Another Arab Spring: the untold story of Tunisia's unfolding 'second revolution'

Overshadowed by Egypt's and Syria's woes, the nation that launched the Arab Spring is now rising up against "moderate Islamists" who may be trying to smother its hard-won freedom. A Tunisian Seattleite who witnessed her homeland's historic election fears America's government is abetting and its media are misreporting the emergence of a new dictatorship.
Crosscut archive image.

Citizens injured by birdshot in Siliana, Nov. 30.

Overshadowed by Egypt's and Syria's woes, the nation that launched the Arab Spring is now rising up against "moderate Islamists" who may be trying to smother its hard-won freedom. A Tunisian Seattleite who witnessed her homeland's historic election fears America's government is abetting and its media are misreporting the emergence of a new dictatorship.

For Rajaa Gharbi, who grew up in Tunis but has shuttled between there and Seattle for the past 30 years, Tunisia is a raging fever, an urgent crisis, and a thrilling hope. For most Americans it is just another of the far-off little countries that occasionally emerge to shake the world order and then fade back into obscurity.

I got an inkling of how far Tunisia lay off American mental maps 28 years ago, when my brother and I detoured there from Sicily and spent two heady weeks crisscrossing the country. Everywhere people would ask us, “Vous êtes français?” Non. Italian? No. German? No. Swiss? No. British? No. Swedish? No. “Alors, vous n’êtes pas americains?!” they’d finally exclaim: We never see Americans here.

At that time a million Europeans and just a thousand Americans visited Tunisia each year. In geopolitics as in tourism, Tunisia seemed an afterthought amidst the storms and perils erupting in Libya, Egypt, and the true Middle East to the east. It was the smallest country in North Africa (in area) and the most secular, unencumbered by the Faustian gift of oil, stable and pro-Western albeit ruled from 1987 on by an increasingly repressive dictatorship.

All that changed on December 17, 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young produce vendor in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid incensed at years of harassment, extortion, and humiliation inflicted by municipal authorities, set himself on fire. Sympathetic street demonstrations erupted in Sidi Bouzid and spread throughout the country, morphing into a massive popular protests against the 23-year-old dictatorship of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Four weeks after Bouazizi immolated himself and 10 days after he died in hospital, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.

It was the first such successful exercise of mass people power in the Arabic-speaking world. Inspired by Tunisia’s example, thousands took to the streets and barricades in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. More dictators fell, but the Arab Spring led to long, hot summers and winters of discontent: civil wars in Libya and Syria, new mass protests following the recent assumption of dictatorial powers by Egypt’s elected Islamist president, continuing repression by the Saudi-backed Bahraini regime. A Bahraini poet was recently sentenced to life in prison for a poem declaring, “We are all Tunisia.”

In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, the course seemed smoother. There, as in Egypt, the progressives and secularists who peopled the protests and brought down the dictator failed to cohere at the polls. When elections were held in October 2011, the Ennahdha (Renaissance) party, a formerly banned Islamist movement inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, won a plurality and formed an interim government with two secular partners. Its leaders, routinely labeled “moderate Islamists” by the U.S. press, assured the world of their commitment to democracy, pluralism, and the rule of secular law.

But the government failed to draft a new constitution and refused to step down this October when its one-year deadline tolled. Once again mass protests erupted across the country. This time Siliana, another town in Tunisia’s hardscrabble interior, has become the flashpoint. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets there, protesting impoverishment, corruption, and vanished development funds and demanding the local governor resign. Police met them with tear gas and birdshot, injuring hundreds and blinding some.

Tunisia’s travails have been overshadowed by similar upheavals in Egypt. But for Rajaa Gharbi they are an unrelenting source of anger, apprehension, and even now excitement and hope. She has lived and worked in Seattle for 30 years but returned to Tunis each year; in the last two years she has resumed publishing her work there. Since the revolution she has spent eight months there, returning here most recently in August.

Back in Seattle, Gharbi remains glued to the phone and computer, in the way of expats when great events shake their homelands. She talks here about what she has heard, seen, and experienced of revolution and counter-revolution at the epicenter of the Arab Spring. Interview questions have been omitted except where necessary for context or background. — Eric Scigliano

What was different when you first returned to Tunisia after the revolution?

When I arrived I saw stars in people’s eyes that were not there before. Critical thinking was fully unleashed in the public arena. At every table, everywhere I went, people were discussing the issues.

The first, obvious demands of the revolution were about economics, work participation in decision-making, and especially about human rights, respect for the citizenry. The religious framework for political discussion wasn't there. It was irrelevant. The Islamists didn’t participate in the uprising that led to the ousting of Ben Ali. They hijacked the revolution later, during and after the elections.

I went back in March 2011. Before that I was living it through the screen. Facebook was not permitted for a while under the Ben Ali regime, but it came back, and people used it and blogs and Twitter as the primary means of communication. I saw graffiti saying, “Thank you, Facebook.” But I also saw graffiti saying, “Yes, thank you, Facebook, but you did not make this revolution.”

This revolution didn’t fall from the sky. It was almost like a Tchaikovsky waltz that reached a crescendo, a crest of no return. Young and old people used their voices and unarmed bodies to break the yoke of silence, fear, and disenfranchisement. 

It had been cooking since 2008, with the uprisings in the phosphate mines in the southern part of the country. There was nothing about that in the U.S. media.  

Reform of the economic system, or at least distributive justice, is still the goal. The Tunisian revolution, which inspired so many other revolutions, sprang from the bottom up. It was not the result of ideology. It was the result of decades of deprivation and silence. A friend of mine, a well-known poet, described the Tunisian revolution as a poem that’s being edited as it's written.

Moncef Bey, the last Turkish bey, was a king who became a nationalist and died for Tunisian independence. He relinquished his station and poured money over the terrace of the Bardo Palace to the poor below. He was exiled to France but continued to agitate for Tunisian sovereignty and independence until his death. This is part of Tunisian culture.

In 1846 Tunisia became the first Islamic country to abolish slavery. In Tunisia, women have had rights, including legal abortion, protection from free divorce, education and work outside the home, and freedom from the veil since not too long after independence in 1956. They got the vote that same year.

The first president, Habib Bourguiba, was inspired by his mother's experience and by Taher Hadded, who wrote a famous book called Our Women in Islamic Legislation and in Society, and other early-20th-century Tunisian intellectuals and theology revisionists. He made major progressive changes through the Code du Status Civile. It was a revolution — a gentle one. It changed the psychology of the country. Polygamy became a punishable crime. Equal pay for men and women was added later, even if it's not always followed. The U.N. declaration on the rights of women includes language from the Tunisian law. Tunisia has been an exporter of ideas ever since Augustinus (St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in what’s now Tunisia).

Generalization can be hurtful to the voiceless, but in all walks of life, from judges to the disenfranchised, Tunisian women tend to be vocal. They were the primary movers in the revolution. The young men and women went out in the streets and were ready to die for their rights were brought up by these women of the Bourguiba generation.

Given all this, how could Tunisians elect leaders like Ennahdha?

I think identity was a major part of the reason. Fifty percent of Ennahdha’s votes came from overseas. These people, who lived in Europe and North America, had a genuine experience of discrimination. After several wars, the destruction of several countries — Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya — they felt despised by the West. They had a desperate need for identity. They may be extremely progressive in their own lives, but they sought a traditional identity with their vote. The other part of this historical mistake is, they were under the illusion that a religious government could be a just government. It’s true in other countries as well, including Egypt. It’s a lack of political maturity.

Ennahda members were persecuted by Ben Ali’s government. They should have been allowed to have a voice; it fueled their rage and hatred. It made them martyrs and gave them credibility. People had pity for them.

I was there during the elections and saw lots of abuses — ballots being thrown in the garbage, boxes being switched, ballots being signed by those who were not the actual electors.

Bourguiba's chief mistake was to discourage the political activity that would have provided for an adequate succession. It's been called “the Bourguibi castration phenomenon.” He was the father and mother of the country; other power centers didn’t emerge. But this sexualized notion of power has been steadily and irreversibly losing ground. It's quite possible Tunisia's next president will be a woman.

Tunisians are growing at an almost superhuman pace politically after 23 years of subjugation. Under Ben Ali, we almost spoke in codes. But the repression has nearly doubled under the current government.

I understand an incident in September had a big impact, though it was scarcely reported in this country. Police found a young couple parked in their car, and two officers raped the woman while the other restrained her fiancee — and the government threatened to charge her with indecency. (The case against her was dropped last week.)

They were making out in their car, and for this she was raped! I and a lot of other Tunisians believe it was an effort to send a message to women, that they had better behave, had better be afraid.

In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s members of Ennahdha would throw acid on women who wore clothes they deemed unislamic. Women were literally de-faced with sulfuric acid. If you weren’t looking prim, weren’t intimidated, they saw it as a provocation. I personally was attacked twice. Once, as I was getting into a cab in Tunis, a Muslim Brotherhood-style couple almost pinned me to floor and rained insults on me: “We’ll drive you out of here, you don’t belong here!”

