Fiction Blossoms into Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution

Mustapha TliliAs I try to grasp the full meaning of the Tunisian Revolution and to gauge its future, I am looking at my desk where I have spread two issues of The New York Times, both featuring Tunisia on their front pages. The two issues are dated 23 years apart.

The first is a yellowish, wrinkled copy of the edition of November 7, 1987. The headline, “A Coup is Reported in Tunisia,” shook the ground under my feet when I first saw it on the newsstand in my Manhattan neighborhood that Saturday night more than two decades ago. The article reported nothing less than the fall of Habib Bourguiba, the aging founder of modern Tunisia and a hero of its independence. A bloodless coup staged by his then-prime minister, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, ousted Bourguiba in the dead of night.

I paid for the paper and hurried back to my apartment where I’d been working almost non-stop for the previous 20 hours to finish my novel — Lion Mountain — the story of a small town in central Tunisia, oppressed by tyranny and economic deprivation, on the eve of a massacre by the
authorities.

Now, in real life that day in 1987, there had been a coup. The New York Times reporter described in reassuring detail the sense of relief felt by the Tunisian people who saw in their new president a savior who would preserve the country from both chaos and a possible Islamist takeover.

In the days following, tens of thousands gathered in downtown Tunis to celebrate their deliverance from years of stagnation and uncertainty presided over by an increasingly senile Bourguiba. Ben Ali, the new president, was a hero to most and, in the first years of his rule, deservedly so.

A Secular Revolution

The second issue of The New York Times spread on my desk is from January 15, 2011. The headline: “President of Tunisia Flees, Capitulating to Protesters.”

This time, however, the report is less clear, less reassuring. Who were the protesters? What motivated them? Where will they drive the country? With most Western analysts traditionally and erroneously seeing Tunisia as “Arab” and “Islamic,” could there be a “domino effect” in the Middle East?

Looking for answers, I scrutinize the large picture to the left of the headline. A sea of people fills the beautiful, late 19th-century Habib Bourguiba Avenue. Some local estimates put the number of protesters on January 14 at between 50,000 and 60,000.

These are typical, Mediterranean faces, mostly male and young–the oldest seem to be in their thirties. They look clean shaven; even with a magnifying glass I do not detect a single beard among them.

There are also some young women, but not a single headscarf, veil, or burqa. To my eyes, the event could be taking place in Barcelona, Lyon, or Naples.

As to the signs the protesters are holding, they are mostly Tunisian flags, or various symbols and slogans rejecting Ben Ali and the authoritarianism he represented in his late years. Here too, I cannot find a single reference to Allah, Islam, or the ummah (community of believers.)

All this is to say that what will most likely go down in history as the Jasmine Revolution – one of the defining political events of our time — was, to all appearances, a secular revolution.

Ferment Follows Fiction

Slah Dachraoui, a 19-year-old fruit stand operator, was among the first protesters killed; photo courtesy of Human Rights WatchThe uprising began on December 17 in a small town in central Tunisia — a town very similar to the one described in Lion Mountain: arid, rugged, and in revolt. My fictional city was not at all unlike Sidi Bouzid, where 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi started it all by immolating himself in an appeal to the world’s moral conscience; or Kasserine, where the political police and the regime’s militia shot indiscriminately at protesters to teach the townspeople a lesson; or Feriana, my hometown, where townsfolk reported unspeakable crimes — including apparently the rape of helpless women in the presence of their husbands –as I listened over the telephone to news of the unfolding tragedy.

“A Time of the Tyrants in a North African Village” read the title of Herbert Mitgang’s review of my novel in The New York Times. The revolt in Lion Mountain, led by an old woman and her one-legged Nubian servant, is mercilessly crushed by the tyrant. But the townsfolk go on with their quiet lives after burying their dead.

The young men and women of the Jasmine Revolution are the real-life sons and daughters of my fictional characters. Unlike their parents, they refused to endure the daily dread and humiliation at the hands of the regime and its omnipresent political police. This generation is fearless, valuing liberty above all. “We prefer to live with bread and water, but free of Ben Ali,” they kept shouting — and dying for it. Until, four weeks later, they toppled the dictator.

