Letter from Tunisia

Gregory Mann, Guest Blogger

Have we already forgotten that the ‘Arab Spring’ began in the winter?

Ben Ali and co. took flight in January, before the whole word learned that the Arabic word for ‘liberation’ is ‘Tahrir,’ as in ‘Tahrir Square.’ But Tunisia’s revolution is not yet ancient history—it’s still underway. Here in Tunis, the dust hasn’t settled, and the end is unclear. Next door in Libya, not to mention Syria and Yemen, it’s hard to know what’s beginning, or whether one swallow can make a spring.

In the seaside town of Hammamet, a local businessman boasts that one of his neighbors slit the throat of a pet tiger that one of Ben Ali’s in-laws kept there. The beachfront villa Ben Ali gave this amateur zoo-keeper stands gutted and hollowed out, everything in it having long been reduced to ashes and pebbles. Next door, the villa of one of Ben Ali’s children from his first marriage was untouched. That wife was respected, say local residents, and they had no quarrel with her children. Meanwhile, in town the last of the burnt out buildings—mostly banks and government offices—are being re-plastered and painted. Tourism has collapsed. Builders are doing well, though, and the price of bricks has shot up dramatically. They’re not needed for re-building, but for new construction. Landowners are trying to build as fast as they can while the building codes go unenforced. When a new government comes in this summer, everyone thinks that window of opportunity will close.

In this long moment of waiting, Tunis is a strangely quiet town. The country is in a long pause between Ben Ali’s flight and July’s elections. Will the pause be long enough for the new political parties to mount a respectable opposition to the better-established, moderate, and business-minded Ennahdha party, with its Islamist orientation? Many doubt it. In the meantime, no one is sure what is happening. Prison breaks are frequent, and strikes flicker across the country. Security forces fired shots on Friday to disperse some of the Islamists’ partisans, prompting more than one wag to ask how they could claim to be excluded from a political progress that has hardly begun. Nonetheless, the machine guns on top of the armored personnel carriers all have covers drawn over them, as if they were slumbering while stationed at traffic circles, in front of ministries and banks, or near some of the embassies. They often have water cannons mounted on big blue trucks to keep them company, just as the policemen and the soldiers lighten the burden of their boredom by sharing it. But the Libyan embassy is buckled down, squat and non-descript behind a heavy wreath of concertina. It makes you wonder what the border itself looks like: the Libyan army crossed it over the weekend, bombarding a frontier town and killing Tunisians. Meanwhile, Tunisians are proud to recount that their countrymen are sheltering Libyans who’ve taken refuge here. Here and there across the capital, collection points have sprung up to gather goods that will be channeled to the refugees. There may be a re-emergent fraternity between Libyans and Tunisians, whose governments long sought to keep them apart. After the supposed death of one of the Colonel’s sons, Qadaffi’s people sacked European embassies in Tripoli, but the soldiers in Tunis look to have nothing more serious than time on their hands.

It’s the politicians who have their hands full. Until January 2011, Tunisia had only ever had two presidents. Other than its neighbor Libya, no country on the continent had seen so little change at the top. ‘Stability’ is like everything else—it is possible to have too much of a good thing. In a political system that has not seen a great deal of rapid change, these are heady times. A constitutional assembly will be elected in July, but in the meantime, scores are being settled across the country, especially in the impoverished South, where municipal governments have been paralyzed. When Ben Ali and his relatives fled, they left behind a lot of loot, some of it in the form of marble statues dating from the days of Roman Carthage. The generally discredited police are trying to recover some of it, but it’s not clear if the mafia-like web of criminality that Ben Ali and company wove can be cleared away in a few short months. Students debate whether what’s going on is a revolution or simply ‘events.’ Some people are looking forward, others over their shoulders. The intelligentsia—or part of it—appears to be afraid of the Islamists. They know that Tunisia has never been secular. The constitution says as much, defining Tunisia as a Muslim, Arab country. It’s currently suspended, but remains the starting point for future discussion. Whether its Arab identity will stand is not certain. At least a few Berbers would like to see it go, and you-know-who would like to see French recognized as an official language. But if push comes to shove, the fact that the state is explicitly not a secular one might make it harder for secularists to hold their ground against parties that mobilize around religious concerns—even if such parties have been against the law since the 1990s. The intelligentsia also knows as well as anyone that the opposition to Ben Ali was not spontaneous. Throughout a long winter—twenty-four years long—lawyers led it. Tunisia’s youth then launched the ‘Arab spring.’ Come summer, their work will not be finished.

* Gregory Mann is an associate professor of history at Columbia University.

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