The Amilcar Notes (Part 5):Election Exhilaration in Tunisia

Ibn Khaldun, the great Tunisian philosopher.

Ibn Khaldun, the great Tunisian philosopher.

Also read:
The Amilcar Notes (Part 1): Zine Ben Ali’s Sorry Legacy
The Amilcar Notes (Part 2): Tunisia — Emerging Democracy or Just a Facade?
The Amilcar Notes (Part 3): Tunisia’s Forgotten Socio-Economic Crisis
The Amilcar Notes (Part 4): Tunisia — Profoundly Islamic

1. Remembering a History Teacher

A half century ago, I was beginning Jamaica High School in Queens, New York, rather far from Tunisia. It was a wonderful, very academically sound public high school which produced the likes of the great evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould. I had a history teacher named Aaron Rose, the best teacher I ever had anywhere, anytime. It was only later that I understood how much he had influenced me, how I wanted to be a teacher and to teach like “Mr. Rose.” It was from Aaron Rose, a Jewish New York City high school teacher that I was first introduced to the name of Ibn Khaldun and his work, The Muqadimmah .

Mr. Rose also gave two memorable lectures on the French Revolution that relates in its own way to the events in Tunisia. After the first one I came home excited, so excited in fact that when my father got wind of what I was saying he got a little nervous. “That French Revolution,” I started, “look what they did, they got rid of the corrupt monarchy” (whatever shortcomings we Americans have, one of our better points is that we are not interested in monarchies – at least at home), and “the people” won and got “liberte, fraternite and egalite.” Wow. Cool. I’m for it. I was also 12 years old.

The next day, continuing on the French Revolution, Aaron Rose shifted gears. Having brought us up to the heights the day before. I WANTED MORE. Didn’t happen. He talked about how the revolution turned on itself, how the freedom of speech was suppressed, how the atmosphere quickly hardened and witch hunts began against anyone who spoke out who was labeled an “enemy of the revolution” and finally how so many innocent people met their deaths along with a few guilty ones.

It was crushing. He’d played a cruel trick on me, that Aaron Rose did, one day giving me hope and then stomping on it. At 12 really I had no politics, was much more interested in basketball than girls (still the case). My family was not particularly political. And here Aaron Rose for the first time kindled my interest in politics one day only to crush it the next. And maybe he WAS talking to me, because we were as close as I got to a teacher personally up until then. I liked him. He was smart, knew his subject, didn’t bullshit the students (although I do not think he was some kind of radical). He was just a fine teacher who loved his students and his subject and has long been a conscious model in my 45-year teaching career, soon to end.

In any event, seeing me steaming in my seat, Mr. Rose called on me. “Prince, you are upset.” I answered something like, “Yes, you’re playing games with us, kindling hope for change one day and then snuffing it out the next. Why did you do that?”

I don’t remember his exact words but I never forgot the essence: “It’s not me who’s playing games,” he said, “it’s history. One can look at history honestly or choose to deny it.” On the subject of the French Revolution, I am just the messenger. and it’s not that nothing changed because a lot of things changed. The monarch was corrupt and it was destroyed; France was not the same place after the revolution as it was before. Old institutions were swept away, new ones, along with a new legal system and new modern values replaced it…and if that revolution did not solve all the problems of all the people – and it didn’t, it solved some of the problems of the old system. It’s not true that France after 1789 was in the end the France that existed before. “It is a lie,” he said with some emphasis, “that the French Revolution was in vane.” Its goals were just partially achieved.

Then he added the line that has stayed with me all these years and this is a quote: “In the end, a revolution simply exchanges one set of problems for another.” The problems of the new world are usually quite different from those of the old system. People know the old problems, the old system, but the “the world coming into being” is something of a mystery and the problems come fast and furiously and the new order has to learn to deal with things it never had to address before.

2. Saluting Tunisia

As much as anyone, Mr. Rose helped give me the eyes and the mind to attempt to process what I am seeing here in Tunisia. The need to be honest about the problems, but not to lose sight of the main picture and the flow of history, to appreciate from whence history flows, and even though it’s difficult to get a glimpse as to where it might be going. History is alive, organic and on the move. Attempting to capture its motion, trying to understand that moving target…well I can tell you, now that is something worth running after! As is learning how to see through the fog that often surrounds it!

Tunis.

Tunis.

Every once in a while, the fog clears for a moment at a place, a time…and right now one of the places is Tunisia and the time is the present. I had to come.

Tonight I watched Tunisia invest a new president tonight on TV. I was at the home of Tunisians, descendants of the sheiks of La Marsa, relatives of Tunisian friends in Colorado. For those present watching Moncef Marzouki invested as President of the country, this was a precious moment, one that they were savoring, almost sacred. The only proper thing to do was to congratulate them which I did. They graciously acknowledged their national achievement.

It was a moment of national emotion and pride for all Tunisians. And despite the challenges, problems that lay ahead – I have written about many of them in this series – something very special has happened here as it “exchanged one set of problems for another.”

Today in Tunisia a new government was put in place. Two new presidents took their seats, one for the country overall, the other of what is called the Constituent Assembly. That assembly was the result of the first genuine election in Tunisian history.

