Divine Election

As Tunisians prepare for the Arab Spring's first free election, they are discovering that democracy, too, can be messy.

TUNIS – Tunisia's brave protesters, who toppled dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January, may have captivated the world and inspired similar revolts across the Arab world. But ahead of their first democratic elections this Sunday, Tunisians are far less united than they seemed just a few months ago.

"This election is a Zionist-American plot to rip Islam out of Tunisia," Abdullah, a bearded, middle-aged, Tunisian Islamist, told me last Friday near Kasbah Square in central Tunis, the site of many government buildings and several of the largest demonstrations during the January revolution.

Abdullah, along with thousands of other Islamists who also came out to protest, was furious over a private Tunisian TV station's broadcast last week of the French-Iranian film Persepolis, which includes a depiction of God -- a sacrilege for devout Sunni Muslims. The Islamists hit the streets in the capital, and in towns throughout Tunisia, after noontime prayer. Some of the protesters attempted to burn down the TV station that had broadcast the film. The controversial broadcast may have triggered the protest, but chants soon widened to include calls for the establishment of an Islamic state in Tunisia.

"Even if the elections weren't happening, you can't touch God; it's forbidden in Islam," said Abdullah, affirming that his movement's political aspirations applied in the long-term, not just during campaign season.

Days before the election, Tunisia is fiercely divided between its secular elite and its reemerging Islamist movements, most of which had gone underground under Ben Ali for fear of imprisonment or torture. Their numbers are unknown at present, but polls for the impending elections have served as clear indicators: The long-repressed Islamist al-Nahda ("Renaissance") party is projected to win some 20 percent of the vote in Sunday's election, a result that would transform it into the largest party in post-revolutionary Tunisia.

This is making many secular Tunisians and those in the country's minority groups, particularly the Berber and Jewish communities, very wary. And the recent anti-Persepolis riots have exacerbated the situation, heightening worries that the upcoming elections could be less than the positive step toward the democracy that Tunisia needs most right now.

"Jews are worried everywhere, but in Tunisia more so, because of the extremist problem," said Roger Bismuth, leader and spokesman for Tunisia's 2,000-strong Jewish community. "I think the big mistake is to mix up a country's politics and economics with the religion. I think if we get to that point, the country cannot function."

Al-Nahda, meanwhile, is aware of growing fears about its suspected illiberal intentions and has worked hard to project a moderate image. "Nahda does not represent Islam," spokeswoman Yusra Ghannouchi, who is also the daughter of the party leader, Rached Ghannouchi, told me. "Freedom of speech and freedom of expression is of paramount importance and we have striven for this. We are not for restricting these freedoms. But this should be done responsibly and with respect for the other's opinion."

Ghannouchi added that the same media that decried an attack on freedom of speech following the Islamist protest of the broadcast of Persepolis stood silent under Ben Ali, and colluded with his repression of freedom of speech -- a tacit shot at the country's secular elite.

"In this phase leading up to the elections, it's unfortunate that there are people provoking more tensions, more divisions, more fears, more hysteria," she said. "We believe this is a time to provide more calm and more confidence for people to go forward to this historic election and to focus on it as our route toward democracy."

Secular movements, like the Ettajdid party, are crying foul. They call al-Nahda's centrist position a façade masking more sinister intentions.

"It has two lines," said Abdelaziz Messaoudi, a member of Ettajdid's political committee. "Sometimes the leaders say they have nothing against the progressive gains of Tunisian society, but in the mosques, it says: ‘No, we are an Islamic party. We want to fully apply the precepts of Islam.'"

Sunday's election will choose an assembly to draw up Tunisia's new constitution and define the country's political framework moving forward. So far, al-Nahda has put in a strong showing. Its door-to-door and grassroots campaign strategy is visibly more extensive than the other parties. Al-Nahda also has a reach in Tunisia's poorer, more religiously conservative, and long-neglected inland regions that is unmatched by the secularist parties, whose support base is concentrated along the more affluent, liberal coastal areas.

