Tunisia: An Ongoing Laboratory for Arab Revolution

A year after the self-immolation of a vegetable vendor in Tunisia sparked a political tidal wave across the Arab world, it's hard to point to much positive change in the North African country. Unemployment remains high, Islamists won a plurality in elections, and women fight to wear the niqab in public.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

"Everyone talks about the Arab spring, but Mohamed Bouazizi didn't set himself on fire in order to bring democracy," says Jamal Hajlawi. "All he wanted was a job. That's what we made the revolution about, but nothing has changed."

Hajlawi did not know Bouazizi, the 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor who, one year ago, on December 17, 2010, poured kerosene over himself and set himself aflame in protest, after a municipal inspector in Sidi Bouzid confiscated his mobile fruit stand and slapped him. Eighteen days later, Bouazizi died of his injuries, but even before his death, his deed had ignited a series of violent demonstrations against the country's regime, which spread northward from the countryside toward the capital, Tunis, and led to the forced resignation of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, after the army refused to obey his order to open fire on the demonstrators.

An elderly man sits by the road in Sidi Bouzid, earlier this year. The poor town in the heart of Tunisia became famous following Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation.Credit: NYT

Bouazizi and the revolution he ignited in Tunisia were the opening salvo for the series of revolutions that have washed over Arab countries during the past year. But in Sidi Bouzid, a poor town of 40,000 inhabitants in the heart of Tunisia, in the streets where he confronted insensitive officials and police - the despair that drove him to self-immolation, and the impotence of young people who have no future, continue to dominate.

In recent weeks, Hajlawi and seven other men in their late 20s have been living in two tents near the locked gate of the provincial governor's office, opposite which Bouazizi made his solitary protest. The building, across from which the first demonstrations were held a year ago, is still closed to the public and is guarded by a force of soldiers from the Tunisian army. Every few days the soldiers disperse the tents, but the group returns.

"Everyone is busy with the elections, establishing the new government and formulating the constitution," says one of the tent-dwellers, Khaled Hutami, an engineer who has been unemployed for six years now. "They ignore the fact that outside the major cities, people are struggling with unemployment and poverty, and that this is what started the revolution. Not politics."

Hadi Muhammad, an unemployed teacher, blames Rashid al-Ghannushi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahda party that won the largest number of votes in the October legislative elections, of having "hijacked the revolution so he can rule the country." Muhammad identifies with the Communist Workers Party (PCOT), which won only three seats in the 217-member constituent assembly. "The Americans and the British are pleased with Ghannushi," he says. "He is seeing to it that there will be order here. The army is also pleased with him."

No one has erected a memorial to Bouazizi in the spot where the revolution began. Some of the passersby say that a dark stain on the cracked sidewalk is the exact place where he set himself alight. "He didn't intend to commit suicide at all," says one man. "He just wanted to attract attention."

"One of my sons who was here was the first to notice that a person was going up in flames," recalls Yassin Bilhaji, owner of the newsstand across from the governor's building. "[Bouazizi] was crossing the street, trying to get into the building but he collapsed in front of the gate. Someone poured water on him but it was too late."

One doesn't sense much sympathy for Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid. Instead there is envy - of his widowed mother, his brothers and his sisters, who on the wings of glory have left here for a more comfortable life in France. No one has bothered to clean up the graffiti or the remains of the destruction left by the riots. The army still guards some of the government structures, the post office building is still locked and the sole ATM on the street is still wrecked.

Across from the governor's building stands a burned-out building - the municipal police station. Saleh Halifi, a policeman who was responsible for the arms storeroom, now in civilian clothing, guides us between fragments of furniture and piles of burnt documents through the building, which was totally looted. Even the toilets have been ripped from the walls. "No policeman here dares to wear his uniform in town," says Halifi. On the walls, there are still some peeling posters with Bouazizi's picture and graffiti in which the four digits 17.12 are repeated.

Seven hours north via winding and pitted roads is Tunis, the capital. There, November 7 Boulevard - marking the date President Ben Ali came into power in 1987 - has become Muhammad Bouazizi Boulevard. In the heart of the city, the clock-tower square built by Ben Ali, and also named after the date he ascended, has been renamed January 14 Square, marking the date the deposed president fled to Saudi Arabia.

Beyond the new signs, there are few indications in the city of a revolution, nor of the Ennahda Party's impressive electoral achievement: 41 percent of the seats in the constituent assembly. On the broad Habib Bourguiba Boulevard, cafes are filled with young people at every hour of the day and night. Alcohol continues to be sold freely in the city. And a non-scientific count suggests that fewer than 10 percent of the women wear any kind of head covering. Most are in tight jeans.

In a restaurant, a popular television talk show is being broadcast. "Look at how they're dressed," says one of the diners with a smile, pointing to the revealing clothing worn by the women being interviewed. "They are in fact doing it for the benefit of Ennahda: Before the revolution they would have been a lot more modest."

