The strange return of Habib Bourguiba to Tunisia

On Saturday in Monastir a strange event took place. Gathered together in the same place for the first time in decades were the Destourians – supporters of the former Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba. They met to discuss plans to provide a unified political front in an effort to return the country to what it described as the path it departed from under Ben Ali, and the equally fatal path of the Islamists.

Blogger for French magazine Marianne, Martine Gozlan, described the event:

…forces of modernity are looking to unite to resist obscurantism: that was the sense of the mass meeting held Saturday, March 24 in Monastir under the auspices of Beji Caid Essebsi, the previous Prime Minister, and in the wake of the founding father whose massive portrait dominated the meeting: Habib Bourguiba….The old Beji Caid Essebsi, who was once his traveling companion, and had the difficult task of leading post Ben Ali Tunisia to the polls last October 23rd, had assembled all the forces of the centrist opposition on Saturday March 24th.

The reformation of Destourian parties has elicited many reactions here from across the political spectrum. While the potential impact of a return to Bourguibism excites many Tunisians, to others it is the first step toward a return of authoritarianism.

You don’t have to go far in Tunisia to find people who love Habib Bourguiba. A populist and a nationalist, Tunisia’s first leader after independence modernized the country, Many Tunisians, particularly those born before independence, see Bourguiba not only as a force for good, but as a true leader of Tunisians – he is their Papa. And while many of his supporters will decry his authoritarianism, they also applaud what they saw was a relatively uncorrupt individual who only wanted the best for his country. These people often also supported Ben Ali, at least up until the point that his nepotism and kleptocratic ways became known. During the uprising last year, they didn’t want an overthrow of the system, just a cleaning up.

Detractors of Bourguisme tell a very different story. They see Bourguiba as a meglomaniac who denied human rights and set the stage for Ben Ali. To Ennahdha supporters, Bourguiba relentlessly pursued, persecuted, and imprisoned them. But not only that – Bourguiba reviled Islamists. When asked what separated him from an Islamist, Bourguiba replied: “Fourteen centuries.”

When Bourguiba-era minister Beji Caid Essebsi stepped back into the political scene last February to take over the caretaker government, both hardcore Ennahdha supporters and human rights activists squirmed. While he justified his lack of fundamental reforms by saying that he was just an interim leader and that the elected leaders should make those decisions, his opponents saw someone who wanted to preserve the status quo and keep the ancien regime well-placed to retakeover the country.

Recent statements, followed by Saturday’s conference in Monastir, by other so-called Destourians have put many people edge, just as they have excited many who see in the party a chance to unify the country.

To the secularist left, Bourguibists represent a major threat to their support base. The left struggled in the last elections, unable to get popular support or shed their image as elitists – or God forbid – atheists. Destourians never had a problem relating to their base. Through populist rhetoric and strategic handouts, they were able to reach out to the common Tunisian. And most importantly, they were able to do so without coming across as out-of touch. Thus, the consolidation of Destourian parties may be an attractive pull and secularist parties may be coopted by them.

Tunisian-American journalist Wafa Ben Hassine sees trouble in the potential alliance between leftists and members of the former regime:

It appeared that Essebsi and his crew were desperately seeking to rebrand the RCD. The Caid Essebsi and co. are succeeding, albeit only within a small niche. To this niche, Essebsi is simply the reincarnation of Bourguiba, representing modernity and ‘balance’ in social values….

….What is alarming are the scores of left-wing parties that made their way down to Monastir yesterday. The left should be more careful about its actions and what they reflect – the Tunisian left is already painted as an elitist segment of society. Why exacerbate the image, and in turn appear to betray the very values that led to Ben Ali’s ouster?

Bourguiba, over 24 years since being deposed, still stirs emotions and makes headlines in this country which he built in his image.  Almost half of the population knows Bourguiba only from history books – many of which are being rewritten as we speak. Whether the reconstitution of his party and his ideas will take hold is far from certain.

Have Tunisian Salafists written themselves out of the new constitution?

Tunisian Salafists demonstrated this weekend on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in central Tunis. Thousands of supporters rallied for the Quran, for the institution of Charia law, and to show Tunisians that they would not back down.

