The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Tunisia diary: Arrival (1)

Where to start? I haven't had time to post much in the last few days — I was transiting through Rome where I had to present a paper on Egypt's NDP and regime fragmentation at the Italian Institute of International Affairs (there were also great papers on the socio-economic situation by Maria-Cristina Pacielo, on the Muslim Brothers by Daniela Pioppi and on Egypt's foreign policy by Philippe Droz-Vincent, all to be published soon) — and then made the enormous sacrifice of not spending a weekend in one of my favorite cities stuffing myself and headed straight to Tunis.

I'll be reporting from here for various publications, but most of it won't be news — it will be long pieces to try and dig deeper into the Tunisian revolution and where it's headed, also providing some historical perspective. I hope to have the time to discuss some of the day to day developments and snapshots of life here. I am self-financing this trip, so if you can help me handle the expenses of operating here, please donate what you can. This blog has run for seven years and barely makes enough money from advertising to pay for hosting expenses, I am self-employed and do not have any institution backing me and picking up the tab for flights, hotels, cars, food, and all the other costs of a reporting trip such as this one. If you've enjoyed The Arabist, it it's proved useful for your research or work, if you like the daily links, and if you want insights from Tunisia that are a little different from the standard journalistic work we've seen so far (much of which is excellent, by the way, but this will be a more personal account), then please consider sending us some baksheesh.

I've only spent two days or so here so far, so obviously the range of people I've met has been limited. What I can say with certainty is the following: Tunisians are incredibly proud of their revolution, as they should be, and that pride is infectious. In conversations one of the themes that comes up again and again is that people feel they can stand tall again after years of submission, their fear has evaporated. Well, perhaps not entirely: they have new concerns now, but these are fears they intend to confront straight on: the country's economic situation, the risk that elements of the former regime will make a return (whether at the level of the cabinet with the RCD ministers, or more problematically, with the party structure across the country), the risk that what so far has been a revolution remarkable for its orderliness may become more chaotic, and the risk of foreign interference (whether Arab or Western).

Tunisians are not happy with their political class. They are conscious that these people did not topple Ben Ali and that many of them were latecomers to the uprising. Ordinary people I speak to keep on repeating that this was a revolution of the young, and yes they do stress the importance of Facebook. In fact there seems to be a kind of division of labor: older people tell me that they are working overtime to allow younger people, who led this movement, be full-time activists. They feel too old to take part in the demonstrations, but want to support the movement by enabling their sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, to keep pressure on the government.

There is a a tremendous awareness that the pressure must be kept on the government. Former regime figures of all levels are laying low, "hiding in their houses" as people tell me, and they want to keep the transitional government honest. An interesting development this morning is that the primary and secondary public schools have reopened, and the national union of teachers is striking for the removal of the RCDist ministers (private schools are reopening normally). Teachers have showed up to school to explain to parents their decision — obviously for many working parents this could be very inconvenient. This could be a big debate and I think the government will dispatch ministers from the legal opposition to negotiate with the teachers — although, remarkably, they don't seem to have demands relating to their job (higher pay and benefits, etc.) and their strike is strictly political. 

The UGTT, a federation of trade unions, is seemingly playing a key role here. Many are puzzled that the UGTT first joined the government and then left it — why did it join it in the first place if it didn't like the presence of the RCDists? The explanation appears to be splits within the UGTT, and with the refusenik faction eventually convincing or dominating the faction in favor of participation. It could also be a gambit from greater representation on the transitional government. It does reflect a certain lack of strategy, a political immaturity that is telling of the political vacuum that existed under Ben Ali: people simply don't have that much experience in these situations or at political brinksmanship. Some feel the UGTT is trying to claim credit for the uprising (where it did play, later on, a significant role). But I think there will be tremendous resistance to that, and a key question today in Tunisia is who wields moral and political authority. It's certainly not the transitional government, and there is no politician who can claim that. It will all be decided in the next few weeks. 

In the meantime, the political factions are trying to rebuild themselves and expand their bases. Yesterday morning I went to a political rally by Ettajdid, a political party composed of former Marxists and social-democrats. The conference hall at a neighborhood cultural center had a capacity of about 600, there must have been closer to 1000 people in the room, though. A feeling that you got there, like elsewhere, was that there is a great level of excitement about what's happened and a repoliticization of people. In fact I imagine that Tunisians today must be the most politicized people in the world — as a sales lady in mobile phone store told me, "we're a country of 10 million politicians now." There's a lesson to learn for the very depoliticized people of Western democracies too here.

Ettajdid's leader is Ahmed Brahim, the minister of higher education in the transitional government, and he kept on insisting in his rousing speech that Tunisians' task was to keep the new government honest and "safeguard democracy". This theme comes up again and again: the gains of the last week are still fragile, there is fear that they could be reversible, and that things must move quickly to change the laws and parts of the constitution that enabled the regime to keep such a strong hold over the population. Among Ettajdid's crowd there are also other concerns: that Tunisia's character remain secular, that advances for women's rights should be maintained and strengthened, and that the new order should be social-democratic. The concern for Ettajdid is of course that a new political force (from the remnants of the RCD, from the trade unions, from Islamists or exile groups) could marginalize them in the new political landscape, especially that their leftist ideas are not that uncommon (although there is a hard core of older members who are significantly more to the left than younger members, a split I think you see in many parties). 

I should get going now, but wanted to leave you with this slideshow of pictures taken in central Tunis of the graffiti of Kamal Chabboune, a lawyer and activist with whom I spent part of the day on Saturday. Chabboune — a secularist center-leftist — has been behind a lot of the graffiti seen in this part of town, and on that day supported the protest by police officers. I loved the graffiti he did that said "the people have liberated the police" — which was echoed by police officers who, in tears, apologized to the Tunisian people and explained that they had also been oppressed by the regime, which ran an internal service in the police force that kept checks on officers. What to do with the police after the fall of a police state will be a huge part of the Tunisian story for years to come, an important element of the national reconciliation that should be coming.