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...

News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
News
Boris Johnson may be manoeuvring to succeed David Cameron
i100
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionPart of 'best-selling' Demeter scent range
News
i100
Sport
Tom Cleverley
footballLoan move comes 17 hours after close of transfer window
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
News
i100
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

Deputy Education Manager

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Deputy Education Manager (permanent ...

Science Teacher Urgently required for October start

£6720 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: We are currently recr...

ICT Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Group: We are looking for an outstandi...

Art & Design Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Group: We are looking for an outstandi...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering