The hopes born of the Tunisian revolution seem distant memories now
You’ll struggle to find many Tunisians with a good word to say about their government these days. In fact, in five weeks in the country I found precisely none. Students, taxi drivers, businessmen, builders, beggars and more, all had varying tales of dissatisfaction, often bordering on despair of their leaders. Corrupt and self-serving was the general theme of the complaints that have left many in a slump, resigned to a life without dreams, all the possibilities of the 2011 revolution frittered away. Graduates see little hope of putting their education to good use and many see life outside the country as the only means of making progress. Where parents would have once been anxious to let their offspring stray far from their watchful eye and firm hand, they are often encouraging their children to study and work abroad. Grumbles have reached such a level that you’ll even hear talk of a return to the good old days of dictatorship. Without denying the undoubted failures of the politicians there is however, a slightly different way of looking at things: Tunisians are discovering that revolution was the easy part, it’s only the start of years, maybe decades of hard slog to make democracy really work.
The old, orientalist view, echoed by modern bigots, would try to tell you that Arabs and Islam are incapable of reconciling their values with democracy, but that’s easy to say when you live in a country that spent centuries of fits and start, gradually constructing what we know as our modern system of government, particularly when you remain blind to its inevitable failings. Once you sweep away the institution of dictatorship, that Tunisia most definitely was under the rule of Bin Ali, and you usher in a hastily cobbled together mish mash of political parties, you are left with a void between them and the people, for dictators had no need or wish for a civil society to provide the checks and balances, mediation and advice to the ruling class. These are things that evolved over an eternity for us, so to build them afresh is a gigantic task with no handy instruction manual on how to assemble the pieces. Before the colonial powers swept aside centuries of Islamic legal and social institutions that performed the function of civil society, only the most tyrannical of leaders could completely ignore the call to answer to Allah for his actions. In a 21st century of nation states and international law, simply resurrecting historical systems is not an option, even in a far more traditionally minded and religious country, but in Tunisia with its lifetime of rigorously enforced secularism it would be a recipe for another revolution.
One of the few forms of institution that should have been in a position to take its place in civil society were the unions. However, some of the leaders saw a post revolution opportunity to grab an extra slice of power for themselves and have held the public to ransom rather than act as honest power brokers between workers and the government. One good example I encountered was going to a local government office with my Couchsurfing host. It was his second attempt to sort out some routine paperwork but despite hanging around for a bit and returning a little later, yet again hardly anyone was in their office, presumably off supplementing their wages elsewhere. People who have tried to expose these sorts of practices that frustrate people on a daily basis have been subject to threats, consequently you are reduced to paying bribes to get often basic tasks completed. The unions have also blocked government efforts to reform the public sector and have forced up wages as well, something the cash strapped government can ill afford. It would be unfair to solely pick out the unions as they are simply a reflection of attitudes among many in a position of power: corruption is endemic and criminal gangs also fit into the whole dodgy mix.
It is the often incompatible balance between the secular and religious traditions that has pot holed the highway to an effectively functioning democracy. Despite freely and fairly winning the election, the Islamist Enadha party ended up ceding power in the name of stability due to the pressure from secularists. As Islamist parties go, Enadha have always been at the moderate end of the spectrum and has only continued to shed more of its religious skin since relinquishing their power. Even this is still too much for many secularists who fear they are a sure route to theocracy. In a Muslim country where a majority have expressed their wish for a government that upholds Islamic values, the intransigence of secularists combined with the general inability to embrace the concept of compromise until its one step away from crisis, are without doubt hindering progress.
Despite the support for Islamic values, the one thing that is not difficult to find in Tunisia is booze. I’ve never seen a Muslim country with so many bars stuffed with beer swilling blokes: not once did I pass a bar in the evening that wasn’t absolutely packed. Don’t imagine that these are simply havens for the atheists and agnostics though, as one man related the tale of being in such a bar of inebriated locals when someone suggested eating pork, only to be shouted down by mass outrage, “disgusting! Its haram” (forbidden by religious law). Everyone utterly oblivious of their hypocrisy, consuming equally haram alcohol. If you think Muslims can be pigeonholed into certain types then Tunisia is one of the last places you want to come and try to prove your point.
Although there has been a gradual trend towards a westernisation of some attitudes among the young, there are still strong heartlands of tradition, particularly in the south. The simplistic measure of hijab counting can give you a rough guide to these things: often a minority in the centre of bigger cities to 100% coverage in parts of the South. However to use that as a guide for individual women is of little value in the measure of piety. The battle between traditional and what some what like to call “modern values”, is fought on an almost daily basis and is one that is better seen as a cultural rather than religious fight, as much tradition predates Islam and both sides can base their claims in religious terms. A significant skirmish in this drawn out war occurred during my stay when a judge decreed that a thirteen year old girl should marry the man in his twenties who had got her pregnant, a decision that created the same kind of outrage amongst many that it would have done anywhere in Europe. Without wishing to endorse the ruling in the slightest, it’s best to have an understanding of the nuances of the case. Although rape is most definitely a crime, the judge had placed the man’s crime at the slightly lower level, a form of sexual assault, within the framework of outdated laws that are in the process of being changed in parliament, principally as the girl had “consented”. Protesters, as I am sure my readers would as well, pointed out that a 13-year-old girl with no kind of sexual education could hardly be regarded as to have consented, even though she professed her love for the man. Underage marriage has traditionally been acceptable, within certain confines, and the weight of shame was enough for the girl’s family to have accepted marriage as the best way out of the situation. Although some Muslim men will use religion to justify the culture of shame, which invariably places the social burden on women, rather than question men’s awful behaviour, it often contravenes Quranic commands and can’t be found in Muslim countries that don’t have an indigenous honour and shame culture, as in West Africa or Indonesia for example. I am fairly confident that with time the loophole in the law that allows rapists to marry their victims will be closed but to change ancient cultural values, which clearly have their supporters among traditionalist women themselves, requires at least a generation, education and a certain amount of tact.
The hit to the tourist industry caused by the revolution might have faded were it not for two terrorist attacks against foreigners at the Bardo Museum and Sousse. Since then Tunisia has unsurprisingly been a largely tourist free zone, which also means that you’ll probably be quite safe, as any would-be terrorist would have trouble finding even a couple of us in the same place at the same time, so barely worth the investment in Semtex and bullets to do anything. The museum is well worth visiting and with all the new security you’re unlikely to be disturbed by gun wielding lunatics. However, further blighting the country’s reputation is its exportation of terrorists to Syria and elsewhere, more so than anywhere else. This might seem strange for an Muslim country renowned for its strong secular tradition but this could well be part of the problem. Of course the reasons are complex, but, although they are linked to the post revolution dissatisfaction I have been talking about, the lack of religious education among some marginalised men means they are vulnerable to the distorted interpretations of the religion offered by extremists. In the reign of Bin Ali, piety was a sign of suspicion for the security services but it is the values of traditional Islamic teaching that ingrains a rejection of violence and an embrace of compassion and mercy that the vast majority of Muslims cite as their rejection of terrorism.
Not everyone has simply given up however, as new freedoms of expression brought about by the revolution mean that some, amongst the young in particular are getting inspired to be creative in ways that were previously forbidden. Rap music was the soundtrack to the revolution for many and its sister graffiti, mixes with street art to convey messages, from angry slogans in black spray paint to uplifting images in bold explosions of colour. In El Kef I met a group of young people who had started a magazine to inform, entertain and bring together their fellow citizens as a forum for politics, social issues and fun. In Tunis a weekly hiking group goes out to clear litter from the routes of country walks, a simple example of the rising awareness of environmental issues and pride in the nation that I encountered in Tunisian youth, despite the lack of faith in government . It is precisely initiatives such as these that will help create the civil society that the country needs.
As the sole surviving positive outcome from the Arab Spring, the Tunisian experiment has to survive for the sake of the whole region not just Tunisians. Its failure would give Islamic extremists the ammunition they want to discredit anything that can be seen as Western influence, as well as allowing Islamophobes and racists to further demonize Muslims and Arabs. Instability is the breeding ground for extremism and another Libya would send much more than waves to crash on Mediterranean shores. Tunisian leaders may have demonstrated the ability to pull back from the brink of political collapse but without serious embrace of compromise as part of political culture who knows if the next crisis will tip the country over the edge or not. As the political adage goes, “it’s the economy stupid”, and if jobs are not created sooner rather than later, stability will come under threat from many directions. If the West just views the country as an opportunity to grab some juicy business contracts so multinationals can make a fast buck from privatised services, in the name of investment, we could all pay the price as the inevitable cost saving will lead to lay offs to feed shareholder thirst for profit. You can do your bit to help by seeing past the headlines and visiting Tunisia to show its people that the tourist industry can be rebuilt, it wont break the bank and they’ll be happy to see you, particularly if you fancy downing a few beers or some of the country’s rather palatable red wine.