Governor Rick Perry’s recent prayer for rain, suggesting that a higher force run the show, reminded me of a Tunisian taxi driver’s comment one evening when I asked how long the rain would go on: no one can know Allah’s plans.
American pragmatism and belief that the heavens can be exhorted to rain is a far cry from the fatalism common to Muslim cultures. Yet in today’s Tunisia, the country credited with igniting the Arab Spring, pragmatic decisions are far more important to the future. Tunisia has left the front pages of most newspapers abroad, but the process of redefining government is taking its course. The mood is quite mixed.
The Revolution and subsequent increase in petty crime and organized looting have eroded the tranquility that was a minor benefit in this former police state. People are nervous today. Most are unsure of what the future holds. They are not altogether persuaded that the elections for a constituent assembly to revisit the Constitution and decide on a new form of government will bring the changes they await. Few people understand what the Assembly will do and how long it will be before there is a real government. Everyone is on edge. Fasting during this hot Ramadan month of August may add to the tension, although Ramadan in Tunisia is particularly festive at night.
Of an estimated 7 million eligible voters, barely half have registered for the upcoming elections. TV commercials and billboards are urging Tunisians to take their future into their own hands by voting. The actors who appear in the Ramadan TV soaps are also encouraging people to vote. This link explains the process.
While many Tunisians remain unconvinced that things will change, others are impatient with the transition government that cannot bring about the changes they want quickly—better wages and better working conditions are chief among these. This week, labor unions organized demonstrations in Tunis and elsewhere to flex their political muscles, while others protested against a judiciary they perceive as being too lenient on the previous regime, too unwilling to hold its members accountable.
More than one hundred new political parties have been created, all eager to give voice to their ideas in the constituent assembly, soon to be elected.
For the moment, democracy—with which there is no experience here—inspires exhilaration expressed in noteworthy displays of strikes and rallies, reckless driving and parking, and building without approvals: houses are mushrooming without the benefit of permits or urban planners.
Business leaders in Tunis were recently met with the head of USAID and the American Ambassador to Tunis. Perceiving that private enterprise would boost an economy suffering from reduced tourism—despite the growth in exports to Libya and the reported influx of rich Libyans—the Americans came to offer support. One business leader present at the meeting described to me what he called senseless demands for individual projects. For him, the issue was education. While Tunisia is always cited for having a good education system, he, like many business owners elsewhere around the world, is frustrated by the mismatch between education and the skills needed at work. In addition, he felt that the education system didn’t impart analytical judgment. Employees, he said, didn’t understand that they needed to work to get the economy going again, overcoming personal jealousies to focus on rebuilding the country. At his factory near Gabes, in the south, the rivalry between villages and towns left workers who weren’t from Gabes feeling unwelcome by local employees. The factory suffered from these tensions.
Regional rivalry—based on differences in tribe, tradition, and accent—are alive and well in Tunisia. Even before the Revolution, I’d often heard references to stereotypes of the hard-working southern Sfaxians or the ignorant country bumpkins from northwestern Djendouba and Ain Draham, near the Algerian border from which many house cleaners come. My own housecleaner was sent off by her parents to work at age 12. Like so many other girls and women from her area, she had never gone to school because her parents considered her education to be an expense they couldn’t afford. Her family relied on her meager salary from her live-in housekeeping jobs.
People here are no less Tunisians for being regionally identified, but there is not, thus far, an overarching sense of a civic space or community being built.
My veterinarian said to me, at the beginning of the Revolution, that Tunisians needed to work. He returned to work before the situation in Tunis seemed stable because, for him, the future depended on this effort. Similarly my dentist and my taxi driver both explained that deposing the reviled Trabelsi clan and ridding the country of Ben Ali were far from sufficient—a new, active government was needed and all Tunisians had to be responsible for their future.
More than one hundred new political parties have been created, all eager to give voice to their ideas in the constituent assembly, soon to be elected. Ennahda, the banned Islamic party whose leader returned after 20 years abroad to lead its resurrection from illegality, is among the three or four strong parties. For the moment, there is no platform preaching an Islamic hijacking of new freedoms although there is a demand that the new constitution allow polygamy.
The constituent assembly will be representative: most governorates get a single seat and the most populous cities (Tunis, Sfax) get two seats. Parties present their lists and have to get a fixed number of votes to get their candidates into the assemblies. Runner ups can also win seats. Some of the smaller parties and residual armed and bankrolled supporters of Ben Ali have made efforts to derail the entire electoral process, but it appears that elections will take place as planned on October 23, having been put off once to allow the inexperienced parties the time to define their platform and recruit their members. These elections and the decisions that follow warrant our attention. They aren’ spectacular events, per se, but the fact that they are happening so soon after an entrenched dictator has been ousted is spectacular.