Tunisians blocked by barbed wire at Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis
© Christine Petre, Your Middle East
Tunisians blocked by barbed wire at Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis
Last updated: June 14, 2014
How Tunisia lost sight of the Revolution

"Nobody speaks anymore about employment, freedom and dignity in public or even private settings"

Banner Icon Emna, a Tunisian woman, wrote under a Bourguiba picture posted on her Facebook: “I wear a veil. I am a devoted Muslim, but I am not an Islamist… and I am proud of what Bourguiba did for Tunisian women, but I do not agree on everything those liberal politicians say... Why should I be either an Islamist or a Bourguibist partisan? Why are we divided radically in our country? Why is there all this prejudice?”

Like many Tunisians, Emna is the victim of the post-revolutionary Bourguibist-Islamist conflict. The Tunisian Revolution of the 14th of January might have offered Tunisians some relative freedom of expression; but it has also imprisoned them in the Bourguiba-Ghannoushi dichotomy. Three years after the Revolution, the Tunisian people are still literally divided into pro-Islamists versus anti-Islamists; in a country that counts more than one hundred political parties and thought schools; and that has endless economic and social issues to worry about.

"Emna is the victim of the post-revolutionary Bourguibist-Islamist conflict"

When Beji Caid Essebsi, the surviving heir of ‘Bourguibism’, founded his political party ‘the Call of Tunisia’, many unexpected candidates became members. Saida Garrach, a feminist leftist joined him together with Olfa Youssef, Ibrahim Kassas (later resigned) and Lazhar Akermi. These members do not share a common ideological background though they can be described as overall modernists and progressive. They are also not known to be ‘loyal’ partisans of the Bourguibist School despite their interest in Bourguibist reform. What united them in the same political party and under the guidance of a typically Bourguibist leader was the fight against the ‘Islamist threat’. 

Olfa Youssef declared in her famous Facebook page that there was no more time left for online activism and that she should now join political action in order to protect Tunisia from the “children of Ghannoushi” in reference to Salafists. Youssef’s statement came after a series of terrorist attacks which targeted Chokri Belaid (a leftist politician), Mohamed Brahmi and Tunisian military.

But Olfa Youssef and her colleagues were not the only Tunisians who put aside their ideological differences in order to form a united anti-Islamist block. ‘The children of Ghannoushi’ too attempted their best to cope with Ennahda’s strategy and form a united Islamist block. In a notorious video leaked on 2013, Ghannoushi, the leader of Ennahda, discussed with Salafists a gradual plan to control Tunisian politics and society. He urged these ‘radical’ partisans to be patient and start controlling education and media before even speaking about establishing Islamist rule in Tunisia. Despite their ideological differences, Ghannoushi and Salafists showed much harmony and solidarity in this private meeting. Ghannoushi seemed to appreciate these young partisans’ enthusiasm and ‘blind’ devotion, while they seemed to respect the Islamist leader’s popularity and high political profile.

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The ‘two blocks’ structure of the political landscape extended toward the social life. Tunisian society became divided into supporters of the Islamization scheme versus callers for a ‘liberal’ Tunisia. Supporters of Islamization worked on monopolizing mosque platforms by firing pre-revolutionary Malikite Imams and replacing them by ‘radical’ ones. Since the Revolution, more than 1,000 Imams have been victims of these arbitrary replacements.  The Ministry of Religious affairs denied any responsibility for such acts and claimed them as ‘individual’ and illegal. Yet, not much was done to stop them.

Also, radical Islamists started burning shrines in several cities. They considered these shrines as a form of atheism and belief in more than one God. These acts were met by popular discontent especially since many Tunisians perceived shrines as an important feature of the Tunisian culture to be preserved. Now, the first block, radical Islamists, confirmed their fundamentalist ideological background and started being perceived as a serious threat against the Tunisian Mediterranean culture.

On the other hand, the ‘anti-Islamist’ block became so ‘nostalgic’ of the Bourguiba personality cult though many would not consider the man as a good example for establishing a democracy. Bourguiba’s first post-revolutionary death memorial witnessed one of the highest numbers of participants over the 14 years that followed his death. Advocates of the Bourguibist ideology came from all over the country to celebrate his memory as an implicit message to Islamists that Bourguibism would still prevail and reign over Tunisia as it has done for over 50 years.

"Supporters of Islamization worked on monopolizing mosque platforms"

Islamists became the sole clear enemy of the nation. They were blamed for the entire crisis that Tunisia went through. They were alleged to sell Tunisia’s economy and dignity to Qatar, to commercialize the Palestinian cause, to encourage terrorism, to bring down tourism and to threaten personal freedoms such as dress code and alcohol consumption. Mustapha, a retired inhabitant of the Boumhal bonlieu of Grand Tunis, stated: “I now hide beers by some tissue when I buy them. I never used to do that before the Revolution. Who knows, may be a Salafist appears from nowhere and attacks me because of this handful of beers!”