Al-Nahda's success may also stem from the fact that it has existed far longer than the majority of the 80-plus parties running in this election, most of which were formed after the January revolution. Founded in 1989 from a pre-existing group called Islamic Action, the party was banned from participating in that year's elections. In 1991, Ben Ali arrested thousands of the party's members and forced most of its leadership into exile. Ultimately settling in Britain, Ghannouchi remained in exile in for 22 years, until this January, when he returned to Tunisia to a hero's welcome from his followers.

With an extensive, well-organized international network of members or sympathizers, al-Nahda also has financial might unmatched by most other Tunisian parties. It draws funding from domestic supporters, but has also been accused of receiving financial backing from Gulf Arab states, although these accusations have not been substantiated. (In July, the party halted its participation in the Higher Political Reform Commission, which was established to oversee legal and constitutional reform in post-Ben Ali Tunisia, over a bill passed that banned foreign funding of political parties in Tunisia.)

Most of all, al-Nahda has a very close connection to the hearts and minds of its constituency in Tunisia, many of whom suffered greatly under the Ben Ali dictatorship. Like other groups who opposed the regime, al-Nahda members in Tunisia were active in revolutionary protests and the exiled leadership also acted to bolster the revolution from the sidelines.

"Lots of people grew up with the movement, despite the decades of brutal repression and fierce crackdowns," said Yusra Ghannouchi. "They appreciate that this movement, among others, was at the forefront of the struggle against dictatorship."

Tunisia's mosques serve as a broad medium through which al-Nahda can spread its political message -- a tool that the secular parties sorely lack. Faysal Cherif, a professor of history at the University of Tunis, noted that the mosques serve as an "unofficial canvassing platform" for the party. He added that the secular parties "made a big mistake" by using the campaign to bash the Islamist movements, rather than offering a solid vision for Tunisia's future.

The Islamist revival has provoked a backlash from Tunisia's secular citizens, who have taken to the streets in the run-up to the elections to register their displeasure. On Oct. 16, they held a demonstration that called for protecting freedom of speech and personal liberties in the new constitution, and denigrated al-Nahda and the Islamist movements. People chanted, "the people want a secular state," in response to chants for an Islamist one, two days prior. Others held placards saying "do not touch my liberty," and "free Tunisia." Many taped up their mouths to protest a feared clampdown on free speech, should Islamists win significant power in the election.

But Tunisia is not in real danger of becoming an Islamist state. Electoral laws passed in recent months moving Tunisia away from a majoritarian electoral system to one based on proportional representation will most likely produce a Constituent Assembly with a wide spread of parties, rather than one dominated by a few large parties. The only room for exerting power beyond the dictates of the electoral law is through coalition-building after the elections, which itself will ensure that a wide array of parties is represented in the policymaking process.

Another moderating influence on the post-election political sphere will be Tunisia's civil society, which has mushroomed since the fall of Ben Ali. Hundreds of new associations and NGOs have been formed and they intend to act as both watchdogs and pressure groups on Tunisia's new class of politicians. Groups such as the Association of Democratic Tunisian Women, the Tunisian Amazigh Culture Association, and Tunisian Democratic Youth have promised to keep a watchful eye on legislation that they believe will restrict Tunisians' freedoms.  

"We won't remain twiddling our thumbs. We will put all kinds of pressure so that our rights don't regress," said Souad Rejeb, an executive board member of the Association of Democratic Tunisian Women, a lobby group that monitors womens' interests in the media and in politics.

The upcoming election will represent one of the first signs of what sort of country will emerge from Ben Ali's fall and its chaotic aftermath. But as the gulf of distrust widens between the country's secularists and Islamists, Tunisians are learning a hard fact: Democracy, too, can be messy.



Tunisia's Surprising New Islamists

Nine months after the revolution that kicked off the Arab Spring, I reunited with two of the first Tunisians to protest against Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. A lot has changed.

SIDI BOU SAID, Tunisia – Mohamed Bouazizi's mother, Manoubia, has left her cramped home, with its faint smell of sewage, in the central Tunisian farm town of Sidi Bouzid -- the town that gave birth to the Arab Spring. She has moved to an apartment provided for her near the Tunisian capital, a more convenient location for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other visiting world dignitaries wishing to pay their respects.

