Blog: A costly taste of freedom


Summary

The tear gas canisters rained down, and the ski-mask wearing police dragged away the youths brandishing the mobile phone cameras.

南宁桑拿

Journalists were beaten and had their equipment smashed, and for all the world it was a scene from the heady early days of what came to be known as the Arab Spring, when Tunisians showed their neighbours just how to get rid of an unwanted dictatorship.

The demonstration in central Tunis last Monday – my first taste of the wave of democracy which began in this small North African country – heralded the worst violence since the new government took office following the revolution of January 2011, as the police tried to enforce a ban on demonstrations along the city’s main thoroughfare.

Tunisians have fought for their freedom, and many now have a taste for dictating terms with their leaders.

The protests took place on the public holiday set to mark ‘Martyrs’ Day’, in memory of those who died in the struggle against French colonial rule. But for some, the martyrs in mind this year were those who died fighting the last regime, with family members from the deprived towns of the interior joining secular graduates – many jobless – in criticising the new Islamist-led government.

Indeed, unemployment is higher than it was when a young unemployed man set fire to himself to kick off the revolution, and the economic situation is not entirely promising. Tunisians are ‘grumbling’, as one of the scores of newly-liberated, brash newspapers proclaimed on its front page the day after.

Many Tunisians – with different political viewpoints – give the government some credit. A grand coalition of moderate Islamists (Ennahda), leftists and independents, members of Parliament have paid for their place in government with years in exile and imprisonment at the hands of the former regime, which did all it could to crush opposition – particularly of the Islamic kind.

Some Tunisians are willing to admit that democracy took years to flower in Europe, but many have extremely high expectations. There was a real sense amongst protesters last week that police firing tear gas and hitting protesters meant that an Islamist dictatorship is around the corner. Yet a visit to Berlin on May the 1st – or Athens on any given day of protest – would suggest that such police behaviour is not unique to dictatorships.

But in Tunis, patience with such behaviour is in short supply.

Secular demonstrators say their protests are treated more harshly than those displayed by conservative Salafist muslim groups, and express real fear that Ennahda is kowtowing to its fringe. I’ve spoken to religious minority groups here who say they have good reason to be worried.

But the religious right also feels let down. The men who feel confident to grow their beards and the women who feel liberated enough to don the hijab – because that is the word – cannot be relied upon by Ennahda the next time that voting is called for. They argued long and hard for Sharia’s place in the constitution. One Salafist I spoke to says that his new Islamist-government, when it came down to it, did not deliver for him.

Thus the government is pressed on both sides by an increasingly polarised electorate with opinion makers on all sides not afraid to be the one who shouts the loudest, from strike-leading unionists to religious agitators – and Tunisians certainly know how to shout.

The country has experienced a remarkably peaceful period since it overthrew the last government – people see all to visibly what has happened in neighbouring Libya, where arms are awash, and further afield in Egypt, let alone Syria.

Democracy could be the fuel that sets Tunisia further on a path of upheaval, rather than stability – whether the government is doing a reasonable job or not.

“After the revolution everything is different” one young protester told me, before checking himself. “Sorry, I mean at the start of the revolution.”

In the new Tunisia, everyone has an opinion. A friend’s primary school-aged son and his class had had enough of their teacher one day, so began to shout ‘degage’; the French-language refrain which saw President Ben Ali toppled from power.

The same night, the friend’s son insisted that he should have a sandwich, and not couscous, for his evening meal. When his mother refused, he threatened to hold a sit-in of the kinds that are adding to the government’s catalogue of challenges.

As for protests on Tunis’s main avenue, the howls of outrage from a hostile media saw the ban lifted just a few days later; the coming weeks will show if Tunisians have the urge to take to the streets en masse once more.

If Tunisia’s government can pull through the next six months with a population as keen on change for change’s sake as this one is, then more power to them.


The tear gas canisters rained down, and the ski-mask wearing police dragged away the youths brandishing the mobile phone cameras.

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Journalists were beaten and had their equipment smashed, and for all the world it was a scene from the heady early days of what came to be known as the Arab Spring, when Tunisians showed their neighbours just how to get rid of an unwanted dictatorship.

The demonstration in central Tunis last Monday – my first taste of the wave of democracy which began in this small North African country – heralded the worst violence since the new government took office following the revolution of January 2011, as the police tried to enforce a ban on demonstrations along the city’s main thoroughfare.

Tunisians have fought for their freedom, and many now have a taste for dictating terms with their leaders.

The protests took place on the public holiday set to mark ‘Martyrs’ Day’, in memory of those who died in the struggle against French colonial rule. But for some, the martyrs in mind this year were those who died fighting the last regime, with family members from the deprived towns of the interior joining secular graduates – many jobless – in criticising the new Islamist-led government.

Indeed, unemployment is higher than it was when a young unemployed man set fire to himself to kick off the revolution, and the economic situation is not entirely promising. Tunisians are ‘grumbling’, as one of the scores of newly-liberated, brash newspapers proclaimed on its front page the day after.

Many Tunisians – with different political viewpoints – give the government some credit. A grand coalition of moderate Islamists (Ennahda), leftists and independents, members of Parliament have paid for their place in government with years in exile and imprisonment at the hands of the former regime, which did all it could to crush opposition – particularly of the Islamic kind.

Some Tunisians are willing to admit that democracy took years to flower in Europe, but many have extremely high expectations. There was a real sense amongst protesters last week that police firing tear gas and hitting protesters meant that an Islamist dictatorship is around the corner. Yet a visit to Berlin on May the 1st – or Athens on any given day of protest – would suggest that such police behaviour is not unique to dictatorships.

But in Tunis, patience with such behaviour is in short supply.

Secular demonstrators say their protests are treated more harshly than those displayed by conservative Salafist muslim groups, and express real fear that Ennahda is kowtowing to its fringe. I’ve spoken to religious minority groups here who say they have good reason to be worried.

But the religious right also feels let down. The men who feel confident to grow their beards and the women who feel liberated enough to don the hijab – because that is the word – cannot be relied upon by Ennahda the next time that voting is called for. They argued long and hard for Sharia’s place in the constitution. One Salafist I spoke to says that his new Islamist-government, when it came down to it, did not deliver for him.

Thus the government is pressed on both sides by an increasingly polarised electorate with opinion makers on all sides not afraid to be the one who shouts the loudest, from strike-leading unionists to religious agitators – and Tunisians certainly know how to shout.

The country has experienced a remarkably peaceful period since it overthrew the last government – people see all to visibly what has happened in neighbouring Libya, where arms are awash, and further afield in Egypt, let alone Syria.

Democracy could be the fuel that sets Tunisia further on a path of upheaval, rather than stability – whether the government is doing a reasonable job or not.

“After the revolution everything is different” one young protester told me, before checking himself. “Sorry, I mean at the start of the revolution.”

In the new Tunisia, everyone has an opinion. A friend’s primary school-aged son and his class had had enough of their teacher one day, so began to shout ‘degage’; the French-language refrain which saw President Ben Ali toppled from power.

The same night, the friend’s son insisted that he should have a sandwich, and not couscous, for his evening meal. When his mother refused, he threatened to hold a sit-in of the kinds that are adding to the government’s catalogue of challenges.

As for protests on Tunis’s main avenue, the howls of outrage from a hostile media saw the ban lifted just a few days later; the coming weeks will show if Tunisians have the urge to take to the streets en masse once more.

If Tunisia’s government can pull through the next six months with a population as keen on change for change’s sake as this one is, then more power to them.