As a Tunisian abroad, taking part in the October 23rd elections was a matter of paramount importance. With ISIE (The Committee Managing the Tunisian Elections) choosing not to designate Chicago (my home city) as one of the 6 election centers for Tunisians living in the States and since my schedule has been in flex up to the week before the elections, I had to improvise. I ended up having to rent a car and drive from Pittsburgh (where I was on business) to Washington DC. I started my journey at 4am hoping to make it to the capital so I could beat what I expected to be a major rush of Tunisians in the DC area. Imagine my surprise or rather disappointment to find only a handful of people at the embassy. Still, going through the process was deeply exhilarating. I have never been prouder of a stained finger!
Later that day, I had dinner at a surprisingly authentic Tunisian restaurant, Taste of Tunisia where many Tunisians were eager, probably for the first time in public, to discuss politics while munching briks.
I flew back to Chicago feeling proud, happy and eagerly awaiting the results. My pride went up a notch following all the foreign press reports of the high voter turnout across the country. Yet, to learn a couple of days later that Ennahdha won a plurality of seats in the Constituent Assembly took me by surprise. And while I never doubted that years of oppression set the stage for them to have a solid showing, a sympathy vote if you will, I never expected them to win the largest block. What was even more puzzling was the fact that Tunisians abroad also favored Ennahdha. Is something off here? Why would the people who benefited most from the openness and modernity of western society favor a party that has a sketchy history at best and which, depending on whom you talk to, favors a medieval dark society at worst and an moderate Islamic society at best?
In this era of information overload, one must realize that our perception of time is fairly skewed. We tend to over-emphasize the constant stream of news and noise and often fail to take a deep breadth, step back and look at an evolving situation from a historical context and whatever other attributes to be reckoned with.
There are two possible analyses of the Tunisian political landscape post Oct 23rd, 2011. The first posits that Ennahdha is still the radical movement of the late 80’s/early 90’s that people of my generation grew to despise, often to a pathological degree. As such, this party is merely using democracy as a route to domination and a complete redesign of the Tunisian society. There’s some merit to this analysis since I experienced first hand that dark period during which Zine Al Abidine started his irreversible shift to dictatorship while ensuring that the Islamists, his most credible and well organized opponents were crushed. A bloody struggle ensued and countless people got caught in the crossfire. Even a classmate of mine from Lycée Bab Al Khadhra ended up being used to participate in the bloody Bab Souika events. Others were sent to suffer in desert camps while many more spent years in prison. People who lived through these years ended up despising both Ben Ali and his goons as well as Ennahdha. That trust would never be recovered.
The second school of thought cuts Ennahdha some slack by advancing that its leadership has had time to mature and evolve and that years of prison, soul searching and exile, often in western capitals, has allowed these individuals to reform and alter their ideology. Although I struggle to believe the current leadership, I admit that this second theory has some merit as well. As a matter of fact, I have always decried a human flaw I call ‘Intellectual Rigidity’ for only an idiot remains with his opinions intact as he travels through life. A truly intelligent and sensible person has to admit that the Divine Force gave us brains to use and as such opinions and ideologies have to evolve as more information is provided and realities are altered.
Should secular Muslims and non-Muslims be afraid of Ennahdha? I don’t think so. I believe we need to be vigilant, and passionately embrace our new gift: the practice of democracy. After all, one can’t look at the more established western democracies and not notice the rise of right wing ideologies. Examples abound. In the US, Christian fundamentalists like Pat Robertson (and his widely followed TV show the 700 Club) and extreme right wing sites such as WorldNet Daily constantly spew bigotry, hatred and apocalyptic world views. Things are not much better in Europe where some parties seem to be drifting more to the right and blaming the foreigners for all of their countries’ ills. For our region to be following suit, therefore, is not surprising. Globalization has awaken some reactionary forces from within our collective psyche. World cultures are still sensing their ways in this brave new world that’s merging.
Our learning curve will be steep and will take time but the process will be worth it for we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape our beloved Tunisia and create a good benchmark for the rest of the Arab and Muslim world.
I have always believed politics are the thread that ties everything together in a society. A nation with corrupt politics is severely hindered. Without freedom of speech, ideas don’t thrive. When cronyism and nepotism prevail, the entrepreneurial engine stops. What our region has long suffered from was the lack of what I call ‘the good political precedent’. A couple of sad examples: The Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser resigned in 1967 after the Six-Day War only to change his mind and stay. Our own Bourguiba, despite his valuable contributions, couldn’t overcome his megalomania and offer Tunisia the gift of democratic transition and instead chose to hang on to power until he was overthrown. Had these two popular leaders chosen to leave on their own accord, the Arab world would have been in a much different place. Charles de Gaulle resigned in 1946 at the height of his popularity and got France on a path of true democracy. In the US, General George Washington reluctantly accepted to serve two terms (4 years each) before insisting on retiring to his farm. Being the Father of the Nation, all those who came after him couldn’t dare serve longer than he did and that practice came to be known as the unwritten Washington Tradition or Rule. Only Franklin Roosevelt broke the rule as the world got mired in World War II and served twelve years and was set to start his fourth term when he died. The US congress decided then to finally turn the Washington Tradition into law by enacting the Twenty-second Constitutional Amendment.
I believe that our ‘Jasmin Revolution’ is the Good Precedent we have long been looking for and such there is no turning back. Ennahdha or whoever is unlikely to reverse the course of history. Tunisians have managed to free themselves up from a bloody dictator and enter a new dimension, political democracy. And as with anything in life, new things come with good and bad attributes. This new dimension is full of noise, sometimes acrimony but serves its main purpose: being the new Tunisian souk, our marketplace of ideas, freely expressed and debated and may the best vision for this fledgling democracy win.
It is, therefore, incumbent upon us, locals and members of the diaspora to support the new government as if our favorite party won and was in power. We don’t have much time to waste on destructive politics, a merging phenomenon in more mature democracies where the opposition is often at odds with the governing party simply to increase its chances of taking over. In the meantime, the country pays… That scenario should not happen in Tunisia. We’ve got to get going with a major socio-economic renewal. If not, poverty will lead to upheaval and democracy will be replaced by chaos.