Again and again, Islamists in power confirm that they do not sympathize with radical Islamists, and Bourguibists confirm that they have no intention of overlooking Tunisia’s Muslim identity. Yet, a large group of Tunisians insists that Islam is in danger and Islamic ethics should be restored, while a second group insists that tolerant and open Tunisia is in danger and the Islamist threat should be exterminated. These two groups, which literally embody the whole Tunisian population, seemed to forget the slogan of the Tunisian revolution: ‘Employment! Freedom! Dignity!’

Nobody speaks anymore about employment, freedom and dignity in public or even private settings. Tunisia’s sole problematic became the question of identity. Discussions of Tunisians now revolved around terrorism, niqab, alcohol consumption, prostitution, spinsterhood, same-sex schools, Caliphate and related topics.

Looking thoroughly at the way Tunisian politics and society are now polarized over the question of identity, I can only think that Tunisians are victims of a multitude of well-enhanced traditions of ‘personality cult’, religious theocracy and lack of democratic awareness.

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In a personality cult, only one figure and one thought and one question would prevail, all other troubles and anxieties of ordinary citizens become secondary and invisible. An ‘idol’ is a must, extermination of the different other is a must, and the marginalization of everyday issues is a must. The country lived for over half a decade under the shadow of Habib Bourguiba. He was the leader, the founder and the soul of the country. To be fair to the history of Bourguiba, yes, Tunisia experienced a wave of modernization, stability and awareness about women’s rights that no other Arab country enjoyed, much thanks to his reform agenda.

Yet, Tunisians traded democracy, plurality and equal economic privileges to keep the Bourguibist thought alive. They believed what Bourguibism has always promoted about being the safe shield for women and modernity against radical Islamist tendencies. Many generations have been brought up believing that the country’s bright future lies in the Bourguibist extermination of Islamism.  So, when Islamists showed up just after the Revolution, speculations and fears about women’s rights and modernity reached a peak.

Hostility against the re-emergence of Islamism after the Revolution could have been considered as ungrounded prejudice if Islamists had proved the opposite of the dark image that Bourguibism always promoted about them. Instead, Islamists proved to be a real threat against civil liberties in many regards. We cannot forget about Habib Louz and Sadok Shourou’s (Ennahda Islamist party deputies) statements which called for Shari’a application and consequently physical violence against Tunisians who do not agree with Islamist thought.

"It is also obvious that Tunisian Islamists do not consider Tunisians as proper Muslims"

It is also obvious that Tunisian Islamists do not consider Tunisians as Muslims (or proper Muslims) since they started wide campaigns for introducing Islam in the country (fyi, 98% of the population are already Muslims!) Also, Islamists openly acknowledge their responsibility for sending Tunisian youth to fight in Syria, so it is possible that they are also responsible for the terrorist attacks inside Tunisia. After all, Ennahda deputies are the most reluctant to sign legislation against terrorism in the Constitutional Assembly. While Political Islam cannot be accused of committing terrorism in Tunisia, as there is no striking proof, it is certainly accused of facilitating its infiltration into daily life.

Islamists in power failed in fighting firmly against terrorism. Sometimes, they even conspired with terrorists, which is what Ali Laarayedh, the pervious Nahdaouist Prime Minister, did when he ordered in “Liman yajro’o Fakat” show on Sunday the 1st of June not to arrest Abu Ayadh (an extremist terrorist) in the September 2012 Fath Mosque incident.

Terrorism is but an example of the way Islamists do not recognize the right of the different other to exist. As soon as the Ben Ali regime was overthrown, they started polarizing the society by dividing it into believers versus koffars and legitimating the use of violence to subdue these koffars. Many apolitical Tunisians had to forget about their revolutionary demands of employment, extermination of poverty, extended women’s rights and human dignity. They would just support the opposing pole, which is a mixture of Bourguibists and liberals and leftists, in order to fight for one sole right: the right to live and not to be killed at any moment just because some think that they are koffars.

The Tunisian experience shares some similarities with the Egyptian model. Both ‘Arab Spring’ countries became largely polarized. Political Islam left Tunisians and Egyptians with no choices except that of being pro or against, believers or koffars; in a time that all what these rebellious people dreamed of was upgrading from ‘invisible Ben Ali and Mubarak subjects’ into ‘first-class citizens’.

Tunisia still cannot attain democracy because some Tunisians, mainly radical Islamists, have not reached a certain level of political awareness in which battles are fought between ideas and not through physical violence and terrorism. Tunisians are still forced to trade their dignity for security as long as politicians cherish ideology more than Man.

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