Feyda Hamdi, the Sidi Bouzid policewoman whom townspeople say relentlessly hit up Manoubia's son for petty bribes from his fruit business, confiscated his wares, and even slapped the 26-year-old when he couldn't or wouldn't pay, remains in Sidi Bouzid. Long out of prison for her run-in with Mohamed on a frosty morning last December, Hamdi is off the police force, having claimed that the stress of her time behind bars disabled her.

The ex-policewoman is spotted alone from time to time in Sidi Bouzid now, a controversial figure, shunned by many in the flat, brown town.

So say two other residents of Bouazizi's hometown, Sofiene Dhouibi and Hamza ben Abdallah, two polite and thoughtful university graduates, both now 25, whom I first encountered in Sidi Bouzid in January. When I met Sofiene and Hamza, the protests sparked by the Dec. 17 confrontation between the overweening small-town policewoman and the hard-working and overwrought young fruit vendor had just toppled Tunisia's president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Sofiene, then two years out of college and still unemployed, quietly seething with anger about his predicament, was showing up in late January for what were still daily protests. He had taken part from the first minute of the demonstrations, which began in Sidi Bouzid the day after Bouazizi, raw from his encounter with the policewoman and despairing of ever earning a living in dignity under the corrupt Ben Ali, set himself on fire in front of a city building. The morning after Bouazizi's act, when it came time to confront the police, Sofiene threw some of the first rocks hurled during the protests that have rocked the Arab world over the subsequent 10 months.

"I can honestly say I was among the first 50" people protesting, Sofiene says now, when I meet the two young Tunisians over dinner to catch up. He's not bragging, but he is watching to make sure I write down the number correctly. "I am proud, because I am one of the 50," he explains.

Hamza, a friend of Sofiene's and an ex-classmate of Mohamed, had just graduated from university the day that he drenched himself in a liter and a half of gasoline and struck a match. But hailing from a better-off family and with better prospects than either Sofiene or Mohamed, Hamza had stayed on the edge of the first protests. His role was to post some of the first Facebook videos, which slowly spread the word about an uprising in a concrete, whitewashed plaza in a tomato-growing town near the edge of the Sahara. By no means stars in the revolutions, Sofiene and Hamza nonetheless were among the pivotal first few dozen of the millions in the Arab world driven to act.

The uprisings that began in their hometown have since removed a third Arab dictator from power, sparked warfare with a fourth stubbornly clinging to power (Yemen), and suffered daily massacres by a fifth (Syria).

I'm back in Tunisia, though, because I want to find out whether the revolutions have started to address some of the causes of the anger among the younger generation of activists. I'm back, too, because Sofiene had told me over Facebook that both he and Hamza had finally found work.

I was glad to hear about Sofiene's job in particular. In January, he had told me about the thousands of jobless, young Tunisian men who, hopeless, were taking the dangerous step of paying smugglers to take them across the Mediterranean to Italy in search of work.

I'd worried that Sofiene, desperate, would try the same route. But without connections, Sofiene finally found a job the hard, drab, safe way: A software company had finally answered one of the two years' worth of email applications he had sent, and offered him a job in Tunis. Hamza had also found a job, as an engineer, and moved to the capital as well.

We met up again in Sidi Bou Said, a cobblestone resort village a few miles outside Tunis (not to be confused with their hometown, Sidi Bouzid). Sofiene, already thin, was leaner. Hamza, relying on restaurants for his meals now that he was working, was huskier.

Standing on a Sidi Bou Said promontory Hamza pointed out Ben Ali's snowy-white villa on the adjacent cove and made clear that he and Sofiene were among the lucky ones. With most tourism and much investment scared off by the revolutions, the number of jobless in Tunisia is believed to have doubled, Hamza told me. (A study led by an economics professor at the University of Tunis estimated that unemployment had increased 143 percent in March 2011, soon after the uprising, compared to the same period a year before.)

