Tunisia: The End of a 23-Year Regime

On 13 January 2011, my close friends invited me to their house in les berges du lac, a quarter located in the northeast of Tunis.  This is a symbolic place, as it houses the embassies and consulates of many countries, not to mention the Arab Interior Ministers' Council.

There we drank the famous, extraordinary mint tea, which contains caffeine that increases energy and mental alertness.  The warm drink is served especially as a sign of hospitality and friendship -- in fact, it is believed to contain all of the elements necessary to ensure life and hope.  I daresay that mint tea is the secret ingredient behind Tunisia's peaceful uprising.

Before nightfall, as I headed to where I live in Tunis not very far from downtown, I began to hear the loud and repetitive chants of protests coming from somewhere near Habib Bourguiba Street, the main street in Tunis.  When I arrived there, I found that a crowd of thousands had assembled outside the Ministry of Interior, chanting, "Ben Ali, that's enough!" and "Game over!"  These people were young, old, rich, poor, and both casually and smartly dressed.  Some were armed with Tunisian flags and bread loaves -- a pitiful defense against the tear gas, tanks, and bullets.

January 14, 2011 marked the 28th day of the Tunisian protests.  Shaking off their fear of the security services, Tunisians were able to force their way to the Ministry of the Interior and lead a revolution that finally toppled the most repressive police state in the MENA region after 23 years of iron-fisted rule. 

Before departing, Ben Ali signed a decree handing interim presidential powers to Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi.  Mr. Ghannouchi announced that he was taking charge of the situation on the basis of Article 56 of the Tunisian Constitution.  But the Constitutional Court decided that it was Article 57 that should be followed, whereupon Speaker of the Parliament Fouad Mebazaa was given authority over the government instead.

I woke up the next morning to hear that President Obama had saluted the "brave and determined struggle for the universal rights," applauded "the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people," and called on the Tunisian government "to respect human rights and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people."  Though Western officials have a double standard for Middle Eastern countries when it comes to democracy, I think that in the case of Tunisia, human rights and freedom of expression should be extended to Islamists as well.

Should we have concerns about Islamism in Tunisia?

The revolution was an astonishing development in the modern history of Tunisia.  "[I]f any country in the Arab world is going to do it, it will be Tunisia," said Stephen Day, former British Ambassador to Tunisia to BBC News.  The revolution "was carried out by the middle class, those thousands and thousands of Tunisians, and I felt incredibly proud of them," he added.  While stakeholders and reporters have focused on the extraordinarily peaceful nature of the protests, it is equally important to consider what has been missing -- namely, Islamists.

Most Arab regimes present themselves as bulwarks against terrorism, making Muslim fundamentalists the target of their draconian laws.  This is the case in Tunisia par excellence.  Ben Ali's regime has excelled in excluding Ennahda ("Renaissance" or "Awakening"), an Islamist movement, from the political scene in Tunisia.  Ali played on this fear of religious extremism to rally support from Western governments.  He cracked down hard on Islamists, many of whom were jailed and tortured.

Still, Islamists are unlikely to take advantage of the revolution­ary situation.  Tunisian society seems more unified around the principles of democracy and freedom of religion, and most Tunisians do not want to see Islamism take hold.  This can be explained by the fact that Tunisians are "the most sophisticated and well educated people in the Arab world," according to Mr. Day.

The protesters, though they represent a threat to the RCD ruling party officials, have not directly challenged the long history of state secularism. No slogan has called for the application of sharia during the various demonstrations.  All of them called for free and fair elections and freedom of expression.  The current interim government is criticized because key members have served in the previous Ben Ali administration -- but its lack of Islamist representation has not come up at all.

Rached Ghannouchi, who leads Ennahda, said that his movement is already preparing a plan of action for its political work in cooperation with the rest of the secular opposition parties.  Such cooperation could lead to a unique experience of democracy and coexistence in the Arab world because opposition mainly comprises secular intellectuals, lawyers, and trade unionists.  Even Islamists of Tunisia are very moderate, unlike those in Egypt, Jordan, and Algeria.  Said Mr. Ghannouchi:

I prefer to be realistic, because what we would be asking for, then, is a front ready to hold power and govern. At the present time and facing the actual circumstances, the opposition is only ready for the minimum. This should be based on a programme able to co-ordinate its actions on issues such as the question of liberties, defense of civil society, the press, the lower social classes; the formation of a strong national economy; the openness of Tunisia towards its own environment: the Maghreb, and Europe.

I think that many Tunisians now -- including Islamists, of course -- will restrict their claims and struggle to enjoy the right to pray freely, which still hangs in the balance, as praying has often been linked to Islamism and even to terrorism in some cases.  "I am a Muslim, not an Islamist or a terrorist," said Isam, a primary school teacher when I met him outside one of the local mosques in the town of Regueb.  "I was born with this religion, and I will keep it forever.  I pray five times a day."  Isam added that it was the first time that he prayed at his local mosque freely, without fear of the authoritarian regime's omnipresent plainclothes policemen.

According to Professor Hicham Djaït, a Tunisian historian and philosopher, the main challenge for democracy is not Islamism, but rather an imperial president.  The presidency has grown in power ever since Habib Bourguiba declared himself president for life.  "Preventing an imperial president from taking hold in Tunisia is the challenge now in this transitional period," Djaït told the local Nessma TV.  "We have now a long history of secular traditions, reforms, and arts of various kinds."  

Driven by the youth and the trade unions, the New Carthage revolution is entering a new phase which abounds with new challenges.  The protesters' efforts should be directed towards professional politicians who are trying to hijack the revolt.

The revolution is also in danger of isolation.  Without the security and the mutual inspiration of international solidarity, it will suffer greatly.  Most people I met expressed their doubts about the goodwill of some ministers in the interim government, though many others have said, "Thank god for Tunisia."

The time now is ripe to find safe ways to rebuild our society, economy, and political structures, so we need to be prepared and keep vigilant. If the New Carthage revolution succeeds, it will show the world that people are able to fight the most repressive regimes with their love and prayers.

Long live the revolution, and long live the heroic youth of the New Carthage!
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