The holy month of Ramadan tends to grind most daily activities to a halt in Tunisia. The work day is cut in half, and productivity plummets, especially so this year, as Ramadan coincides with the scorching Tunisian summer.
The night, however, is a different story. After breaking the fast – usually with family – Tunisians take to the streets, cafes, and public spaces to enjoy the cool evenings, listen to music, or chat with friends.
This year, evenings during Ramadan have also included public debates, political rallies, and meetings of civil society. On any given evening in Tunis, usually starting around 10 p.m., one can find Tunisians gathering to debate the future of the country. In many cases, these gatherings evoke previous political or social leaders from Tunisia’s history, such as early Tunisian poet Abou el Kacem el Chebbi or Saleh Ben Youssef. Political rallies tend to be more understated than usual, a reflection of a religious, rather than competitive, mentality.
On a recent evening in the Medina in Tunis, which begins to rouse itself around 9:30, I witnessed gatherings from all kinds of groups, the green parties of Tunisia were discussing climate change, while the center left party PDP was discussing their economic agenda. The Tahar Hadad Club had the the ambiance of a philosophy society that was thinking about the big ideas Hadad himself contemplated. My Tunisian friends impressed on me the importance of Hadad in Tunisian society. Hadad was a Tunisian thinker from the early 20th century, who fought for women’s and worker’s rights, and against polygamy. Many credit him as the inspiration for the modern, secular society Habib Bourguiba installed in Tunisia upon independence from France. On Saturday, a local radio station broadcast a multi-hour debate on the pros and cons of a parliamentary versus presidential system and the importance of electing a constitutional assembly prior to installing a legitimate government.
In short, it is true that Tunisians remain frustrated at the pace of reform and of the usual cast of characters and issues that dominate the airwaves two months prior to the first free elections in the country’s history. But underneath the bluster, there is a society that is discussing, debating, persuading, and pushing for the ideas that will change this country. It is no surprise that in a country that has been at the vanguard of some of the most important thinkers in the Arab world that these debates are raging. The pace of change may be slow, but it is happening.