Yes, all election processes have their limits (as we know in the USA) but this one was done fairly. The president was not put in power by tanks, a military coup or frankly by foreign powers (who of course tried to manipulate it as is their nature), but was the result of an uprising led by the country’s youth seeking a future with dignity and commensurate with their unlimited untapped talent.

The revolution was accomplished relatively peacefully although there were casualties (les martyrs). During most of this time of crisis, people here in the Tunis region and other big cities went to work although the ministers and some corporate heads had fled keeping the country running the best they could, far different from Libya where virtually everything has fallen apart. And all this done by an over-educated, underemployed and underpaid people who were beaten down, intimidated, tortured and robbed blind by two clans of nouveau riche thugs – that is really all they were in the end – for a quarter of a century.

It is true that those who led the charge took to the streets and faced down fear – fear of arrest, of torture of being killed by Ben Ali’s assassination hit squads – are not those in the elected Constituent Assembly. As I have written elsewhere in this series, this is so not unusual and might even before for the best. There is something important about the continuation of a permanent social movement outside of government to continue as a check to those in power, to remind them of the source of their legitimacy – that it comes from the street, from mass, mostly peaceful demonstrations, de-legitimizing one government, giving birth to the conditions for another.

On this, history suggests that the Russian anarchists were right to distrust all power and to challenge it. Tunisia’s social movement remains vibrant despite going through a difficult period. This will ultimately be the real check on the corruption of power and the Tunisians have learned to use this weapon as well as – or better than – most.

This was done with an unequaled level of courage and humanity, and a sense of national solidarity, as if the Tunisian people had woken up and found each other after a long sleep, or should I say, nightmare. People broke out of their isolation, reconnected to each other, recommitted themselves to common social goals. It is frankly, something that cannot be described in words, not my words at least. It was a beautiful thing to watch, even from far away Denver from whence I long have hailed. The uprising wasn’t about religion, it wasn’t “a left uprising,” it was a “revolt of a new kind”…it was about a nation struggling with its soul and trying to find its way in the world again in a new more wholesome setting.

What happened here is nothing short of an explosion of Tunisian nationalism in all its aspects – mostly tolerant – it is not propaganda that Tunisia is a profoundly tolerant place, not just a tolerant Islamic country, it is just tolerant period. Yes there are some uglier aspects of Tunisian nationalism that have also surfaced. They are marginal, have very little actual history or base in this country and while they are making a lot of noise and headlines right now, it is unlikely in the end that their impact will amount to much. They do scare people for the moment but their very intolerance marginalizes them and will be their undoing.

That this sense of dignity is exactly what Tunisians are feeling now was reinforced today during a chance meeting with a Tunisian woman in Carthage. Her commentary on the past year got right to the point: “I never really thought of Tunisia as “my country,” but since the revolution I feel a part of it and am proud.”

A corrupt, repressive regime has been overthrown by its own people, its former leadership either forced to flee the country or in jail. A state security force of 250,000 snoops and torturers could not stop a people’s movement triggered by the immolation of a frustrated, educated, barely employed youth in Sidi Bouzid. The pictures of Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi came down overnight. There is now a Boulevard Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunis. A political party first called the Neo-Destour and then morphed into the Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique, with its roots in the colonial period that was used by two presidents, has been dissolved and a whole region turned into turmoil with the calls for greater democracy, greater economic opportunity. And an orderly election without any violence (that I am aware of) took place, a model for other countries.

I have written a fair amount in “The Amilcar Notes” about “the new set of problems” Tunisia is facing in this series, and frankly there is more to say. I don’t think my observations are much off the mark. The country faces many challenges…all that glitters here is not gold. Much of the old system remains in place and in fact in some ways (economy, state security apparatus, administration) at least to date, not many changes at all.

But let us not at this moment forget that Tunisia today is a different place than it was a year ago, open and proud as it should be, it is a better place – it has reconnected with its own humanity. Something truly historical took place here. We can argue later – as we should – about the dimensions of the changes, or where Tunisia is or isn’t going. The significance of what happened here starting a year ago goes beyond even the Middle East. It has undermined the cynicism of so many who said it couldn’t happen here, in an overwhelmingly Arab and Moslem country run by a dictator. But it is the Tunisian changes that have created hope around the world, everywhere, including in the United States, that change is possible.

The “people’s coup” as one Tunisian observer called it, brings us back to a truth that reactionaries and conservatives throughout the world have tried to stamp out, to destroy: that it is the people who make history and not crumb-bums like Zine el Abidine Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarek. And once that process begins to take form, the “great powers” are shrunk back to their much less powerful size. Neither France nor the USA could stop the Tunisian people. And the Tunisians did it by themselves and they know it; all of them! The very people the U.S. media has denigrated, deformed their history, language and religion so out of shape that it is unrecognizable and so that people in the United States fear the words “Arab” and “Moslem”…it is precisely these people who have responded by showing the world what human decency, democracy is all about. The Tunisians are leading the way.

Yes it is a beautiful thing…with all its bumps and warts. I’m glad I lived to see it and that for three weeks I could be here, watch it, think about it, worry about it and share in the wonder. The Tunisians have started the world on a journey; they’ve taken the first step. Now it’s our turn to take the second. This is not a time for cynicism, not even mine.

Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News .