Ed. note: Remember the Arab Spring? Once seen as a progressive leap forward, the wave of protests that began in 2010 have fallen flat in many countries. A rare bright spot has been newly democratic Tunisia, the place where it all began. Even there, however, pessimism is rising. Harvard graduate student Ethan Mefford, after a recent stay in the country, offers some reasons to be worried — and hopeful — below.
January 14 marked the five-year anniversary of Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s flight to Saudi Arabia, and the country is in a retrospective mood. In “the lone bright spot of the Arab Spring,” a phrase that western media has made the country’s unofficial tag line, there is a general sense of apprehension. For such a young democracy, Tunisia is remarkably politics-weary.
Nidaa Tounes (Call for Tunisia), the secular party of President Béji Caïd Essebsi, formed a four-party governing coalition after winning a plurality of seats in the 2014 parliamentary election but itself is splintering from lack of direction and the disillusionment of many members with an autocratic structure built around Essebsi and his son, Hafedh. In the callow world of Tunisian politics, Essebsi’s Nidaa relied as much on its opposition to the Islamist Ennahda party as on any positive vision, and Ennahda’s participation in the coalition has denied Nidaa its raison d’être.
The sense of political disillusionment is spiked by an anemic economy, with security fears crippling the country’s critical tourism industry, linked to as many as one in five jobs in the country. This combination is fuelling a sense of nostalgia among Tunisians for the good old days under Ben Ali.
The nostalgia has been building for several years. A late-2014 documentary, 7 Vies (Seven Lives, a double entendre that refers to the Arabic saying that cats have seven lives, rather than our familiar nine, as well as to a symbol of Ben Ali’s reign, inaugurated by a bloodless coup on November 7, 1987), created by the young Tunisian director Amine Boufaïed and the French-Tunisian journalist Lilia Blaise, examines the resurgence of Ben Ali’s popularity, interviewing a broad swath of Tunisians, of whom roughly half, modest and elite alike, look back fondly on the felled strongman.
The sentiment is most common among Tunisians over 40, while the youth who drove the revolution remain broadly anti-Ben Ali, relishing their freedom to post any and all ideas to social media, and their sense that they can bring about change by taking to the streets. Dismissive of traditional news sources as tendentious, corrupt, or both, young Tunisians turn to online sources of content to get what they consider to be an unfiltered look at the state of the country. Nawaat.org, a leader among such sites, offers content in Arabic, French, and English, indicating the cosmopolitan outlook of the cohort of young Tunisian activists who are its contributors. Such sources, while sceptical of Tunisia’s tyro class of politicians, would rather see Ben Ali return to Tunisia to serve time in prison than further time in the presidency.
The lack of youth nostalgia for the deposed dictator is not an indication of faith in the current political establishment, nor of optimism for the future of the country: a recent Nawaat article raised the question of whether it was even worth voting. The glut of unemployed recent college graduates was a major cause of the revolution, and little has been done to release that pressure over the past five years. The youth unemployment rate is estimated to hover around 30%, or twice the national average.
“They are all the same,” Osama, a 20-year old business major said of the parties involved in the governing coalition, though the coalition headed by the secular Nidaa Tounes includes the Islamist Ennahda party. Osama plans to spend a year studying in Moscow “to let things settle down,” but he does not anticipate improvement in the economic situation and believes that his future may lie in France. “Under Ben Ali, at least there was security,” Osama added, though he acknowledged that things could never return to how they were.
“In 2011, it was revealed that the emperor had no clothes,” observed Youssef Seddik, an esteemed Tunisian philosopher and anthropologist in “7 Vies.” Ben Ali’s feared security apparatus, which reportedly comprised some 150,000 agents in a country of just under 11 million, was said to have infiltrated every neighbourhood but was revealed to be a paper tiger in the face of overwhelming popular anger. When army chief General Rachid Ammar refused to commit his soldiers to crushing the popular uprising in mid-January 2011, Ben Ali had nowhere left to turn. For a man whose name was synonymous with the security apparatus, the revelation that his prize creation was ineffectual should have dealt a death blow to his prestige.
And it has, in a sense. The longing that many Tunisians express for the security and stability of the Ben Ali era is notional, nostalgia for a simpler bygone era rather than a true desire to see him reinstalled. Few Tunisians believe that Ben Ali, toppled by unarmed youth, could actually smother the well-armed Islamist insurgency that pesters the country’s security forces in the mountainous and desert reaches of the south and east of the country and occasionally lands dramatic urban blows — the attacks on the Bardo Museum and the beach resort at Sousse and the bombing of the Presidential Guard bus last December in the heart of Tunis. “Ben Ali could not put the security problems back in the box,” Osama concluded ruefully.
At the root of Tunisia’s insecurity is the chaos in neighbouring Libya. Tunisian extremists easily cross the border to gain training and combat experience in the militia and ISIS-infested melee. At 285 miles long, securing the border against the importation of arms and explosives is a Sisyphean task for Tunisia’s overstretched security forces. The government has begun to erect a fence that will eventually stretch from the coast 100 miles inland, but smuggling across the border via official border crossings is an essential economic activity in southern Tunisia, and weapons have found their way into the steady stream of goods.
Troubles across the region stemming from the Arab Spring also weigh heavily on the collective conscience of Tunisia, the birthplace of the uprisings. There is a remarkable lack of triumphalism among Tunisians regarding the moment that this small country acted as the fulcrum for the entire Arab world.
“We feel sorry for what other countries have suffered,” lamented Sihem, an architect in her thirties. Educated Tunisians are acutely aware that their country enjoyed significant advantages over its regional counterparts that made the compromises critical to its foray into democracy possible. The religiously homogeneous population (Tunisians are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim) is enriched by an active and broad-based civil society, and the army has a tradition of professionalism and political quiescence. The lack of one or more of these conditions has led to the failed revolutions and bloodshed that have marred Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria.
It is this striking degree of national self-awareness and maturity that fosters optimism for Tunisia’s future. The mutterings of nostalgia for Ben Ali are fuelled by immediate concerns over security and the economy, and while these issues will remain intractable in the near-term, there is a general recognition among Tunisians that the only path through the difficulties leads forward.
The democratic path is, however, beset by challenges from across the political spectrum. Short of the violent danger posed by Islamic extremists, secular Tunisians read into Ennahda’s willingness to subordinate itself to Nidaa Tounes in the current governing coalition an underhanded plan to dominate the next elections at the expense of the discredited secular parties, ushering in an Islamist political hegemon that may sooner or later reject the constraints of democracy. Ennahda, for its part, has reason to perceive in the nostalgia for Ben Ali a willingness among secular Tunisians to forgo civil liberties in exchange for a crackdown on Islamists, extreme and moderate alike, of the kind that Ben Ali launched in response to Islamist agitations at the time of the Gulf War.
Countervailing these corrosive suspicions is an awareness among Tunisians of what is at stake. As they look around the region, they see spoiled hopes and scarring violence. It is this perspective that paved the way for the crucial compromise that defined the 2014 constitution: Sharia was not mentioned as a source of legislation for the country, while Article One declared Tunisia’s religion to be Islam. It is also this perspective that can keep the country united and moving forward.
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