Whatever system is going to come out of the revolution is definitely not what the Islamist governments want. They believe God has granted some people wealth and privilege, and that’s the way it is. Sharia law means pretty much everything for men—even pedophilia, sexual relations with female human beings from the age of two.

While the Islamists have proven to be total failures with the economy, they’re spending millions of dinars to bring imans from other countries, including known terrorists, to give instruction in the proper ways — including circumcision of girls, something unknown in all Tunisia's history, and un-Koranic handicaps like the hijab for little girls.

Months before the elections, in the U.S. and the U.K., where Ennahdha has lots of media entrée, articles appeared — were planted — portraying them as “moderate Islamists.” I suspect this oxymoronic definition is not accidental. In a recent interview with Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahdha's leader and the power behind the government, Christiane Amanpour told him, “You were the beginning, the father of the Arab Spring there in Tunisia...” Was this distortion a lack of professionalism or an attempt to misrepresent the true nature of the Ghannouchi government? I suspect it’s the latter. Ghannouchi was in exile in the U.K., and neither he nor his party had anything to do with the January 2010 revolution. He was able to return home thanks to that epic event, well after it took place. Petrodollars from outside helped buy his party its current seat of power. Since then it has been usurping and obscuring the makers and the goals of that uprising.

They were entrusted with writing a constitution that would improve on one that was already good, and a plan for economic reconstruction. Instead they have been helping the U.S. government, the House of Al Saud, and the Emir of Qatar smother a dream of economic justice and liberty of thought and expression that is spreading like pollen on a whirlwind. They are trying to destroy a culture of education and peaceful relations between minorities, a history of religious convivencia, and introduce a culture of sectarianism that is totally foreign to Tunisia.

Ennahdha has been trying to colonize the country, to replace governors, university presidents, the heads of TV stations, national newspapers, schools — replacing the best-qualified people with their own party members. They’ve carried out killings and violent censorship of artists and university professors, outlawing peaceful protests and attacking protesters with tear gas. They have physically abused and totally neglected the uprising’s severely injured, young people who risked their lives for a whole society.

Before, the mosques were left alone. For the most part, they were places of worship. But now Ennahdha's supporters are trying to convert society to the Saudi and Qatari wahabbi sect — bin Laden’s sect — by appointing imans of their ideology.

The transitional government’s mandate expired Oct. 23. This is a de facto illegal government that is desperately trying to hold on to power by any means. The U.S. government definitely is backing and financing this counter-revolution, in part through Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Qatar recently gave Caterpillars to Tunisia. On Nov.30, they came out in a Gaza-style siege of Siliana. Thousands were out in the street to protest. The security police turned off the electricity. They encircled the city and started attacking, using shotguns that are banned in the rest of the world for use on protests. They attacked people in their own homes. At the last count, 12 people were blinded, four killed, and 500 injured. The hospitals were filled way over capacity.

The prime minister appointed his nephew governor of Siliana. For a year-and-a-half the governor refused to meet with local government, unions, local people. They tried by all means to have a dialogue with him. Finally they took to the streets. Twenty thousand people told the governor, “If you won’t leave, we will,” and just walked out, in a symbolic six-mile exodus. The young men mocked him. And they were met with extreme violence.

But according to most U.S. media that report on the struggles in Tunisia, what’s going on is a conflict between the “moderate” government and extremist Salafis.

The Salafis are the armed branch of the Islamist governments in Tunisia and Egypt. The United States, contrary to the European countries, is creating the myth of a sectarian divide. The idea that these are separate ideologies or powers is a myth.

A  lot of these government-created Salafis were felons, some with life sentences. The government let them out, paid them money, armed them, and sent them out to attack protests and performances of modern art.

Most Tunisians who were honest believers and tended to trust Muslims voted for Ennahdha. Now they’ve turned against it. Everybody has a union in Tunisia — it’s a country that really functioned through its unions. The imans’ union has organized against the takeover of Tunisian spiritual life by this ideology.

I was present at several large marches spearheaded by the lawyers’ guild and judges’ guild because of the government’s interference with the judiciary. It’s a second Tunisian revolution. We’re going to get out of this quagmire, but right now it’s very difficult.

The Islamists are so shortsighted, and so is our U.S. government. The genie’s out of the bottle, and it ain't going back.

Rajaa Gharbi's work can be seen at and on Facebook under "Rajaa Gharbi."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.