Last week, hundreds of protesters torched a police station in a Tunisian town near the Libyan border. Two years since the Tunisian revolution saw President Ben Ali flee, this was just the latest in a desperate plea for jobs.
The unrest had been triggered by the closure of the border crossing, and the implications that had for trade — both legal and illegal.
Since the revolution, such unrest has become the norm, rather than the exception, in Tunisia.
In the West, we read how the battle between Islamists and secularists is tearing at the fabric of post-revolution Arab societies. There’s some truth in that, but it masks what’s really a trio of issues: The economy and unemployment; the role of religion; and freedom of speech, the media and human rights.
Across the Tunisian interior where the uprising began, people want bread on their table. During the last years of the Ben Ali regime official figures were doctored to mask the extent of rising unemployment and regional inequality. Under the new Islamist-led coalition government unemployment has continued to rise even further, and now sits around 19 per cent.
Rachid Ghannouchi is the leader of the biggest party, Ennahda, and a globally respected figure in Islamist politics. He took to The Guardian over the weekend to defend his government’s record in such trying circumstances:
"The governing coalition of secularist and Islamist parties is now in its second year. Despite their differences, these parties have clearly demonstrated the possibility of reconciliation, co-operation and partnership between moderate Islamists and moderate secularists, an important model for the Arab world."
Compared to other post-revolution Arab countries, Ghannouchi’s claim may hold water. Tunisia has fared well comparatively in terms of violence on the streets.
That said, I witnessed burning police stations myself, not to mention burnt Ennahda offices, while I was filming unrest in Tunisia’s mining regions last year. The union movement’s demands for economic justice, employment and freedom from police brutality were at the heart of the revolution two years ago. They were what motivated last year’s uprisings, which came to a head in the town of Siliana in December.
Islam isn’t the chief cause, and therefore Tunisia’s issues get less of a play in the Western media. After two years people remain disaffected with the government in Tunis — any government — and show little sign of disbanding.
But religiously-motivated violence does exist, and some very ugly scenes have been perpetrated by groups widely referred to as Salafists — Sunni puritans. In the ranks there are thugs, many in their teens, who appear to profess a pious take on Islam. Art galleries, theatres, gatherings of secular political parties and the like have been attacked. I produced a film on the religious minorities who have also felt the wrath of some of these newly confident players — people who say Ennahda has done little to help them, or stop the Salafists.
Much of the Salafists’ attention is directed towards those who Ghannouchi called the "radical secularists" in his Guardian op-ed. These range from the firebrand unionists staging sit-in after sit-in, strike after strike, to the urban elites with their designer-brand, French-speaking kids. For many, despite all their talk of democracy, Islamist government is intolerable.
Nacer Talel is a young photojournalist who covered the uprisings from the start. As a member of the media, he mixes with the country’s secular elite and cadre of foreign journalists.
With his moniker "Jeune A la Barbe" — the guy with the beard — and with an Imam for a father, he turns heads in such circles. He’s also uniquely placed in a society plagued by new divisions while its old wounds heal. For him, a period of stable nation-building is crucial.
"We are on the road to democracy," Talel told NM. "But what does democracy mean first? I mean democracy in a transitional period is not the most important thing — the state must survive."
Although the Salafists are making trouble, Talel sees the remnants of Ben Ali’s secular regime as a danger to democracy.
"Their only raison d’etre is to destroy Ennahda — even if that means burning the country," he says. "I’m not saying that Ennahdha are angels but you can love your country without loving your government."
While Ennahda can be too quick to claim any critics are linked to the last government, there’s no doubt that powerful players in the media lost out. The government has in turn has come under fire from groups such as Reporters Sans Frontieres for nepotistic appointments, blasphemy laws and the targeting of journalists.
Like many people in Tunisia, Talel thinks Ennahda will be able to rely on enough of its supporter base to return it to power — even if only in coalition — at the next election.
But should they not pull through it will have less to do with the Salafists to the right or the urban, secular Francophiles to the left. It will have much more to do with the unemployed youth in the country’s backwaters.
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