If there is one reminder of the unstable situation still prevailing in Tunis, it is the presence of soldiers in armored vehicles carrying machine guns, and the barbed wire still enveloping the Interior Ministry, an ongoing site of demonstrations. That aside, middle-class Tunisians seem to be holding tight to the secular Arab spirit with a whiff of France and touches of Italy that have characterized the country in its 55 years of independence. The cosmopolitan atmosphere is also preserved as you leave the center of town for neighborhoods like La Goulette, where there are many places of entertainment, or to Mutuelleville, where some of the French colonial villas have become offices for high-tech firms.

Niqab dispute

But as you move further away from the center, into the poor neighborhoods, the number of women in the streets who are covered from head to toe increases, and mosques and Ennahda election posters are far more evident. In the suburb at the western end of the metro line, the first significant conflict of democratic Tunisia is under way. Manouba University has been shut down for two weeks, ever since a small group of Salafist students blocked the gate to the humanities faculty, demanding that women wearing the niqab - the most restrictive kind of veil, which leaves only a narrow slit for the eyes - be permitted to study at the university.

The timing of those demonstrations was well-chosen: the first day of the end-of-semester exams, just a few weeks after the end of the elections, in which the extremist Salafi Hizb al Tahrir was not even allowed to run. Now it is challenging the new regime.

The university faculty insists that female students cannot attend classes with their faces covered. There is no way of knowing whether the student attending a lecture or taking an exam is the person she says she is, and whether the person behind the veil is not in fact a man. Both sides in this dispute claim to represent the democratic impulse.

Meanwhile, hundreds of students gather around the faculty gate and argue. Usually the debate is of a relatively calm nature, but sometimes the discussion degenerates into pushing. Journalism student Fatim Najara insists the aggressions comes from an extremist minority.

"At least 70 percent of he students don't agree with them," she says. "Tunisian girls don't want to wear niqab at all. It's just a few Salafist extremists who are pressuring them. I don't think there are even any female students here."

Next to the gate stand seven veiled young women. Unlike women in other countries who wear niqab and avoid conversing with any male with whom they are not acquainted, they in fact are happy to be interviewed, and are eloquent. Suheir, a student of English who prefers not to give her last name, is a petite and energetic young woman whose eyes gleam through the narrow slit in her dark purple niqab.

"All of us are students," she says. "I said I am prepared to show my face to a female lecturer and if it's a male lecturer then I can identify myself before a class or an exam to the university secretary [a woman]. I don't understand why we made the revolution if not for the sake of our rights, including our religious rights. I expect the party that won the election to pass a law that will protect those rights."

These women happily allow themselves to be photographed, standing in a black and purple line with their bags and gloves. Around them is a supportive group of male students, a few of them with Salafist-style beards and mustaches, but there are many others who also support them.

Muhammad Atta-Allah, a computer science student, introduces himself as the general secretary of one of the student unions at the university (the union that competes with the communists ).

"I personally am not a Salafist," he says, "but there is no law against wearing niqab and I don't understand how the professors have the idea they can force their opinion on female students. Here is where this ends in Tunisia. This isn't a political protest at all, it's a matter here of basic rights. In the Western countries, Muslim women can wear niqab at a university. The niqab is a part of the freedom to choose."

This is not an isolated case: At the university in the city of Sousse, riots erupted in the wake of an attempt by religious students to segregate women and men in a campus cafeteria. The faculty at Manouba is sticking by its refusal to allow the entrance of women wearing a niqab, and the Higher Education Ministry has condemned the Salafist demonstrators. Representatives of the Ennahda Party came to the university in an attempt to effect a compromise between the sides, with no success to date. During one demonstration, the Salafists went so far as to lock up the dean of the faculty and a number of professors in their offices for hours.

"A year ago no woman student came here in niqab or a head-covering or a long coat," recalls Amira Bouqeiri, a student of English. "This whole thing was not a matter for debate. I am worried that we might be seeing here the beginning of a wave of oppression of women. The Salafists are altogether opposed to the openness the university reflects - as far as they are concerned, it's just as well that the classes and the exams have been cancelled. They will continue with this. This is making me want to emigrate to another country."

'Occupy Bardo'

Over the past year, the mass demonstrations that began in Tunisia spread to other Arab countries, providing inspiration for the tens of thousands who flocked to the centers of European and American cities - as well as Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. While in the Arab capitals the protest was manifested in stormy marches, in the West the demonstrators occupied city squares and main streets with tents for many weeks.

Earlier this month the circle was closed when in Tunis, the demonstrations started up again, this time in the style of New York: While the protesters against the U.S. economic system in called their movement Occupy Wall Street, via their social networks the democrats in Tunisia are calling theirs Occupy Bardo, after the Bardo quarter in Tunis where the country's parliament building is situated. About 200 demonstrators have set up tents outside its gates, in what has become the focal point of debates and media coverage, but the protest is not attracting the masses like the demonstrations a year ago did.

