The Jasmine Revolution: Secularism under threat, Society in Turmoil
In April, Adel Khedry, an unemployed 28 year old man set himself on fire, killing himself, after twice trying to go by boat to Italy illegally. The method and the kinds of desperation on display were the same that were used by one Mohammed Bouazizi in December 2010. It has been over two years since the young fruit vendor set himself on fire with a can of gasoline in protest in front of his town’s city hall – Sidi Bouzeid – to protest the abuse he had received from authorities. That episode sparked a chain of protests and events known as the Jasmine Revolution. Not a month later, the president of Tunisia, who headed one of the most stable Arab countries and one of the most secure economies in Africa, fled the country in shame.
The Jasmine Revolution was the first of the series of socio-political earthquakes that shook the Arab world in the so-called ‘Arab Awakening’ or ‘Arab Spring’. Nevertheless, the only real legacy of the events of Sidi Bouzeid in 2010 is that unemployed young men have continued to use self-immolation as a form of protest because, in fact, more than two years after the sacrificial gesture nothing has changed in Tunisia. Indeed, the country is moving toward a darker and more uncertain future; the jasmine flowers having rotted away.
One of the most evident changes to outsiders is that Tunisia has adopted a destructive course, giving up the one aspect that previously made it one of the most modern Arab countries. After all, modern and independent Tunisia was led by Habib Bourguiba to independence and statehood in the 1950s and took pride in its distinct secularism. In 2010, Tunisia had the most advanced legally-binding women’s rights in the Arab world. The country, as envisioned by Bourguiba was so secular that he urged his countrymen not to fast during Ramadan; nothing short of asking them to go against the tenets of Islam. He described Ramadan as a reflecting the “humiliating backward condition of our country” in an interview with ‘Time’ on February 22, 1960. One can only imagine, what the Islamic world would think of him today, as Arab countries are starting to look inward, rejecting the secular political and societal experiments of the post World War II period and looking to faith in 7th century religious prescriptions as, ‘the solution’ – rather than even just ‘a solution’.
Bourguiba, who died in 2000, would be appalled by the growing influence of radical Islam in a country that along with Syria, Lebanon and Algeria, could boast one of the most liberal societies (if not free politically), in the Arab world. Today, the secularists are being repressed while the salafists or radical Islamists are flourishing. In the past two years, Tunisia has known political assassinations and discontent in the streets. If society has experienced a ‘tonal’ shift, there have not been any economic benefits at all. Tunisia is experiencing a time of unprecedented economic and political crisis, accented by the murder of Chockri Belaid last February. His murder has come to symbolize the failure of the democratic transition that was promised by the Jasmine Revolution. While the country sinks into political, economic and social chaos, President Marzouki – who has a provisional mandate to lead the democratic transition acts as if nothing is wrong, fancying himself a head of state and publishing a book on nothing short of “The invention of democracy: lessons from Tunisia.” The book offers a ‘scintillating’ and very favorable account, for the intended consumption of Western public opinion, of the success of Tunisia’s coalition of moderate Islamists (the Ennahda party) and secularists.
Beyond the presses and the typeface, nothing could be further from the truth. The so-called moderate Islamists have launched an offensive against what was best about the Tunisia of Ben Ali and Bourguiba, as if to suggest that because Ben Ali, the dictator, was a secularist, then all that is secular is representative of the dictatorship. Marzouki, who claims to have brought democracy to Tunisians, met strong opposition in Paris, during his book presentation from dissident Tunisians who left their country for the former colonial power. Many have accused the Ennahda party of sinking Tunisia, through the violence and oppression of the Salafists, into religious obscurantism. Critics of Ennahda complain that the Tunisian revolution was gradually infiltrated by radical Islam through Saudi efforts. There is no need for conspiracy websites to realize the change. The signs of the obscurantist change are rather evident: Salafists now control some 400 mosques around the country. The ‘niqab’ is all the rage in fashion circles, even in the very modern capital of Tunis, where it was not uncommon for locals and tourists to visit bars and restaurants – even during Ramadan. Theater performances have been blocked, artists, intellectuals, journalists have been regularly intimidated by groups of young men sporting beards a la Bin Laden and armed with violent and quarrelsome religious rhetoric. Salafists who are as hateful of heretic manifestations in Islam as they are of other faiths, have even encouraged the destruction of Sufi saints. Meanwhile, the economy offers little solace. Tunisia remains in the grip of the ‘revolution’ mode.
One of its main industries, phosphate mining and processing, has suffered a major production drop in the wake of a year long strike. Other sectors also remain hostage to strikes and the demonstrations regularly feature violent episodes. The unemployment rate is high – said to be 16.5%, but likely much higher – and tourism is suffering, putting more pressure on what was one of Tunisia’s biggest revenue generators. In this rather grim framework, artists and writers are being censored. The Ennahda party has essentially been damaging rather than leading Tunisian society. Nadia El-Fani, a film director who has worked with the likes of Roman Polanski and Franco Zeffirelli, has been threatened with death and lives in exile in France, over her critical depictions of Islamic traditions. She has suggested that the Salafists who go around dispensing moral rectitude might even be considered Ennahda’s armed wing, the ones who do their dirty work, terrorizing the population, trying to impose the veil on women who are insulted in the street if not wearing it, attacking movie theatres, embassies, and blocking university lectures in an effort to impose obscurantist ideas.
The political system has reflected the growing list of societal grievances. Last February, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned after failing to form a technocratic cabinet as he indicated in the wake of the assassination of the opposition leader Chokri Belaid, Jebali’s own Ennahda, headed by Rachid Ghannouchi, rejected the new government, claiming that it is up to the people to vote in favor or against the current system. Jebali has tried to moderate the Salafists, advising them of the need for more compromise. The main issues now remain the formation of a government and the drafting of a new Constitution, ahead of the next elections. Ali Larayedh who was the minister of the Interior in Jebali’s cabinet has now taken on the prime minister’s role and formed a government that has not really changed much, leaving the relationship with the secular opposition in tatters. Ennahda appears to control the political process, approving or rejecting (more of this than the former) candidates for the role of Prime Minister thanks to its roughly 40% control of parliament. Much will depend on political stability and Tunisia’s elected officials are hoping that a draft constitution by April and elections by December will help bring greater democratic reform. Meanwhile, the political delays affect the economy and the slow recovery of the European Union has caused a drop in investment. The IMF for its part is reluctant to hand over recovery loans until a firm political program has been adopted, even if a tentative agreement was reached on April 20. This latest self-immolation serves as a symbol of Tunisians’ continued frustrations.
The Islamist-Secular divide has made the task of drafting a Constitution highly problematic, accenting important differences over the very way society works; there is more at stake here than a constitutional debate in a European style secular democracy, where certain freedoms are sacrosanct regardless of which party is in power. The divide could even be exploited by proponents of the old way of doing things, that is to say the dictatorship, compromising the whole democratic process itself.