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Thoughts from Tunisia: reflections on life after the fall of an autocrat

Opinion | February 5, 2012

<p>Photo by Jessica Kulig</p>

What I saw and did not see in the streets of Tunis on the anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution’s apex encapsulates nearly every major issue facing the country today. Just one year after a populist surge ousted former dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the streets bustled with hopeful optimism and foreboding challenges that read like a horoscope of the country’s future.

As I pushed through the crowds along Avenue Habib Bourguiba, one of the capital’s main thoroughfares, I saw masses of people gathered together, hoping for some form of emotional release. Groups were roughly divided by ideology: in one area, leaderless nationalists marched aimlessly about, waving Tunisian flags and chanting about the fall of an autocrat. These “agenda-less” revelers navigated around other, more organized secular and nationalist groups, complete with Che Guevara banners and photos of Gamal Abdel Nasser. But these secularist groups stood several blocks away from the most organized and well-attended event: a structured rally by the Islamist group, Ennahda. The contrast between the amorphous, secularist masses and the Islamists’ unanimous chants seemed to perfectly represent the campaign strategies in the recent Tunisian elections.

Meanwhile, police officers and soldiers tasked with preventing a breach of the Interior Ministry looked on from behind layers of barbed wire. They had built their careers within an institution suddenly open to intense public ridicule, and they now seemed scared and directionless. One officer draped a Tunisian flag over a police van while another untangled a protest banner from the sharp coils of the barbed barricade. Clearly, the relationship between the police and the people they had protected during the revolution was in need of repair, but in that moment, both groups appeared content to play their carved-out roles.

As I walked through that mass of free expression, I was stopped several times by young demonstrators curious about an unfamiliar face. They eagerly introduced themselves, and in a mix of French, Arabic, and broken English, offered me their opinions on the political situation as breathlessly as if they were recounting the details of a recent football match. In fact, one student gleefully told us that politics had replaced sports as the de facto topic of national small talk. These encounters always ended with an exchange of names on small scraps of paper, for Facebook purposes, and a group picture so that the effusive Tunisians might remember our brief conversations. A few people we met told us that Tunisians have become newly talkative after the lifting of several generations’ worth of political repression, but I have a hard time believing this. Though the topics of discussion may differ now, talkativeness seems, to me, to run deep within Tunisian culture.

Perhaps the most startling feature of Tunisia’s current political atmosphere is the lack of demand for economic improvement. The very forces that catalyzed the fall of the Ben Ali government were missing from this celebratory demonstration. This absence was the most troubling part of the long-term Tunisian outlook. The state of near-segregation that exists between the country’s impoverished interior and relatively affluent coast is as much an economic divide as one of language, religiosity, and political outlook. Now that votes from both of these areas have equal sway, major political discord seems almost inevitable. Whether the mediation between them will be democratic remains to be seen.

The celebratory streets of Tunis certainly inspired an optimistic outlook on Tunisia’s future in me. Just as striking, however, were the signs of the challenges that Tunisians must face once this hopeful surge fades.