But the image that will remain for most Tunisians is one of a half dozen Salafists scaling the clocktower in front of the Ministry of the Interior and waving their black flags with the shahada. See above photo courtesy of Tunisia Live.

The government, led by moderate Islamist movement Ennahdha, has been walking a tightrope with Salafist groups. The Interior Minister told Le Monde last week that jihadist groups were the number one danger for Tunisia, but he was also careful to distinguish between Salafist groups and jihadist ones. Ennahdha leaders have told me that their goal is to not push these groups underground, but to neutralize them by allowing them to protest.

Nevertheless, Ennahdha seems to be feeling the pressure from ordinary Tunisians, who group both violent and non-violent fundamentalist groups as extremist. This might partly explain Ennahdha’s announcement today that it will leave the first article of the constitution as is. Article 1 has been the subject of debate, particularly for those who argue that it should include charia as the principle source of legislation.

The debate over charia is far from over. However, it appears that the more the Salafist are in the news, especially when they are allowed to deface public buildings, the less popular they become. The question is whether or not the public will continue to support Ennahdha’s “light touch” when it comes to these groups – or whether it will force Ennahdha to track further toward the center.

Will the Tunisian left return to authoritarian Bourguisme – more reactions on Tunisia’s Independence Day

As I wrote yesterday, the left celebrated Tunisia’s indpendence day on Tuesday with a peaceful celebration downtown. Much of the reporting afterward was self-congratulatory – the left had shown that it can mobilize! Some reactions from the left, however, were more critical. These criticisms focus on the fact that the left seems perpetually unable to get the support of popular classes – and that could lead to a return of authoritarianism.

Emna El Hammi writes:

If this celebration was primarily a celebration for all Tunisians, it is the left who was the chief representative, and with it clichés about the so-called westernized fringe of Tunisian society. For, once again, it was the left that was in the streets to defend against the Islamists, the values of democracy and freedoms. The left are the ones who struggle to unite the working class and find themselves in a grotesque image of a champagne socialist, westernized, bourgeois and not caring about their own hedonistic pleasures, and despising the poor.

She goes on to discuss how dangerous this image is for the left:

[These] events show once again that we are still struggling to get out of the identity debate that divides society in two….The left scarcely understand that if it wants to win legitimacy among Tunisians, especially those from the working class, it needs to get out of this identity debate and focus its policy on employment, social justice and social rights, which represent the real concerns of the population. It must also have a real desire to bring together Tunisian people around a common societal goal.

And that’s where we measure the threat of a possible Destourian [Bourguibiste] comeback, these ex-RCDists who have reconverted to the principles of Bourguiba, and seek to rebuild their popular legitimacy on the back of a revolution that they never sought. The reformation of former RCDists would be incredibly damaging to the left, they have a perfect knowledge of the [political] terrain and networks that have allowed them to feed the poor under Ben Ali. What is freedom or democracy when, in front, you are offered a job and a salary…

Bidules blog echoes El Hammi’s fears of a return to Bourguisme:

The Doustouriens [Bourguibists] the RCDists {Ben Alists]…A political force that dominated the country for 55 years. Today nobody talks about it almost as if it has no weight on the [political] scene. It is ignored, media appearances are rare. Are we going to underestimate this force? Tunisia is divided into two camps: the conservatives and modernists. Are the Doustouriens taking advantage of this bipolarity and this atmosphere of instability to prepare the BIG COMEBACK?…

…These forces may rise as a viable alternative following the failure of the Troika [the ruling coalition] economically and in the fight against corruption. In addition, errors in choosing the government leaders and cases of nepotism and favoritism led to the dismay of many Tunisians. Other democratic forces have been bogged down in ideological debates and issues over identity and struggle to move from being elitist parties to popular parties.

The idea of the former ruling party, refitted as a nationalist party based on authoritarian Bourguism, coming back into party may seem far off at this point. But recent polling by the International Republican Institute shows that former Bourguiba era politician and interim prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, is second only to Moncef Marzouki in popularity among Tunisians, with over 80 percent supporting him. On the other hand, links to the RCD are still toxic in Tunisia and there is nothing Ennahdha would like more than to be able to brand their opponents as remnants of the former regime.

Tunisian civic awareness shows signs of life + picture of the day

Civic awareness was somewhat of a lost cause in Tunisia under Ben Ali. The regime’s tight control over any kind of organizing – unless it was for Ben Ali and his party, the RCD – was tightly controlled. Charities were hard to come by, unless they were underground, like Ennahdha and other Islamist organizations. Recently howver, there have been signs of life in Tunisians’ willingness and capacity to organize to better their communities and help those in need.

Last month I reported on the widespread efforts by Tunisians to help those affected by extreme weather – this included secular and religious groups, as well as extremist groups linked to international terror organizations. It seems that civic life has gone from one extreme to another.

Environmental groups have also been growing. Groups like Friends of the Belvedere have been actively campaigning for months to help save Tunis’s wonderful central park from illegal construction and general mismanagement.

This week, Tunisia Live reported that the international campaign Let’s Do It Tunisia will hold a national day this weekend to help clean up the country of the ever present problem of litter. Dozens of associated civic and environmental organizations have joined the campaign.

In my neighborhood, local do-gooders recently planted 50 trees in the local park. Using their own funds and their own labor, but with support from the city mayor, this group of arborists made their contribution to making Tunisia more green and more beautiful.

Independence day in Tunisia – reactions from around the web

Yesterday Tunisians celebrated their independence day. On a beautiful Spring day in the capital, thousands gathered to show their determination to further the gains they have made as a society – not just since independence from the French over 50 years ago, but from the uprising just 15 months ago.

The reactions across the web were plentiful. Although French media focused on the secularist rally in which thousands of Tunisians marched for a civil state, all reports talked about the increasing divisiveness in the country – pitting for the first time Tunisian citizens against Tunisian citizens. President Marzouki’s addressed this issue in a speech focused on national unity:

This festival is an opportunity for us all to rethink our relationships, to live with our differences and despite our differences…National unity cannot last if it is built on misunderstanding, hatred and division.”

Bidules blog criticized Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s speech for ignoring Tunisia’s history:

Despite differences of opinion and all that happened in the post-colonial era, Bourguiba, along with Farhat Hached, Hedi Chaker and others, played a very important role in the independence of Tunisia and the implementation establishment of a modern state and strong institutions. To forget this important day is unfair and smells of of ingratitude.

Reuters reports on the secular demonstration in downtown Tunis:

Carrying Tunisia’s red and white flag, several thousand protesters filled Bourguiba Avenue, a focal point of protests that ousted strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 last year and sparked the “Arab Spring” uprisings.

“We came in our thousands to say to those who want to change the course of the revolution that we will confront you,” said rights activist Jaber Ben Hasan, amid chants of “the people want a civil state”.

“We are here to bring victory to the civil state,” he said, referring to a state that was not governed by religious law.

Marianne reports ominously of a Tunisia divided in two as secularists demonstrated downtown while religious groups gathered by the thousands in a neighboring suburb:

And now, once again there were two Tunisias on Tuesday, March 20, for Independence Day. The beautiful, rebellious, feminine, youthful, draped in the national flag,with its bright red star as the eye in its cresent. She marched cheerfully down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the very place where she had made the revolution on January 14 that she refuses to see betrayed. And then there was another, the dark, the veiled, the bearded, not laughing, men on one side, women on the other, and nobody moves … frozen between the green flag from the Koran and the Salafist black standard. This one had gathered at the El Menzah Dome, a few miles from the center of Tunis, to proclaim the divine urgency to introduce Sharia law in the Constitution now being developed by the Assembly…

France’s Le Point gets reactions from Tunisians downtown:

“The Tunisian people are divided. If we continue like this, I would not use the term civil war, but … hatred among Tunisians that is emerging could complicate things. I do not want to put a blinders on, but the gap is growing. And if things do not move quickly, I fear that it will become more complicated,” laments Khaled Bouassida, dentist and member of the association Kolna Tunes.