Unemployment, one of the main complaints of protesters around the Middle East and North Africa, was cited as the main concern of 60 percent of Tunisians surveyed in a poll ahead of Sunday's first post-revolution elections. On Oct. 23, Tunisians will elect members of an assembly to write a new constitution.

Even before the revolutions, the Arab region had the highest rates of youth unemployment and overall unemployment in the world.

When Sofiene joined the first protests in January, rolling a police car out in the street to be burned, he did so because, "I didn't have employment, I didn't have a job. I didn't have anything to lose," he says now.

These days, though, Sofiene is a textbook example for those who argue that job creation calms unrest. Sofiene still tries to get out to the political protests in Tunis on weekends when he can. "Other times, I can't. I work, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,'' he says, a little apologetically. "I don't have time off."

And one thing I quickly realize this visit that I hadn't picked up on in January: Sofiene and Hamza, both of whom dress in typical Western clothing, are both pretty religious.

I make some comment about Salafists from next door in Libya supposedly setting up shop on the Tunisian island of Djerba. "We're Salafis!" Hamza exclaims, smiling uncomfortably for a moment.

"Well, not Salafis, but..." Hamza trails off. He talks briefly of how he went to the Libyan border to lend humanitarian assistance during the revolution, and that he found the Libyan Islamists very good people. He and Sofiene tell me they support Tunisia's en-Nahda party, an Islamist group forced underground by Ben Ali. The party is expected to do well in next week's vote. Few other parties have succeeded in organizing and gathering support.

As elsewhere in the Arab world, the joining of forces to rise against dictators momentarily blurred the lines between secularists and fundamentalists. But months later, in countries where the dictators no longer rule, the distinctions are growing sharper every day.

Religion hadn't come up in Sidi Bouzid when I was there in January, other than Mohamed Bouazizi's mother crying when she told me she feared for the soul of her son, as a suicide, if he had truly intended to burn himself to death that day.

On this visit, faith is a recurring topic.

When I first asked Sofiene to meet for dinner in his district of Tunis, he flatly refused. Later, he explained that it would have been impossible, in his working-class neighborhood, for me, as a single woman, to eat at a restaurant with him and Hamza.

That evening, after the three of us sat down at a restaurant in languid Sidi Bou Said instead, Hamza quietly sought assurance in an aside to me that I wouldn't be ordering alcohol. And before I got down to proper interviewing over our meal, Hamza seemed driven to fill any silences by discussing the differences between Christians and Muslims.

After dinner, Hamza and Sofiene took me to a bluff to show me Sidi Bou Said's panoramic view of the Mediterranean. As we stood talking, we realized that a steady flow of young Tunisian couples was approaching the scrub-covered bluff in the dark. The young men and women edged their way out of sight just downhill, holding hands.

We watched, all taken back, to differing extents, at the numbers and openness with which young Muslim Tunisians were using the heights of Sidi Bou Said as a makeout spot.

As we gazed, and Hamza and I talked, it became clear to me that comparatively liberal Tunisia will be facing some rollback.

Ben Ali's predecessor in office outlawed polygamy, assured women equal rights in divorce, and legalized abortion. Hamza, watching with Sofiene and I as young Tunisian lovers assiduously helped each other in and out of the scrub, told me that Tunisia had also legalized prostitution. (In fact, prostitution is technically illegal in Tunisia, but brothels nevertheless have been allowed to operate with government sanction, according to a U.S. State Department report. Under Ben Ali, Tunisian girls who wore head scarves were sometimes ordered to take them off if they wanted to attend school, the same report says.)

Too much, clearly, for a democratizing Muslim country today. Newspaper reports claim that fundamentalists burned down at least three brothels after Ben Ali fell.

Still, for self-proclaimed political Islamists, Sofiene and Hamza's prescriptions were fairly mild. The civil rights of all would be respected, especially those of women, Hamza told me. For example, he said, it was a sin for women to leave their hair uncovered, but Tunisia would leave that for God, not the government, to punish.

Tunisia would try to push a little bit more strongly in the world, do more on behalf of Palestine, they told me.

"And if a regime's not good, we can get rid of him," Hamza says. "We are tired of dictatorships."

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