It is not quite clear what the demonstrators want. Some are unemployed people who have come from the south to protest their inability to find work. Feminist activists have shown up to protest the erosion of their rights, and political activists are trying to draw the Tunisian public's attention to the process of formulating the new constitution, which is supposed to begin in the coming weeks in the new parliament. They hope to prevent the hijacking of minority rights.

Nasrine Tariqi, a language teacher and graduate of Manouba University , says there is a direct connection between what is happening at the school vis-a-vis female students and the veil, and the demonstrations outside parliament. "The veil protest is entirely political," she explains. "It is in no way by chance that they have embarked on it in parallel to the constitutional discussions. They are creating a distraction from what is happening here in the service of Ennahda."

Asked what the demonstrators in Bardo are concerned about, protestor Yunis Arbayim says: "The parties that will make up the coalition with Ennahda are focusing on election procedures and on control of the formulation of the constitution, on what is important for them to protect with regard to individual rights. We are calling upon them to remember that it is also necessary to ensure the right of opposition parties and social organizations to have their say."

Do they regret the revolution now, we ask. After all, in Ben Ali's time Tunisia was the leader among the Arab countries in the advancement of women's education and rights, and women also had considerable representation in politics and academia; Ben Ali suppressed the Islamist organizations with an iron hand.

"We do not regret the revolution in any way," insists Tariqi, "but we have seen how in Egypt the army and the Islamists have already succeeded in hijacking the revolution and destroying it, and we are here today in order to see to it that this doesn't happen in Tunisia. We are taking action so it won't be too late."

Not only was little Tunisia (10 million inhabitants ) the first Arab country to give the boot to its veteran ruler in a popular uprising, but one year later, it continues to serve as a laboratory for Arab revolution. As compared to Egypt and Yemen, and certainly to neighboring Libya and to Syria, the Tunisian revolution had relatively little bloodshed, and after a few weeks of political vacuum a temporary government was established that managed to run the country for nine months until the elections, which were conducted with hardly any complaints of fraud.

Nonetheless, all the Arab countries now feeling their way toward democracy face the same principal questions. Will they succeed in formulating a constitution that will ensure minority rights and the rights of women? What is the real strength of the Islamists and did their electoral achievements derive only from their greater organizational ability or do they really express the will of the silent majority? Does the liberal image of the revolutionary movement created in the Western media derive only from the fact that the people interviewed were usually English-speakers, secular, educated and members of the small middle class? Will they continue to play the democratic game?

Facing the determined Occupy Bardo activists, there are daily demonstrations by supporters of Ennahda and the Salafists. Usually in far greater numbers. "Let them [the parliament] work ," shout the Islamists, who also yell "No to America, no to Qatar [headquarters of the Al Jazeera network,]" and "A free and Islamic Tunisia."

"They call themselves democrats," said counter-demonstrator Rachid Shukeiri, a computer technician who lives in the Bardo quarter, "but there were elections and Ennahda won and all of a sudden, they don't like it. We represent the democratic will of the people, they don't."

During most of the day, the sides face off on either side of the main street near the assembly building, and order is maintained. However, according to opposition activists, when the sun goes down, the Islamists try to infiltrate into the encampment, knock over tents and throw bottles. The police at the site, they say, do not intervene.

Eighty parties vied in the elections at the end of October. While nearly all the Islamist votes went to Ennahda, the liberals and the democrats were fragmented into dozens of splinter lists. Thirty-two percent of the voters cast their ballots for parties that did not win enough votes to become part of the parliamentary forces.

Jacob Lellouche is a restaurateur, artist and bohemian who ran for election on behalf of the Popular Republican Union (UPR ), a social-liberal party that was one of the lists that did not manage to pass the threshold for entry into the assembly. He is pleased nonetheless, because, according to him, "I proved that Tunisians have no problem with a Jew running for election."

He is not afraid of approaching Islamization of the country. Ennahda leader Ghannushi, he says, "mainly an opportunist. In fact he is a new Ben Ali, and the new players in the political arena are mainly interested in power. There isn't too much ideology here. But while Ben Ali survived for 23 years in power, today everything is much swifter because of the Internet and the social networks, and it is possible to transmit information, organize a protest and topple a regime easily. I expect Ghannushi will last for 23 months."

And what will happen in the next elections, we ask. Will the masses vote for the Islamist party then too? "Most Tunisians are in the midst of an identity crisis," diagnoses Lellouche. "There's a Muslim and an African and an Arab identity here, and also Christian and Jewish roots, together with the influence of France and Italy. Habib Bourguiba tried to isolate Tunisia from the Arab world, and Ben Ali oppressed the intelligentsia and civil society. Ennahda offered citizens the only narrative they knew, Islam. But now that they have won power, people will scrutinize them and will see they don't have solutions for our problems. We are a very young democracy - for 60 years Tunisians didn't engage themselves in politics and the entire civil society was controlled by the government. But I am optimistic about the future. Tunisians have an excellent sense of humor and they have already proved they can carry out a revolution without violence."



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