This is a fear shared by Bassem. Proudly wearing his T-shirt which says  “Tolerant Tunisian,” the engineer of 29 years denounced “the attempt to divide the people.” “They want to create a war between Muslims and those they consider less Muslim. But the Tunisian people are diverse.” At his side, Hussam, an accountant, went further: “I am tolerant because I’m Arab and Muslim”

The President of the Association for Women and Dignity, Zahra Marrakchi, writing in Leaders is more optimistic following the day’s events:

Leaving the [Bourguiba] avenue, the protesters were still waving their flags, cars spread through the city in a concert of horns, waving flags. It was a wonderful event that took place without any accident or incident. No slogan called for hatred, exclusion or the use of force…It was a great day with a promises that there will be others.

Similarly inspired, French blogger, and longtime Tunisia resident, Benoit Delmas gives Tunisia an A+ for yesterday’s events:

The multitude of flags was proof that Tunisians do not want Salafist forces. A Republican atmosphere characterized this beautiful day. March 20, we commemorate independence. 56 years ago, France left Tunisia free to her fate. Today we whistled, shouted, smiled so that the country is a peaceful democracy. Tunisia, where veiled women stood alongside unveiled women in tolerance. Today, thousands of people demanded a Tunisia without Sharia. In peace, good humor, with conviction. Mabrouk.

Tunisia Live reports on the mixed feelings Tunisian’s have for their independence, and the increasingly common concern that Gulf countries and the United States are pulling the strings of the government:

Independence day brings mixed feelings for many Tunisians. While the day officially marked the end of the French colonial period, and the beginning of an era where Tunisia was recognized as a modern state, it also began an era of authoritarian rule. One political group was out distributing signs with photos of Tunisia’s first President and leader of the independence movement, Habib Bourguiba. “This is your worst nightmare,” the signs read.

Mohammed, a restaurant owner, said that even after Independence and the Tunisian Revolution he doesn’t feel like Tunisia is a truly independent country. “I don’t believe that Tunisia is really independent, before the Revolution I knew we were controlled by France. Now we are controlled by Qatar or America– I don’t really know and it does not matter, we are not really independent,” he said.

The question of divisiveness is a new and difficult question for many Tunisians. On the positive side, it is a symbol of a newfound pluralism. On the other hand, it has shown the dark side of Tunisia and exposed vast differences in opinion on important issues – including most importantly, religion. It’s a debate we will continue to hear a lot about in the coming months.

Secularists celebrate first victory over Islamists in student union elections

Tunisian secularists are abuzz today over the apparent landslide victory of the UGET (l’Union générale des étudiants tunisiens) over the UGTE (l’Union générale tunisienne des étudiants). These came just a week after violent clashes between Salafists and other students at Manouba University. Jeune Afrique reports:

Symbolized by the blocking of the Faculty of Arts of Manouba, but also by various violent incidents in Gabes, Sousse and Kairouan, Islamic-Salafi pressure just suffered a crushing blow.

The Agence France Presse reports:

UGET [secularist] candidates dominated the elections, which took place Thursday, collecting 250 seats out of 284 in forty institutions, according to the official website of the union.
“This is a historic victory”, said Secretary General of Uget, Alaa Zaatour, 14 Mag site.”Academic institutions with more than 4000 students voted almost unanimously for Uget,”he said.

It’s difficult to put any student union election in a broader context. These elections have not been widely followed by the Tunisian media and it is unclear the impact it might have on the direction of universities, let alone society at large.

Jeune Afrique reports on reactions from UGET members:

Ennahda has been poorly served by the support it has given to the Salafists, said Meriem Belhaj, a law student at El-Manar [University]. By not taking a position, it [Ennahhda] suggested that it approved of the violence that has taken place this academic year, which could cause the year to be cancelled; this is not the will of the majority. The students have many concerns, of course, but they are not religious in nature and, especially, do not apply to teachers. “

While many quetsions remain unanswered, there are two lessons we can draw.

First, this was the first victory by secularists since the revolution. Despite continued protests and endless commentary since the uprising last January, Tunisian secularists have been consistently beaten in the polls and at the ballot box by Islamists. In that sense, this is at the very least a moral victory for them.

Secondly, while news reports have not focused on turnout or how the elections were conducted, the UGET seemed to be able to mobilize its membership in a way that secular political parties have been unable to do. Voter mobilization was one of the keys to Ennahdha’s victory in October and has been a major stumbling block for secularists in Tunisia.