such as Mohsen Marzouk, Maya Jribi, and Taieb Baccouche, among others. Just as al-Nahda managed to bring together a host of small Islamist groups under the banner of promoting political Islam, Neda Tounes has so far succeeded in attracting a number of secular (or at least non-Islamist) factions that used to be described as mutually antagonistic. Though some are vesting high hopes in the movement, it is still not possible to say that a two-party system is in the process of evolving in Tunisia.
Peasant farmer’s houses dot the landscape on both sides of the road from Tunisia’s current capital to its old one, Kairouan. Outlying Tunisians towns, with the exception of some tourist destinations, have been reduced to little more than distribution centers for agricultural produce.
The farmers are welcoming and friendly to passing visitors. They are keen to tell you how beautiful their country is, and demonstrate that its food is the most delicious in the world – even if the meal is a mixture of eggs, chilli, oil, chick peas and bread cooked up together.
You know you have arrived in the capital of the Aghalebites when the number of “dead policemen” on the road increases. This is the term Tunisians use for speed bumps. A relative of the former first lady, Laila Trabelsi, owned a contracting firm which specialized in them. As a result, millions of speed bumps materialized all over the country.
With a population of some 5,000, Kairouan is famous for its lablabi and Kiftaji, local dishes, and for the Uqba Bin Nafei Mosque, the oldest in the Arab Maghreb, built in 670 AD. It is also well known for its Salafis, who live in peace alongside its Sufis. So long as tourists continue coming, there is no outward sign of Salafi encroachment on peoples’ liberties. But local activists recount how they once prevented the holding of a disco, barred an Iranian troupe from performing in the town, and often put pressure on local imams to enforce strict dress codes in mosques. Above all they resent the way the Salafis got the entire town branded by the media when they converged there from all over the country in August and chanted slogans in support of Osama Bin-Laden.
In the evening, the only lights in Kairouan come from two restaurants, a pinball parlor, and the town’s cafes. Young people can barely be seen on the streets after 10pm. They apparently spend the time at home engrossed in social networking sites.
In the morning, from the hotel balcony, farmers can be seen making their way to their fields, and elderly ladies wrapped in traditional sefsaris queuing for bread. There are more tourists about than last year in the aftermath of the revolution, but still nothing like the numbers that used to visit.
Locals quip that – in addition to freedom, of course – the only thing the revolution has achieved in Kairouan is the restoration of the Ramadan cannon to its place in Jalladin Square (Ben Ali’s secularist antics included a ban on Ramadan cannons ordered in 2010). Even official attempts to rename the place “Martyrs Square” in the wake of the revolution fell flat. People still refer to Jalladin Square by its old name
In the old city, there is a mosque every ten meters or so, as though every Kairouani has one for themselves. This is a living old city, like Damascus, and unlike so many others that have been touristified. The alleyways can lead you to a neighborhood where women embroider carpets, or another where elderly men fashion shoes out of leather. Ancient skills that are threatened with extinction are at work producing handicrafts for an equally endangered tourism industry.
Behind the whitewashed walls and the blue painted doors and windows, tales of injustice and poverty are concealed, along with ones of unbreakable dignity and love. The love, kindness, and effusiveness of the Tunisians is indescribable.
Kairouan is connected to Sidi Bouzid, the revolution’s birthplace, by what can best be described as a long ditch, which takes you through a valley filled with olive groves guarded by green, yellow and red cactus bushes. In the minibus on the way, a lady in a headscarf loses no time asking a young woman she does not know whether the man accompanying her on the evening journey is her husband. One of the two 20-something year old men sitting in the back, evidently bored with the pop music on the radio, strikes up an Islamic chant. His friend next to him is engaged in a Facebook campaign in defence of the Prophet’s Companions.
The road to Sidi-Bouzid is enough to provoke a revolution on its own. “You call it a road?“ asks one local activist. “There is no infrastructure here, no drinking water, no hospital, no work, no tourism, no freedom or justice or even a little respect...Our revolution was confiscated before it was exported to other regions.”
The people of Sidi Bouzid do not approve of the term “January 14 Revolution.” In the town that sparked it, it is called the “December 17 Revolution.” That was the day when a man with a street vendor’s cart worth around 50 dinars ($33) set himself alight in Sidi Bouzid. On that day, as locals retell it, a group of angry people who had emerged onto the street from the Ittihad cafe joined with others in the western part of the town, and were filmed by a camera from the second floor of an overlooking building. Al-Jazeera called it a “revolution,” and so it became.
Sidi Bouzid went out onto the streets that day, and has never gone back in. People there are surprised that the revolution should be linked to the day Ben Ali left power, as though the problem was only with him personally. “We revolted against all the Ben Alis of Sidi Bouzid,” says once activist, yet his friend explains that these same people have retained their former influence.
Were it not for Mohammad Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation, no visitor or government official would have bothered to set foot in Sidi Bouzid. People have nothing left to fear. Ben Ali left, but they were sent a governor who was even more high-handed and meaner. His sole accomplishment to date has been to raise the height of the wall around his headquarters. He thought the metal would serve its purpose. Two weeks ago, protestors bent back the metal bars and stormed the compound.
Sidi Bouzid refuses to deify Bouazizi. Townspeople fell out with his mother after her glorification of her son became excessive. When a street was called after him, a group opposed to individual hero-worship smashed the tile bearing his name – though another group quickly wrote it back up again on the wall where the tile had been. The commemorative plinth bearing Bouazizi’s cart appears neglected. Apart from the huge portrait of him over the post office, no image can be found in Sidi Bouzid of the town’s famous revolutionary.
Al-Nahda failed to bring the place to heel. It only won two of the district’s eight parliamentary seats. Try as it has, it has been unable to suppress the Bouzidis’ incessant demands for freedom and dignity. Even respected independent figures with a record of struggle have been unable to contain them. Attiyah Othmani, who at the start of the revolution played the role of serious eyewitness on al-Jazeera, only managed to muster a handful of votes, as did the sacked former judge Mohammad Jilali and others. They do not want political parties or a regime here, and they are uninterested in al-Nahda or Salafi tracts about what is happening to their Muslim brethren in Burma or Aleppo. Their priorities are dignity, freedom and work.
Some seven months after the official end of the Tunisian revolution, the courthouse and the regional security headquarters in Sidi Bouzid were torched. And with the official revolution still not two years old, the town is bracing for another uprising which some activists say will go far further than the first. The reasons for rebelling remain unchanged, and to make things worse, there has been no let-up in attempts to hijack the revolution and deceive the people who carried out.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.