Since the first day of a revolt that slowly developed into a full-fledged revolution, cyberspace has been inundated with tweets and Facebook messages speaking of liberty, freedom of expression, good governance, pluralism, democracy, and human rights. Objectives not in line with these aspirations have been criticized and often shunned. Libya’s leader Muammar al-Gaddafi and Egyptian television preacher Sheikh Qaradawi have already been ridiculed for putting an Arab or an Islamist spin on the Tunisian Revolution.

Metaphors aside, the protesters who put an end to President Ben Ali’s repressive and corrupt regime are actually the educated sons and daughters of the large middle class that came to characterize the modern and secular Tunisia founded and nurtured painstakingly for decades by Habib Bourguiba. Prior to his rule, even before the French takeover in 1881, a line of nationalist leaders stretching back to the late 18th century looked to Europe and the Enlightenment for solutions to the country’s problems. Tunisian identity was shaped by this specific history.

Sui Generis Tunisia

Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Yemen have neither a strong middle class nor a tradition of modern, secular government. A revolution in one of these other states would most likely bring Islamists to power, as prevailing social science predicts. The question of whether the Jasmine Revolution will have a “domino effect” is, to my mind, a false one. If an Islamic revolution is what the peoples of these countries desire, they would achieve it without inspiration from Tunisia’s secular uprising – that is, assuming their armies or secret services do not beat them to the punch.

It should be acknowledged, in fairness, that Ben Ali preserved and strengthened the foundations of Tunisian exceptionalism, furthering gender equality, access to abortion, universal free education (including higher education), and the separation of religion and state. He achieved an enviable rate of economic development for a country starved of natural resources. He helped eradicate poverty and deepened ties with Europe through tourism, trade, and cultural relations.

Unfortunately, the former president succumbed to the temptations of corruption – introduced, many believe, by his second wife, Leila Trabelsi, and her rapacious extended family. In cables leaked last month to the website WikiLeaks, former U.S Ambassador to Tunisia Robert F. Godec described with great detail and admirable intellectual honesty the mafia-like system put in place over the years by the Trabelsis to plunder the Tunisian economy. Had Ben Ali and his in-laws not gradually and inexorably built a repressive machine to protect their criminal activities, the Tunisian leader might not have left the stage in disgrace.

Despite the extensive physical damage and loss of life inflicted on the country by some die-hard elements of Ben Ali’s Praetorian Guard, the tense and dangerous few days that followed the fall of the dictator did not change the objectives or the outcome of the revolution. More remarkably, and in contrast to prevailing trends in Arab governance, the Tunisian army played the role of a genuinely professional, neutral, loyal republican institution, acting in support of the civilian process.

As a result, security and normalcy have gradually returned. A provisional government that includes members of the opposition has been formed. The fine-tuning of the democratic process will certainly take time, and the state may experience some ups and downs in the coming weeks. At the very least, however, the new government has expressed its solemn commitment to total freedom of information and assembly, the release of all political prisoners, and the holding of free and internationally supervised presidential and legislative elections within six months. If he runs for office, Rashid Ghannouchi — the exiled leader of the outlawed Ennahda Islamist party – will only find himself frustrated if his goal is to form an Islamic Republic of Tunisia.

I believe the revolution in Tunisia was just a matter of time-a popular uprising to end a system that failed to deliver the free society for which the Tunisian public has long been ready. Looking once more at the front-page picture of The New York Times of January 15, 2011 I feel pride and hope – pride for a country that has shown the world its readiness to establish a genuine, liberal, pluralistic, and secular democracy, and hope for what is to come.

Mustapha Tlili is the author of the novel Lion Mountain. He is the founder and director of the NYU Center for Dialogues, a research scholar at New York University, a senior fellow at its Remarque Institute, and member of the Human Rights Watch Advisory Committee for the Middle East and North Africa. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. Some of the material used in this essay was first contributed by the author to Project Syndicate.