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Forecast for Tunisia

As hopes fade for an Arab Spring, the country where it all started remains sunny—but for how long?

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Café Delices in the Tunis suburb of Sidi Bou Said. (Michael J. Totten)

It’s true. One of Ennahda’s favorite tactics, both during the election campaign and continuing even now, is caricaturing the secular opposition as a bunch of decadent atheists. The party did run a moderate campaign last year, and it’s good news that it has publicly abandoned Sharia—at least for now—but some of its members routinely make extreme statements, including Ghannouchi, who has in the past praised Palestinian suicide bombers and threatened the United States. “There must be no doubt that we will strike anywhere against whoever strikes Iraq,” he said during the first Gulf War. “We must wage unceasing war against the Americans until they leave the land of Islam, or we will burn and destroy all their interests across the entire Islamic world.”

His most disturbing statements were made some time ago, but he still rattles Tunisian liberals. “Ghannouchi said ‘the Salafists are our sons,’ ” Sghayier, the young Amnesty International activist, said when I asked him his view on the man. “Excuse me, but the sons of who? The Tunisian people? Or the sons of Ennahda?”


On March 15 this year, Ennahda was given a righteous shellacking in nationwide university elections for posts in 40 academic establishments. The secular, left-of-center General Tunisian Student Union (UGET) won 250 out of 284 seats. Such an abysmally poor showing on Ennahda’s part suggests that the Islamists have lost a massive amount of popularity since last year’s election or that the rising generation rejects them out of hand—possibly both. Neither bodes well for the party’s future.

“They have learned some tough lessons these last four months,” says Ahmed Ounaies, the now-retired diplomat who briefly served as Tunisia’s foreign minister in the tumultuous days after Ben Ali’s departure last year. “They now admit that they’ll accept the claims by the democratic opposition in the assembly. They’re coming slowly, step by step, to the right way of ruling Tunisia.”

The liberal coastal elite is proving a formidable foe. “These people are clear-headed and are better prepared for the future,” Ounaies told me. “The newcomers are intruders in politics. They were either underground or in exile. The revolution was not theirs. Today’s Muslims are connected with modern life and are learning about it through TV, movies, and the Internet. They are not the theoretical Tunisian boys and girls Ennahda imagined. The Islamists’ thinking was superficial. They are being forced now into the concrete theater of responsibilities and are learning about the real Tunisian society. This rendezvous with history was inevitable.”

But the culture, progressive by Arab standards as it may be, still has a reactionary streak running through it. Farhat, the theater director, is relieved that she no longer has to contend with a police state, but something else, something less oppressive but at the same time a bit scarier for being less predictable, seems to have moved in to replace it. “After the revolution,” she said, “the censorship is different. This time the pressure is social instead of political. Two years ago the enemy was Ben Ali’s dictatorship. Nowadays the dictatorship comes from the people.”

Last summer, for example, a gang of Salafists set fire to a movie theater downtown for showing Persepolis, an animated Iranian film about a young woman during and after the 1979 revolution that briefly depicts Allah as a bearded old man. To Westerners the scene would appear no more anti-religious than the 1980s American Oh God! films starring cigar-sucking comedian George Burns as God, but even benign depictions of Allah rile the likes of the Salafists.

Nor is state censorship entirely a thing of the past. A few weeks ago the government fined TV executive Nebil Karoui $1,500 for showing the same film on television. He then hired a team of bodyguards to protect himself and his family from Salafist vigilantes and other potentially violent enforcers of “piety.”

Right now, secularism and Islamism co-exist in Tunisia in the same uneasy balance maintained in Turkey. The future, however, may be kinder to secular parties than the recent past has been to Islamists, since faith won’t create jobs, boost salaries, or bring back jittery tourists. Secular parties are discussing mergers to consolidate and boost the size of their base. And the old elite—the ones who built the modern republic after the French left—are reorganizing themselves to come back in force.

“No party has a majority,” said Ounaies, the former foreign minister. “It will be the same during the next election, but we will have another political actor. There will be the comeback of the Destour.”

The Destour was the party of Habib Bourguiba, the modern republic’s secular founder. Parts of it later became Ben Ali’s corrupt and despotic party, and its crooked and ruthless officials are finished forever. But the economic, political, and cultural Bourguibist elite haven’t gone anywhere. And they’re done sitting on the sidelines.

“The philosophy is still there,” said Ounais. “The virtues of that philosophy are still there. The people are there. They have a network throughout the country. The corrupted and wrong people have been taken aside, as they should, but the rock is still there. And they’re coming back.”


