Poisoned spring: revolution brings Tunisia more fear than freedom

The hopes vested in last year's uprising have ended in continued censorship, growing intolerance and unemployment, says Robert Fisk in Tunis

Tunis

Want to remember what Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was like? Just walk down the Avenue Habib-Bourguiba – until a few weeks ago still cordoned off by armoured vehicles and barbed wire – and drop by your local bookshop for Z's wonderful Révolution! Des années mauves à la fuite de Carthage. Z always painted Ben Ali's sycophants purple; his cartoons were the joy of the revolution, Ben Ali's bloated relatives flaunting their new shopping malls while the people – 96 per cent of whom were always said to be Ben Ali's secret police – are beaten by thugs in black uniforms and shades. Ben Ali receives support even from his telephone, his lampshade and the national flag in his office until he does a bunk on his jet while flunkies load aboard chests of cash along with the ginger family cat. Even the press get a run for their money.

"The huge number of young people signing up for the Charter of Tunisian Youth demonstrates the support of young Tunisians for the reforming project of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, their attachment and loyalty to their country and their willingness to contribute to the development of Tunisia..." A fictional editorial from 2009 – until you realise it really is a leader from the 29 March edition of La Presse.

Thank God for freedom, then. Saloua Rachdi's tribute to the Tunisian writers who worked courageously under the dictatorship – Plumes de mon pays – sits in the bookshop window alongside French editions of Tariq Ramadan's Islamic scholarship.

But then I'm driving in the suburbs with an old Tunisian journalist friend. "Don't tell me about liberal writers, Robert," he snaps at me. "Do you know that of all the books now published in Tunisia, 92 per cent are Islamist? Outside Tunis, the bookshops just sell school notebooks and these tracts. Don't you think we should be worried?" I tell him about Egypt – there are no military rulers like Field Marshal Tantawi in Tunisia – and the violence of Bahrain and Syria. He's a lucky guy.

But he doesn't think so. Nasreddine Ben Saida, the managing editor of the newspaper Attounisia, Habib Guizani, the editor-in-chief, and the journalist Mohamed Hedi Hidri have just been arrested for publishing a photograph of a German footballer of Tunisian origin holding his half-naked German wife in his arms. It's the old story: morality versus freedom. But the elected government (with the Islamic Ennahda Party holding 40 per cent of the October 2011 vote) has used article 121 of the penal code to detain the three journalists, a law dating back to the Ben Ali era. Mongi Khadraoui, a senior member of the Tunisian journalists' union, points out that 121 was introduced to lock up all kinds of opponents of the regime, and that, while the publication of the photo was a mistake, it "should be treated as a professional error rather than a crime."

What happened, then, to decree-law 115 on the freedom of the press, passed under last year's provisional administration? Two days before the arrests, the Ennahda Party was already being condemned by journalists' groups for supporting a free press while at the same time claiming that 115 was no longer valid. Attunisia suddenly disappeared from the news-stands.

All this might be a luxury in a country of 10 million whose 3.5 million working population now boasts a terrible 800,000 unemployed, whose Central Bank announced a growth rate of zero for 2011, which 80 international companies have already abandoned, and whose government will only last for a maximum of 18 months, the time it takes to come up with a new constitution. But this is not the only legacy of the Ben Ali years. His fawning governments poured money into Tunis and starved the countryside; and this is where the Salafists – hated by Ben Ali, amnestied after the revolution – first made their appearance.

The town of Sejnane, north-west of Tunis, witnessed, briefly, the existence of an "Islamic emirate" at the end of last year when around 200 Salafists took control, turned government buildings into prisons for "sinning" – in most cases for drinking alcohol – and beat inmates. A shop selling CDs of western songs in Arabic was set on fire and a self-proclaimed Islamist "judge" announced to the owner that "if you try once more to distract Muslims from the mosque, it will be your home and all those in it who will burn".

Women began to wear the niqab, men to grow beards and wear Afghan-style clothes. The government did nothing. Was the Ennahda Party supporting the Salafists?

Attacks on cinemas began shortly afterwards, the owner of Nessma TV, Nabil Karoui, put on trial for showing Persepolis – about the reactions of a young girl growing up in the 1979 Iranian revolution – a film deemed "contrary to the values of the people". Two intellectuals were savagely beaten and 10,000 demonstrators marched through Tunis and other cities to protest at the increase of extremism.

In the much-underrated French magazine Jeune Afrique, Amel Grami, head of the Islamic Studies department at Manouba University, described how a dispute over a female student who insisted on wearing full head-covering to college resulted in an invasion of the campus by sword-carrying Salafists, some of whom shouted "dirty whore" when staff objected to the separation of male and female students. According to Amel Grami, the Salafists were supported by two sons of the Tunisian Interior Minister, Ali Laarayedh.

Little wonder, then, that the impending arrival in Tunisia of the Egyptian preacher Wajdi Ghanim created such anger among secular Tunisians. Ghanim supports the Tunisian Salafists, advocates a return to an older, more "genuine" Islam and – in the view of human rights groups – wants to "create hatred between Tunisians". It all has the feel of Algeria before the army's cancellation of the second round of elections which would have brought the Islamic Salvation Front to power in 1992. We shall not dwell on the carnage and bloodletting that followed.

But in this context, the voice of secular Tunisia sounds familiar. Tunisia has given the world great heroes – Hannibal, Jugurtha, Ibn Khaldoun, even Habib Bourguiba – the Tunisian writer Abdelhamid Gmati pointed out. "So why do we bring here these Salafists, these Islamists, these Wahabis, these Afghanists, these preachers (sexually obsessed and probably paedophiles), who speak of the mutilation (of women), who make fatwas ... who have nothing to do with our civilisation, our idea of religion, our values which have developed over thousands of years? Sorry – but their beards, their niqabs, their robes, their blackness, their "Middle Ages" are not ours." Even if they were born Tunisian, "they are not Tunisians".

All well and good. Until, of course, one notes that Gmati is writing in that fine newspaper La Presse. Was this not, after all, the same paper Z quotes so maliciously from the days of Ben Ali. Couldn't the Salafists claim that they, too, now represent a "Charter of Tunisian Youth"? Too awful to contemplate...

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions