Memorial Day in Tunisia: Bittersweet patriotism

2,481 gravestones mark American soldiers enterred in the U.S. War Cemetery at Carthage. See also the slideshow of the 2012 Memorial Day commemoration below.

Americans around the world celebrate Memorial Day today, a holiday to honor the dead, especially those who have fallen in battle. Nowhere are the commemorations more heartfelt, and personal, than in U.S. war cemeteries. Tunisia is home to one of 24 American war cemeteries around the world, and the only one in North Africa, where 2,841 American soldiersare enterred, their lives lost during the North African campaign against the Nazis in 1942-1943. Today the cemetery hosted a memorial service to honor these soldiers.

The setting was beautiful; a crisp clear summer morning in Carthage, a brass band from the U.S. Navy Europe band; and the always well-maintained grounds hosted the 100 or so visitors, mostly embassy personnel and their families. U.S. Ambassador Gordon Gray paid respect to not only those soldiers who fought against the Nazis, but also to those who died in Tunisia’s uprising in 2011. He noted the coincidence that Tunisia’s uprising began in the same places that are so familiar to U.S. students of World War II, Kasserine, Sbeitla, Gafsa, and Sidi Bouzid. Their cause was, as the Ambassador noted, universal – freedom. The commander of the U.S. Navy’s 6th fleet noted that, much like in Tunisia, so many of the fallen U.S. soldiers came from towns in the hinterlands, such as Iowa and Wisconsin.

Foreign war cemeteries serve a dual purpose, the commemoration of the fallen, and the remembrance of battles that liberated foreign lands. In France, Belgium and England, home to 16 U.S. cemeteries, these dual roles coincide gracefully. The historical memory of the U.S. role in these countries during WWI and WWII, as well as afterwards in the reconstruction of Europe after WWII remains a positive sign of transatlantic relations.

In Tunisia, however, the memory of U.S. intervention, though honorable, is bittersweet. Foreign soldiers invaded and vanquished colonial power, France, only to be later defeated by different foreign soldiers who promptly reinstalled the colonial powers. While the U.S. publicly advocated for self-determination of colonial territories as part of the Atlantic Charter of 1941, by the end of the war, the U.S. had backtracked, leaving independence leaders in Tunisia frustrated. Tunisia’s first President, Habib Bourguiba, in a speech given to commemorate the inauguration of the cemetery noted:

Like other peoples, the Tunisian people lived through the poignant tragedy of war and through the dark hours under the occupation of the Axis troops. The victory of the Allied troops did not bring to Tunisia immediate realization of her national aspirations.  It was indeed a great frustration for a people who fought on the side of freedom and made many a sacrifice during the last two wars for the cause of peace with human justice among men, for human dignity, and recognition of the peoples’ right of self-determination. [Read the complete letter here]

In interviews conducted among Tunisian visitors to the cemetery, one gets the impression that the cemetery is a historical oddity – beautiful, but strange. The memorial, unlike those in Europe, does not commemorate a shared history, a shared sacrifice. Nevertheless, these cemeteries, with their grace and tranquility, do represent something universal. To walk among the gravestones of soldiers who died so young and in foreign lands one cannot help but be moved.

The collapse of Tunisia’s secular parties

Tunisia’s secular political parties have had a rough go of it. Thought to have been in a prime position to govern after Tunisia’s uprising, support quickly collapsed and splintered into various factions. Although the 9 major secular parties managed to garner about 30 percent of the popular vote in last October’s elections, only the two highest vote getters, the CPR with 8.7% of the vote and Ettaktol with 7%, decided to join the ruling coalition with Islamist party Ennahdha, which garnered 37% of the popular vote.

Despite a long period of self-reflection following their electoral defeat in October, the collapse of secular parties appears to continue unabated – this despite efforts to unify their efforts ahead of next year’s scheduled elections. Day after day newspapers report about the infighting, policy disagreements, lack of leadership, and lack of popular support. With less than a year to go until the elections (probably), let’s have a look at the parties and where they stand.

Congress for the Republic: The CPR came from out of nowhere in October to earn the second most seats in the Constituent Assembly. They ran on a populist agenda that stressed its willingness to work with whoever won – including the Islamists – and the charm of Moncef Marzouki. The party quickly ran into trouble, though, after Marzouki was named president of the republic in a deal that shared government positions between Ettaktol and Ennahdha. Marzouki was seen by some as abandoning his party in his pursuit for power. Without Marzouki holding things together, the party slowly broke down and finally split when its secretary general left the party at the beginning of May, taking with him a third of the parties delegates in the Assembly. They have subsequently former a new party, the Independent Democratic Congress. While Marzouki remains a popular figure according to (notoriously unreliable) polling data, the party itself may not be able to hold together, at issue is the extent to which the party should cooperate with Ennahdha.

Ettaktol: Like the CPR, Ettaktol ran its campaign on the grounds of working with Ennahdha. This earned it a place in the ruling coalition with the CPR and Ennahdha, and its secretary general the position of president of the Constituent Assembly. Seen at the time as a defeat, with Ennahdha leading the government and the CPR the presidency, Mustapha Ben Jafaar has maneuvered behind the scenes. Ettaktol suffered its first major blow in February, when thousands of its members resigned, including several assembly members. They were reportedly angry at Ben Jafaar’s non-democratic decision making and its cooperation with Ennahdha. Nevertheless, reports on the ground have shown that the party retains a structure that could lend itself to revival around election time. Nonetheless, Ben Jafaar’s low profile has not positioned the party as a leader – and polling data shows him far below his fellow troika partners Marzouki and prime minister Jebali, of the Ennahdha movement.

Progressive Democratic Party: The PDP is the biggest disaster among Tunisia’s secular parties. In January 2011, newspapers wondered whether party leader Ahmed Nejib Chebbi could be the next president of Tunisia – but the party’s extraordinarily poor performance in the elections (less than 4 percent of the vote) caused the party to rethink its approach. In subsequent months, the PDP has tried to regain its footing, but it does not seem to have found a formula that resonates. In March, Chebbi appeared at a major rally in Monastir with former interim prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi and dozens of former officials of the previous dictatorships. He was savaged by the left for appearing to stand with authoritarian remnants of the rejected regime. In April, the party attempted to unify various factions of the left through a fusion with two other parties, the coalition fell apart less than three weeks later. As of today, the party appears as fractured as ever and there is virtually no structure outside of Tunisia’s major cities.

Bourguibist Parties: Bourguibist parties, as I’ve written about previously, have attempted to regain strength through both opposition to the laxist Islamist government and a platform that eschews liberal values but harkens back to the proud days of post-colonial Tunisia when President Bourguiba led the country into modernity. As I wrote at the time: “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.” Despite my optimism for the movement, the reality is that the Destourians are led by an 86 year old man. Despite his popularity, he remains a figure of the past, not of the future of this young country.

Other parties: Various other secular parties continue to struggle gaining supporters. Pro-business party Afek abandoned its platform entirely as it merged with social democratic PDP. The PDM, most recently implicated in a voting scandal at the Constituent Assembly, remains a party of Tunisia’s rich suburbs, with virtually no reach beyond the French-speaking elite. The POCT, the Tunisian Communist Party, has been an exception to the general fragmentation and loss of support among Tunisians. Its leader, Hamma Hammami, who long suffered under the regime of Ben Ali, remains a key figure in Tunisia’s labor movement and the party seems to remain above the criticism of many secular parties as elitist or opportunistic. The class struggle truly continues in the POCT. Nevertheless, perceptions of communist parties in Tunisia, as in much of the Arab world (and America, might I add), remain marred by the association with atheism.

Obviously, the secular parties in Tunisia are fragmented and dispersed. So what -what does it matter? There are two major reasons this matters.

Firstly, the constitution has not yet set up the electoral system, we do not yet know if Tunisia will have a parliamentary or presidential system or how the voting will be structured (proportional representation, majoritarian, etc). One of the major criticisms of last year’s elections in Tunisia was the confusing choice Tunisian’s had between the 100+ parties on the ballot. The Constituent Assembly may very well look to change this in the constitution, favoring fewer parties by requiring seats to be awarded only after exceeding a certain threshold of votes. The longer smaller parties remain independent, the more difficult it will be for them if an electoral system is chosen that disfavors them.

Secondly, and most importantly, while secular parties are busy bickering in Tunis, the country is becoming a one party system. For every meeting between Afek and PDP in Tunis, Ennahdha is opening another office in a small town in the hinterlands. Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi meets foreign dignitaries, even though he holds no official post in the government while opposition leaders struggle to fill school rooms with supporters.

Ennahdha is getting ready for the next 50 years of politics in Tunisia, building its infrastructure and its future leaders. In most cities you will find no other political offices besides Ennahdha. Tunisian voters in many areas will make their choices in the next elections having met no own from any other party. At a time when Tunisians are debating their very future, Tunisia’s secularists are not putting themselves at the table.

* (Update) A fundamental issue that I have not addressed in this analysis is the actual policies of secular parties and whether or not they resonate with Tunisian voters. This is obviously a crucial element to their success and the subject of a future post.

Standing up for a Salafist – Defending offensive speech in Tunisia

In flagrante delicto – courtesy of Leaders

Today a Tunisian court condemned Yacine El Bdioui to six month suspended sentence for defaming the Tunisian flag. Unless he is caught again, he will serve no jail time. The case was brought against El Bdioui, a Salafi activist, after he was caught on video in February at a protest at Manouba University taking down the Tunisian national flag and replacing it with a black “salafi” flag – embedded with the Muslim profession of faith.

The act of removing the flag was offensive to almost all who saw it – it represented for many a group of extremists trying to impose their will, and their morals, on the country. When a young women, Khaoula Rachidi, stood up to the Mr. El Bdioui, and replaced the “salafi” flag with the Tunisian flag she became a national symbol.

President Moncef Marzouki openly praised the young woman and invited her to the presidential palace in Carthage. Opposition parties in the Constituent Assembly used the event for political gain as well – accusing the government of inaction. They attacked the government for laxity after the accused was left to his own devices for several weeks before he turned himself in – even though his identity was widely known.

The verdict, like so many recent verdicts in the Tunisian justice system, and despite its softness, leaves a bitter taste. Firstly it shows the inadequacy of Tunisia’s criminal code. In spite of the fact that the crime was offensive, El Bdioui’s act was one of a vandal. His extremism was not directed at any person. In this way, it once again shows the timidity of the Tunisian justice system to stand up for basic civil rights. Similar to the sentences handed down last week against the translators, producers, and distributors of Persepolis on Tunisian television, the judges avoided the kind of sentences that would cause utter outrage – but do nothing to show that certain kinds of speech are and will be protected.

Unlike the cases against Nessma TV or Attounsiya, there are no heroes here. El Bdioui was not charged with a spurious claim of being offensive or blasphemous, he was caught in flagrante delicto. But just like the two businessmen, he was caught in the web of Tunisia’s criminal code which gives too much power to the government to define what is offensive, and too little power to individuals who want to express their views.

The verdict will no doubt draw comparisons as well to the recent harsh sentences given to two Tunisian atheists for posting offensive comments and photos on their Facebook pages (see my article on the Mahdia Affair). Critics of today’s sentence will argue that the disparity in sentences is cause for alarm (the two atheists were given 7 years of hard time, rather than a 6 month suspended sentence). It is difficult to argue that the disparity poses deeply troubling questions. But defenders of civil liberties should remain resolute – both sentences go against the principles of freedom of expression and show the arbitrariness of regulating speech.

I was offended by Mr. El Bdioui’s act, just as I was offended when another group of extremists burned the American flag in front of the embassy one week earlier (no charges were brought).

However, I do defend the right of people to protest peacefully and to express their views publicly. A defender of civil liberties cannot act one way toward people he supports and another for people he disapproves of.

Jewish pilgrimage begins in Tunisia

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The Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today marks the beginning of the Jewish pilgrimage to the Ghriba on the Tunisian island of Djerba. While Judaism is the oldest religion continuously practiced in the country, Tunisia’s Jewish community has dwindled over the past 50 years from a population of over 100,000 in the 1950s to about 2,000 today.

Nonetheless, the pilgrimage to Djerba has remained an important symbol of Tunisian openness – this year especially as Tunisia’s democratically-elected, Islamist-led government tries to demonstrate Tunisia’s openness to both minorities and tourists alike. Some highlights from the web on this weekend’s events:

Tunisia Live reports that so far the event has attracted few pilgrims:

According to our reporter in El Ghriba, police and journalists outnumbered the pilgrims, mainly Jewish Tunisians, who attended the event.

The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has previously issued a travel warning advising Israelis to avoid Tunisia. But Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali declared that “Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past.”

, writing in the Guardian, describes the Tunisian governments efforts:

The current Tunisian government, elected last October, has made promotion of the event a critical priority for reviving tourism in the southern part of the country. At the recent International Congress of World Tourism, the Ennahda party leader and prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, declared: “Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past.”

President Moncef Marzouki visited El Ghriba synagogue at Passover – which this year also marked the tenth anniversary of an al-Qaida-related attack that killed 21 European tourists. Wearing a traditional Tunisian hat known as a kabbus, often used by Jewish men in Tunisia as a religious head covering, Marzouki emphasised that Tunisian Jews are an integral part of Tunisian society and “any vandalism or violence against the Tunisian Jewish people, their property or their holy sites is totally unacceptable”.

 

Setting the reset button on Franco-Tunisian relations

Just minutes after French election results were reported, showing that Socialist candidate Francois Hollande had defeated incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy, Tunisian leaders celebrated the socialist’s victory. Hollande’s victory opens the possibility for improvement in the declining relationship between Tunisia and its number one trading partner.

First the political reactions: Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s president, released a statement less than an hour after Hollande’s victory, saying:

On the occasion of your election to the presidency of the French Republic, I am pleased,on behalf of all the Tunisian people, to give you my most sincere and heartfelt congratulations to you and all the French people….We hope your election as head of the French Republic will restore momentum to our two countries with the aim to restore and strengthen their long-term partnership.

Mustapha ben Jaafar, speaker of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly and leader of the Ettakatol party, endorsed Hollande as a fellow social democrat:

We are hopeful that the arrival of the Socialists (in France) will give impetus to the historically strong relationships between our two countries….With France, the new democratic Tunisia wants to build a true partnership that respects the values of freedom and human rights, based on a strategy of co-development and shared prosperity. The special relationship of friendship and solidarity forged between Ettakatol and the Socialist Party are an added impetus for relations between France and Tunisia.

As Maghreb Emergent reports, it is not just Tunisia’s elites who are happy about the change – ordinary Tunisians are happy to see a change from a regime that they saw supporting their former dictator:

Compromised by his ties with Arab dictators and his lack of judgment during the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Nicolas Sarkozy has lost the confidence of Arab countries. Anxious to restore the image of France on the international scene, Francois Hollande has surrounded himself with new personalities who will be competent in changing these policies over his coming term.

Implications for Tunisian relations: France’s actions following the uprisings in Tunisia have not been forgotten. French Defense minister Michelle Alliot-Marie’s name continues to be invoked regularly as a symbol of France’s close ties with deposed dictator Ben Ali (she offered Tunisia support to quell the January 2011 uprising).

Ties between the countries have continued to be strained. Tunisia’s Islamist government has made it a priority to reduce study of the French language and to expand relationships beyond the traditional colonial relationship that has endured since Tunisia’s independence in 1956.

Despite these political tensions, commercial ties between the two countries remain important. While Tunisian newspapers report on new agreements with Gulf countries for golf courses or hotels, it is the ~3,000 French companies operating in Tunisia that remain the backbone of Tunisia’s trading partnerships. For more on Tunisia’s international relations, see this article from February 2012)

It is in this context that Hollande’s victory tonight is so important. Hollande has the opportunity now to reset the relationship that had been so fraught between Tunisia’s transitional government and the Sarkozy administration. Most importantly, it opens the door, as Marzouki and Ben Jaafar’s statements show, for Tunisian politicians to engage with France without losing political credibility.

International relationships remain based on complex political interests and it is wishful thinking that Tunisia’s relationship with France will change overnight with a new French administration. The historical relationship between the two countries remains complex. Nevertheless, the cloud that hung over Franco-Tunisian relations since January 2011 may be lifted with Hollande’s victory.

