Last Updated: Tue Jun 12, 2012 12:02 pm (KSA) 09:02 am (GMT)

Is Tunisia really an exception?

Adel al-Toraifi

During the month of Ramadan in 1975, the late Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba was sitting in the front row listening to Professor of Philosophy Hind Shalabi giving a lecture on Laylat al-Qadr [the Night of Destiny]. This was a customary annual tradition that the Tunisian President maintained ever since he came to power, namely that he and his guests would listen to a religious sermon from a scholar every Ramadan.

Yet this lecture was different from the previous ones, for it was the first time that a woman had been invited to deliver the sermon. Bourguiba had always considered the Tunisian experience to be an exception, and in many of his speeches he boasted that women in other Arab states were deprived of their rights, whereas in Tunisia women enjoyed rights equal to their European counterparts, ever since the Personal Status Law was endorsed back in 1956.

However, Bourguiba was shocked when the lecturer sharply criticized several of the regime’s practices with regards to women’s liberation, banning polygamy, systematizing divorce and breaking fast during Ramadan; practices which the lecturer described as a complete contradiction to Islam, calling for a return to the fundamental foundations of the religion.

The president was enraged by what he heard, and asked how the lecturer was allowed to say such things without someone scrutinizing her speech in advance. The president was then informed that such opinions were widespread among the young generations at Tunisia’s universities. The Ministry of Interior presented the president with a detailed report about the phenomenon of the Islamist current. With considerable bitterness, Habib Bourguiba felt that what he had achieved through education, and through the promotion of Western systems and laws, was vanishing amidst what he deemed to be a “reactionary” discourse.

What Bourguiba realized, albeit somewhat late, was that Tunisia was no exception to other Arab states. Perhaps, Tunisia has a special history and experience of its own, but it is still no exception. In the “post-revolution” weeks in Tunisia, much was said and written about the unique Tunisian experience, for it served as the catalyst for all other “revolutions” and popular uprisings that erupted in other Arab states. Some people attributed this to the Tunisian character and its cultural anti-colonial history, whilst others focused on Tunisia’s close contact with Europe and its secular modernity, something that made it seem more moderate than its Arab peers.

It is true that Tunisia’s transitional phase has been more stable than Libya, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, and that the Tunisian people successfully managed to conduct elections for the constituent assembly and choose a president for their country, yet despite all these achievements, the country continues to suffer instability, and the security and economic conditions are worsening by the day.

Foreign exchange reserves have declined to less than $6 billion – an amount only sufficient to cover Tunisia’s imports for 100 days. The Tunisian Central Bank has warned of the continuing rate of inflation, the worsening trade deficit and the high unemployment rate that has increased to 35 percent among graduates, according to official statistics.

Furthermore, the events of 2011 have weakened the security apparatus, and provided citizens with a sense of entitlement to demonstrate and express themselves perhaps to an extent that transgresses the law and the principles of social security. Amidst this phenomenon of security decline, assaults and clashes between the Tunisian political parties and currents have escalated in a manner that threatens public security.

In Sidi Bou Said, where the Tunisian uprising erupted, clashes recently broke out between adherents of the Salafist current and wine merchants, and some religious elements - armed with sticks, swords and firearms - attacked bars and shut them down. Tunisian unionists and intellectuals expressed their discontent with the “Ennahda” coalition government, which remained silent about the Salafists’ transgressions and failed to punish them according to the law. This has encouraged the Salafists to commit more violence and intimidation inside Tunisian universities, where they have sought to impose the niqab on female students, and even raise al-Qaeda’s flag in place of the Tunisian national flag.

Such a tense situation prompted Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki last month to extend the emergency law, although he had long criticized the previous regime for resorting to such means which curb conventional laws and curtail freedoms. The state of overwhelming unease has been made apparent by statements issued by state officials, as a result of the left-wing and workers’ continual demonstrations and the threats launched by religious extremist groups, to the extent that the Tunisian Ministry of Interior threatened to use live ammunition in the event that sovereign institutions such as police headquarters are attacked, or if public security is jeopardized.

