“When there’s nothing left to burn, you’ve got to set yourself on fire.”
— Chuck Palahniuk
By Blair Jackson
In December 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi was harassed and beaten by police officers who then confiscated his goods. Bouazizi went to the governor’s office to voice his grievances and to retrieve a scale that had also been taken. When he was refused an audience with city officials, Bouazizi doused himself in gasoline and set his body on fire in the street.
In the CBS News article, “How a slap sparked Tunisia’s revolution,” Bouazizi’s final words before setting himself aflame were reported to be, “How do you expect me to make a living?”
The sentiment hit a nerve with other Tunisians who were dissatisfied with high unemployment rates and a corrupt political system. Using social media to organize and unite, activists provided fellow Tunisians with raw video of protests. The government organized a phishing attack in attempts to regulate Facebook, which until then, had been an uncensored resource for the Tunisian public. It proved too little too late. After mere weeks of protests, the people won. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigned and fled to Saudi Arabia with his family.
Bouazizi inspired change in his own country, and that change in turn inspired a widespread demand for reform in African and Middle Eastern nations. This movement, called the Arab Spring, has thus far seen the toppling of three dictatorships and other governmental changes across Africa and the Middle East. Last week, Tunisia held its first democratic election, marking another milestone for Tunisia and countries influenced by the Arab Spring revolution.
Under Ben Ali’s presidency, freedoms of press, assembly and association were limited. For prisoners, due process was not always granted. Authorities reportedly used torture and physical abuse against prisoners, especially those who openly criticized the existing government.
At the time of his resignation, Ali had been president for 23 years, a tenure made possible by a 2002 amendment to the Tunisian constitution that eliminated a two-term limit. The former president and his wife, who have been safely harbored in Saudi Arabia since January, have been sentenced to 35 years in prison by Tunisian courts. Saudi Arabia has ignored requests to hand over the former first family of Tunisia.
Last week, Tunisians elected 217 members for an assembly that will rewrite the constitution and appoint an interim government to serve for one year before Tunisians elect a new parliament and a permanent government. With a little more than 40 percent of the vote, the Ennahda party won the majority, gaining 90 seats on the assembly. The Congress for the Republic received the next highest amount of seats at 30.
The Ennahda party is an Islamic-centered party that has opposed Ben Ali for years. Twenty years ago, in the early days of Ben Ali’s presidency, the party was outlawed, resulting in the imprisonment of 25,000 activists. Ennahda responded violently to the oppression. Some Tunisians link the party to Islamist acid attacks against women in the 1980s, and whether associated or not, there is tension in these early days as to how the faith-based Ennahda party will influence the constitution of the secular country.
Questions about how religious law will affect the everyday lives of citizens has arisen often in dialogue between the press and the party, but party leaders are assuring the world that citizens will not be dictated by Islamic law. According to the Associate Press, “Ennahda says it wants sharia, or Islamic law, to be the source of Tunisia’s legislation, but also insists that the country’s progressive personal status code is compatible with its ideals and that it respects all religions and creeds. It has also promised to safeguard women’s rights.”
In the same article, Abdel Hamid Jelassi, Ennada’s campaign manager, says, “We were once the victims of a politics of exclusion, and our goal is to create a government of national unity.”
In truth, Tunisia cannot afford to exclude itself from the secular world or Western society, considering tourism is a cornerstone of its economy, a market that has suffered in the wake of revolutions. Unity, peace and stability are all necessary to re-establish Tunisia as a tourist destination, to repair the economy and to empower its people.
After years of living under a politically corrupt government that limited their freedoms, residual distrust lingers among Tunisian citizens, not only about the role sharia (Islamic law) will play in their secular lives, but in regard to the influences of the former government that still exist.
In an interview with BBC News, a Tunisian ex-pat, Mohamed Bani, 36, shared his opinion on the elections, “What occupies my mind at the moment is opposing the parties that were formed by figures of the former regime. There are honest and well-meaning parties, but they are eclipsed by the 40 parties that former figures have created. They are what worries me.”
With less than a year for Tunisians to organize political parties, it is no surprise that the Ennahda party, which has been suppressed but vital for twenty years, has risen to the top as both the cleanest break from the former government and the most structured political party.
But as Bani the ex-pat notes, the fall of Ben Ali did not eradicate the entirety of the political power of those who served under him. The introduction of an Islamic party and the lingering stronghold of influential Ben Ali supporters have sparked a mixed reaction from the population that paints a cloudy picture of Tunisia’s identity.
There is one aspect, however, that remains consistent within the fledgling democracy, and that is its passion for protest. Last Friday, in the town of Sidi Bouzid, (the origin of the Arab Spring and where Bouazizi set himself on fire) protesters rioted in response to the cancellation of seats won by the Popular List Party. The party was eliminated from the ballot due to alleged financial irregularities. Ironically, this party has been accused by Ennahda and the media of being associated with the former government – a gesture that only further convolutes the perception of the emerging democracy and its parties.
Though it is a time of confusion for the Tunisian people, ultimately it is a time of hope. Bani says that, despite his concerns, he believes the new government is a positive change, “In general, I am optimistic and believe that we are going through an inevitable phase of the revolution. Tunisia will emerge better from all this.”