Guilty! Tunisian courts convict Persepolis translator

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Today Nessma TV, a Tunisian television station, was found guilty of blasphemy and disturbing the public order for last October’s airing of the French-Iranian film Persepolis. Prosecutors brought lawsuits against the TV owner and other involved in the film’s production and translation into Tunisian dialect.* While both convictions are setbacks for free speech in Tunisia, it is the conviction of the film’s translator and producers that is perhaps the most disturbing aspect.

(For more background on the case, see Masood Hayoun’s article in the Atlantic this week)

The case has played out for over 8 months, beginning with the film’s airing just weeks before the country’s first democratic elections on October 23. Outraged by the film’s brief scene with God, protests ensued immediately after the airing – followed by a lawsuit brought by conservative lawyers. Nessma TV employees were threatened and Karoui’s house was ransacked. The new government, led by Islamist party Ennahdha, condemned the violence against Karoui – as well as the “provocation” caused by the film.

The convictions show failures in Tunisia’s political system on three levels.

Firstly, the fact that the case was a criminal case is a miscarriage. Human rights groups  have pointed out that the prosecutions have been based on Ben Ali era criminal codes which essentially allow the government to prosecute anyone who might be deemed to have done something offensive. These laws were used liberally by the former dictatorship and it is disturbing to see them still being used to silence speech. (see here and here for more background on the criminal aspects of the case)

Secondly, the conviction of the film’s translator is particularly troubling. Supporters of the convictions often use the argument that governments have the right to protect public morality over the airwaves. This is true and is an often used restriction on free speech throughout the world – but that should extend only to the television station itself. The fact that the film’s translator was convicted shows that the prosecution not only wants to restrict diffusion of potentially controversial speech, but to limit its very creation.*

Finally, there is the failure of the government to defend free speech. Each time the government has expressed its opinions about the free speech cases it has been equivocal. “We do not support violence or provocation to violence.” This is unacceptable in a case like this. The government has every right to condemn Nessma. It has every right to condemn the film. It has every right to encourage Tunisians to boycott the film or its supporters.

But it is cowardly to not defend the people who translate art against prosecution; to not call for the end of authoritarian restrictions on speech; and to not differentiate between free speech and provocations.

*This paragraph originally identified Boughnim as the translator based on an outdated article on Tunisia Live. Tunisia Live has subsequently updated their article, stating: “Karoui was fined 2,400 dinars. In addition, Hedi Boughnim, programming director at Nessma TV, and Nedia Jamal, president of the women’s organization that dubbed the movie, were each fined 1,200 dinars.”

May Day in Tunisia – what you’ll see and what you will not see

Protests are planned today in Tunis and other major cities to celebrate labor day. If the protests follow the story arc of other recent protests led by opposition groups, the headlines this evening will talk of the mobilization of Tunisia’s opposition, whether the government is prepared to deal with workers’ issues, and the continuing frustration many  Tunisians feel about their economic fortunes.

While Ennahdha has called on its supporters to join the protests in an effort to neutralize this potential bad publicity, the move has the potential to backfire. Opposition groups, angry at the violent crackdowns during recent protests, will be none too pleased to share the stage with supporters of the very regime that cracked down on them. The potential for confrontation is real.

Photo-journalists will ensure that any violence is captured and broadcast around the world; the headlines will scream of further clashes between the opposition/secular forces and the Islamists – with some Salafis thrown in for good measure.

But a far different story is playing itself out across cities and towns across the country. This is a story one is unlikely to see in the newspapers. It is the story of Ennahdha’s massive mobilization and organization that is taking place all across the country. While opposition parties debate in the halls of Tunisia’s big cities, most small cities have one political party – Ennahdha. In a recent trip north of Tunisia, I was struck that every city I went to had an Ennahdha office that was large, open, and active. Opposition offices were invisible. This was true before the elections, when secular parties were crushed, and it remains true today.

Opposition parties remain fragmented, weak, and unable to reach out to ordinary voters.

It is likely that Tunisia’s opposition movement will congratulate itself tonight after what they perceive is a groundswell of support they received in Tunis today. They will read headlines in the Washington Post or Le Figaro and know that the world is watching their struggle. They are correct that many Tunisians are frustrated at the government and its ability to change things quickly. They are correct that the world is watching. But they are mistaken if they believe that marching downtown today will suffice to reach their voters. The lessons of October’s defeat have not yet been learned by Tunisia’s opposition.