It’s a country on the south coast of the Mediterranean which has been a popular tourist destination for many years, due to its relative stability.
However resentment has been growing among ordinary Tunisians because their widespread poverty contrasts with the life of the corrupt and undemocratic elite which ruled the country.
Riots in London, protests in Athens and Madrid, Revolution in Tunis and Cairo: on both sides of the Mediterranean the demand for social justice has been heightened by the economic crisis, but on the African side dictators had to be overthrown as well.
The Prisma talks here to ArshinAdib-Moghaddam, in the third part of our series of interviews with activists from Arab countries.
His view is that the current revolt is the end of the process of decolonization, and he goes on to talk about the universal and post-modern character of the Arab revolts, the role of Islam and of new media.
Arshin is Reader in Comparative Politics and International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His most recent book is A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilizations (London, New York: Hurst and Columbia University Press).
He was born in Istanbul to Iranian parents, educated in Hamburg, and at Cambridge and has written extensively about the relationship between Iran, the Arab countries and the West.
Tunisia became a ‘French protectorate’ in 1881 after a treaty which sanctioned indefinite French occupation. As in Algeria, colonialist violence was countered by resistance movements influenced by both nationalist ideology and Islamic imagery.
The resistance could not afford the luxury of democracy and human rights while Tunisians were being treated as second class citizens. Colonial power begets violence.
In the early twentieth century Tunisian resistance was institutionalised in the Destour (constitution)- and in the 1930s, neo-Destour Party led by Habib Bourguiba. Bourguiba was a gradualist who wanted to bargain his way to Tunisian independence.
The decisive factor finally was the increasing material and political costs to the French of maintaining colonies in North Africa. The intense resistance in Algeria is beautifully eulogised in the film The Battle of Algiers.
The recent book Burning the Veil, by Neil McMaster outlines the systematic oppression, including campaigns of rape and other sexual violence similar to ‘tactics’ in Iraq and Afghanistan in the ‘war on terror’. But oppression failed, Tunisia became independent in 1956, Algeria in 1962.
Since the recent ouster of Ben-Ali during the Tunisian revolt, Tunisians are writing their own script, we are witnessing a truly historical event: the end of the residues of post-colonialism.
Mohammed Bouazizi is the tragic hero of this revolt. By setting himself on fire he crystallized the grievances of the Tunisian masses.
His death was a beginning, symbolising the oppression of a system that betrayed the people and served a tiny elite around Ben-Ali, and his response to daily humiliation by the authorities, encapsulates the true spirit of the Arab revolts.
They are about social justice, human dignity and democratic empowerment: universal values that link activist A on Syntagma square in Athens to activist B on Tahrir Square in Cairo.
Today, these aspirations and the struggles they provoke are global, but with local cultural conditioning. Islam has a lot to say about social justice, in the same way that Christian liberation theology became a vehicle for a normative system in parts of Central- and South America.
Not just poverty?
The Arab revolts cannot be reduced to ‘bread and butter’ issues. They are also ideational, perhaps utopian in imagining an ideal order that society must strive for. Tunisia has been very successful so far. Egypt is on its way. Saudi Arabia prevented similar movements in the Gulf countries when it sent its troops to crush the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain.
The Iranians are tinkering on their singularly important revolution. And Syria and Libya are embroiled in civil conflict, in the latter case overlaid by NATO bombings. So the picture is complex, but in Egypt and Tunisia I don’t see a way back to the bad old days of the police state dependent on handouts by the ‘west’.
Elections are scheduled and people continue to demonstrate whenever the process slows down, as in Egypt today. Crucially, people are not afraid any more.
There are reports from Israel that ten thousands of people are chanting ‘Mubarak, Assad, Bibi Netanyahu’ demanding the resignation of the right-wing Netanyahu cabal. So even in Israel there is change.
People realise that security is intensely interconnected in today’s globalised order. The wars on terror led to a worldwide wave of international terrorism.
Now there is a ‘democratic blowback’ from Tunisia to Greece, Egypt to Spain. A new global consciousness is emerging, a new politics of cosmopolitan resistance. Therefore, I am cautiously optimistic, even for Palestine.
How important is Islam as a political force in Tunisia ?
A post-modern, largely non-ideological Islam is emerging that could function almost as a secular reference point and I think it will be a part of the political mix not only in Tunisia and Egypt, but elsewhere in the Arab-Muslim world. Remember that Mubarak and Ben-Ali like Saddam Hussein in Iraq instituted largely secular dictatorships.
Here I see a few parallels to what happened in Iran in the 1970s when an Islam emerged as a potent counter-discourse to the regime of the pro-Western Shah. Islam became a vehicle of protest, because its norms, symbols and imagery could be easily ideologised to function as a revolutionary programme.
In Tunisia, there is no such ideological Islam that is revolutionary, but there is an Islam that is politically activated. Al-Nahda is heavily influenced by the theories of Rachid Ghannouchi who recently returned to Tunisia from exile in London, and presides over functioning institutions that will help to position the party at the helm of political events in Tunisia.
I have called this type of Islamic politics ‘Avicennian’ in my book A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations, which charts the trajectories of Islamic political thought. ‘Avicennian Islam’ is diametrically opposed to the totalitarian order that al-Qaeda type movements envisage.
Facebook is big business and Al-Jazeera is geared to international capital via the Al-Thani monarchy in Qatar. But that does not mean that they are entirely one-dimensional. Facebook and Twitter help immensely in political protests to communicate instantly and beyond state censorship. But they also distort by making singular events appear more significant than they actually are.
The Arab revolts were certainly not ‘twitter revolutions’ as the mainstream media portrayed them. During the largest protests in Cairo the internet network in the country was almost entirely shut down by the state.
As for Al-Jazeera: It plays an important role in the international media mix. It broke the monopoly of the western media over the ‘Middle East’, a dangerously Eurocentric term. Al-Jazeera disturbs that perspective, so we can safely refer to the area as Western Asia now. Even Iran’s Press TV has a similar effect because it provides space for alternative voices to be heard. I consider this autonomization of the media landscape a good thing, as long as Eurocentrism is not substituted with Arabo- or Irano-centrism. We can all read between the lines, and the more lines we have the more we can read between them.
(Next edition: Part 2: The Global Favela)