In an interview on Tunisian television, Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali - who spent years in the former regime’s jails - threatened to confront anyone who thinks that the current government is in a position of weakness, or anyone seeking to monopolize public opinion and impose a social trend by force, in reference to the Salafists. He also expressed his objection to the ongoing demonstrations that are crippling development in Tunisia, in reference to the workers unions and the revolutionary left-wing protests taking place in the country. Utilizing a strong tone, Jebali said “the Tunisian people have run out of patience. You are wronging yourselves as well as Islam, and the government will not hesitate to intervene to stop this going too far.”

Such signs and indications are very worrying because they reflect the slow pace of an inexperienced coalition government and a constituent assembly whose members are still in the process of learning the ABCs of parliamentary work. This has been compounded by the European economic slowdown that has impacted greatly upon Tunisia’s exports, whilst European tourism has failed to return to the pre-revolution levels. On the other hand, the Tunisian people so far seem divided over what direction the country should move in.

There are some voices that are demanding a change in foreign policy, as is the case with Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi, who has received symbols of political Islam such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Ismail Haniya and others. There are also those who demand greater openness with Iran, and the endorsement of a law that prohibits the normalization of relations with Israel. Whilst others have demanded that the Turkish language should be taught as part of the official school syllabus, and the Ministry of Education has since sought to turn this into a project.

Yet I not know how a government that is yet to restore basic services can be preoccupied with teaching a foreign language, in a society where the number of unemployed citizens – as a proportion of the population – exceeds that of other Arab states. I do not know how the constituent assembly can be preoccupied with secondary issues whilst it is yet to finish drafting the country’s constitution.

In an article by William Lawrence, Director of the North Africa Project for the International Crisis Group, published recently in Asharq al-Awsat entitled “The Tunisian Exception”, he argued that Tunisia’s experience in the “Arab Spring” seems to be an exception if compared to that of Egypt or Libya. He attributed this to the consensus on certain democratic rules of the game. However, Lawrence also warns of the difficulty when it comes to getting rid of the past, as the lack of coordination between major cities and rural suburbs, between Islamic and secular powers, and between the heirs of the former regime and the supporters of the new regime could all thwart the Tunisian experience, or at least stifle it in the short-term.

In my opinion, focusing on the assumption that the Tunisian experience is an exception could have an adverse effect. This is because the tendency to create illusions and promote a utopian discourse with regards to the revolution might cause the Tunisian people to magnify their revolutionary climate, making it seem even more important than the actual causes of the revolution in the first place, which were limited political participation and the deplorable economic conditions. Anyone who reviews the statements issued by some symbols of the new era in Tunisia would be surprised by the size of discrepancies and the lack of realism in the pledges they have made, whilst the country is still unable to overcome its security vacuum or restore economic or tourist activity.

The Tunisian experiment has a greater chance than its other Arab counterparts, yet this depends primarily on achieving stability, economic openness and avoiding revenge against those who served in the previous regime. The sense of social forgiveness that leads to renouncing public vendettas is essential in order for the new regime not to embark on killing innocent people together with guilty ones, as happened in Iraq, Egypt and Libya.

The calls for revenge under the cloak of disenfranchisement will ultimately lead to only one ideological trend within the state’s institutions. In an interview she gave to the “Attounissia” website, writer Olfa Youssef said “I do not believe that what happened in Tunisia was a revolution. Rather it was an uprising staged by marginalized and unemployed people, subsequently hijacked by intellectuals and youths who were eager to gain freedom, whilst the uprising was then backed by foreign powers and fulfilled by the flight of the former president.”

Adel Al Toraifi is the current Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla, the leading Arab magazine. A specialist on Saudi foreign policy, he is recognized as a commentator for various TV channels. His article was first published on asharq al awsat on June 09, 2012.

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