For once—at least for now—opposing forces in an Arab country are more or less evenly matched, and politics aren’t being decided by violence. Iraq could have done it after Saddam Hussein was overthrown, but it failed. Egypt could have done so after Mubarak was removed from the palace, but it failed. Libya isn’t exactly on track. Much of the world hoped Lebanon might pull it off after the Cedar Revolution in 2005, but it was not in the cards, not with Hezbollah as the tip of the Syrian-Iranian spear. Only Tunisia has managed to replace bullets with ballots. The government was freely elected. No party has a militia. The mukhabarat, the secret police, have evaporated. The army is small, and it stays out of politics. Tunisians have little choice but to battle it out ideologically and at the ballot box.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. If this period is but an interlude, if the country does end up falling to radical Islam, every Arab country will be at serious risk. For if political liberalism cannot take root even here, it won’t be taking root anywhere in that part of the world anytime soon. But for now they have something that looks like democracy. We’ll see if they keep it.


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emunadate says:

Glad to hear that Tunisia has achieved democracy. Hopefully the other Arab countries will see how good it is there and will go after the same. Too bad for all the Arab countries that had Arab springs that wanted democracy. I don’t think that they wanted  fanatic fundamental dictatorships to replace their governments. What a shame…

Royq says:

I wonder if the missing ingredient is petrodollars.  (Tunisia doesn’t have oil, right?)  If you don’t have that vast wealth paying off the radicals to stay off their lawns (a la Lee Smith’s analysis), maybe all of that organizational savvy doesn’t count for much.  Someone has to foot the bills.

wjca says:

One can only imagine the horror with which the Salafists everywhere must view Tunisia.  If a secular democracy can work in an Arab country (Turkey doesn’t count) without stiffling Islam, then their cause is doomed in the long term. 

Brothers and sisters! The global economy IS GOING TO COLLAPSE IN 5 DAYS! THIS IS THE WARNING CALL! 

yevka says:

It is my belief that the Arab Spring is only in its beginning.

herbcaen says:

The Arab spring is to world peace as influenza is to world health.

I thought that was the US military.

Michael Totten’s article embodies the hubris that western democracies set the standard for civilization while the backward Arab states are playing catch-up.  He fetishizes internecine violence in nation-states while ignoring the violence exported by military powers as if that makes the latter more politically advanced. 

The whole paragraph starting with, “For once—at least for now—opposing forces in an
Arab country are more or less evenly matched, and politics aren’t being
decided by violence,” goes into an incoherent laundry list as though the Egyptian people are no less responsible for the political violence than the US-backed military govt.  In fact, during the uprising against Mubarak, the Administration refused to condemn his killing of protesters directly and issued pleas for “restraint” by all sides.

Then there’s the silly aside of Hezbollah somehow destroying a democratic revolution in Lebanon, when the anti-Syrian uprising did nothing more than reinforce the sectarian status quo.  Hariri and Samir Geagea are not about to make Lebanon a secular democracy, Hezbollah or not.

What’s really amazing (and galling) about that paragraph is the reference to Saddam Hussein being overthrown in passive voice, like the US invasion of Iraq can be written out of the narrative.  There’s been heavy interference in the politics of the Arab countries; this barely begins to cover it.

Saint_Etienne says:

Yadda, yadda, yadda. You gave yourself and your anti-western, anti-democratic worldview away in the first sentence :)

Saint_Etienne says:

 Well let’s hold fingers for them :)

Somehow it’s anti-democratic to point out western powers heavily interfere in the affairs of the Arab states and that western-backed Arab politicians don’t care about democracy.

Saint_Etienne says:

It’s all a matter of focus.

The West has many shortcomings, it is by no means infallible and it usually falls far short of the morality it preaches. Nevertheless, it is at the very least cognizant of the right principles and sometimes/often tries to implement them. As for the Arab countries and Arab politicians, with heartrendingly rare exceptions, their preferred concept of politics seems to be the naked power grab, the oppression of the loser by the winner, and “you die today, so that I can die tomorrow”.

One has to be either shockingly naive or hopelessly biased to fail to see the distinction.

I presumed you were naive…

It’s the point of highlighting the distinction that I’m interested in.  What exactly have you done to implement the right principles?  Probably a lot less than Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja.  No one asked for the rulers they labor under, so it seems asinine to blame those most oppressed in the Mideast for their own oppression.

Totten’s remark, “it may be the only country of the Arab Spring that doesn’t slip back into winter” is an insult to everyone demonstrating and otherwise resisting dictatorship in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere and suggests that Arab and/or Muslim culture produces authoritarian leaders. 

And what may be the sole exception, Tunisia, is qualified with, “Tunisia has been more European than any other country in the region since ancient times”  Did it occur to Totten that democracy and secularism are not features of Europe going back to ancient times?


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Forecast for Tunisia

As hopes fade for an Arab Spring, the country where it all started remains sunny—but for how long?

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