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Tunisia, The Long And Fragile Arc Of Democratic Revolution

The attachment to autocracy prevails over the current appreciation of the state of democracy. Still tottering, to be sure.

Jan. 14 anniversary march in Tunis
Jan. 14 anniversary march in Tunis
Hatem M’rad*


TUNIS — The Tunisian revolution was supposed to mark a radical break with the past. Seven years later, we are surprised to see that many fringes of Tunisians remain attached to the past, its vestiges and customs. And they're vocal about it. The very insistent reminders of God, Tunisian independence leader Habib Bourguiba and his ousted successor President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali have sounded loud in the years after the revolution, and ushered in a period of regrets.

We speak of freedom, and yet we would like to restore old despotism. We speak of democracy, and we would like to make room for an Islamist providence. In 1789, after the French aristocracy and clergy were guillotined and rendered meaningless by the French Revolution, could they have brought back everything that the currents had carried away? Seven years after the Tunisian revolution of January 2011, which launched the Arab Spring, those nostalgic for God and state authority are finding common ground.

Islamists are attached to the immovable law of God, seen and lived through the mores and ideals of the "pious ancestor" — a model particularly immune to the 14 centuries that followed. The social and spiritual state of 7th-century Muslims thus sums up the whole history of Arab-Muslim humanity. It is valid at all times and in all places. No need to add that the law of men no longer counts, it is desecrated. History stops there.

Similarly, lay modernists are attached to the vestiges of the past more than they are to the idea of progress. They venerate a vision of history that flowed until it was stopped by one man: Bourguiba, the father of modern Tunisia who, in their eyes, has become a sort of prophetic being, transhistorical even: He is everywhere and nowhere, he lives within all Tunisians across time.

After the Bourguiba idolatry comes the cult of Ben Ali, a military man who loved brutal methods, who loved to govern through the rule of silence. The man was skilled in the art of de-Islamization. He applied a police-like treatment on a political and social phenomenon. It's a stark contrast to the leaders of today, who are complacent with the Islamists, themselves Machiavellian.

In short, for some modernists, order was as much the privilege of the past as confusion is that of an entangled present. The attachment to autocracy prevails over the current appreciation of the state of democracy. Still tottering, to be sure. Yet their anger against the revolution or against the men in power leading the political transition is a fact of revolution, a fact of freedom, coming after their ancestral passivity or their humiliation by the authority, the single party and the ruling family. These modernist fringes are still thwarted by the massive influx of Islamists in the transition, as if they'd come from nowhere.

Islamists make up one-third of the Tunisian electorate.

Thus, it's customary, after a quickly reviled revolution, to joyfully appeal to the past — distant or contemporary — to preserve traditions of an outdated regime, even to regret privileges. But then, how can one remove a dictator and establish a new democratic order, without the Islamists, themselves first-degree victims of the dictatorship?

Islamists make up one-third of the Tunisian electorate, and they should henceforth be fought using democracy, and not terror — as was the case under Ben Ali — nor by trying to cut off their heads, as Bourguiba wanted to do on the eve of the 1987 coup by Ben Ali. In a democracy, opposites confront one another. We try to civilize through freedom, through the rule of law. Democracy requires much more courage than expeditious methods. Democracy, unlike other regimes, dares to face vices head on, even if it's in the midst of apparent chaos.

The revolution, seven years ago, was both happenstance and predictable. People make revolutions because the previous social and political state becomes unbearable, because it no longer matches the movement of ideas and opinions. It is not, at first glance, ideas nor intellectuals who provoked the "revolution of dignity," but it was brought about by shapeless masses of ideas and opinions which, considering the spectacle of half-a-century of daily indignity, have slowly set physical and material forces in motion.

Even if they do so in silence and in slow motion, revolutions are also feats of opinion that move forward, sometimes become agitated, circumvent resistance to progress. In Tunisia's case, this opinion had been in an accumulation phase since the outbreak of the democratic movement of the late 1970s: when the Bourguiba regime started to collapse, coinciding with the emergence of an embryonic civil society represented by the triptych Movement of Socialist Democrats, Tunisian General Labour Union, and Tunisian Human Rights League.

Now, after the revolution, it is the democratic state which should forge the political and moral civilization. Democracy remains chaotic, sometimes disappointing. But it cannot be rejected on the pretext that it challenges a long-gone past, which won't come back, which no longer expresses the need of the people. Can we bring back slavery, the hereditary system, the birthright, repudiation or polygamy? The answer, of course, is no.

Those nostalgic of regimes say the freedom the revolution has brought is harming us.

Even the discrimination of women's inheritance rights is being swept away by History, progress of civilization and opinion. Civilization moves forward, not backwards. Even if it gives the impression of receding, after an accident of History (war, crisis, famine), it does not eliminate the ideas of philosophical and moral progress. Both immediately resume their natural march as soon as History rights the moments of misguidance and upheaval.

Those nostalgic of regimes, be it religious or secular, always declare that the freedom the revolution has brought is harming us. In reality, what is harming us is that the revolution has suspended freedom, the real one, the one that remains misunderstood and abused by parties (those in power as well as those in the opposition), agitators and movements that are ignorant of its meaning, who want it for themselves only, not for others. This is what happens in political transitions.

We should let History do its work. Let us prepare the reforms that must improve things, let us accept the necessary consequences and deformations of the revolution and the transition that shook an entire political and geopolitical order, with its traditions, its privileges, its discriminations. Let us not pretend we can solve everything with a strike of the sword. Let us follow the path opened up by freedom; it will lead us to ever more freedom. Islamism is an evil, a gangrene — no one denies it. But let us not misjudge the situation. The struggle is now political, legal and democratic, provided it's fought within the field of modern institutions.

Let us be neither backward-looking nor brutal or intolerant. Let us trust in progress, in the coming consolidation of new institutions, without departing from our vigilance, which always gives us the right to punish evil when it is punishable. The revolution sowed a good seed. We will have to wait until the right moment comes for harvest. The most important thing is to live in one's own century, not in that of others. Let us not be "modern imitators of Antiquity," to reuse the beautiful wording of Benjamin Constant. Let us instead be progressive creators of modernity.

*Hatem M'rad teaches political science at the University of Carthage and is the founder of the Tunisian Association of Political Studies (ATEP).

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