From Carthage to Kasserine

In the wake of the Tunisian Revolution, a myriad of nascent political parties are making a shambolic claim for power

Dispatches International

Better the devil: The defaced portrait of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 

The people want Palestine,” they chant, they sing in the kasbah of Tunis. “We are free, down with Ben Ali,” the students jump in mock-military platoons, wave and kiss the flag. “Allah akbar, the people are free.” A turbaned man waves the crescent of Tunisia. A little girl is lifted on to the truck. “Sing it again…”   

“The people will win in Palestine.” 

The graffiti on the kasbah walls — “Sarkozy get out!” “Thank you Facebook.” “The Tunisian woman is free and will stay free.” “Down with US.” 

A physics professor grabs me, bringing his yellow teeth uncomfortably close. “Britain and America are always with the Jewish. The Arabs are now free. No more foreigners in Arab lands.” 

This is Tunis, more than a month since the flight of the Francophone dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, five days after the resignation of interim Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and hours after Ben Ali’s last ministers abandoned their posts. Ben Ali’s face is no longer on posters and placards, but tagged onto the walls of the souk, with devil’s horns and swastikas, and stars of David between his eyes. 

Denounced as a French client, a Zionist sympathiser and a cuckold, Ben Ali is now cursed as repeatedly as he was once lauded. “He told me in the palace of Carthage,” whispers his turncoat first cousin Shafrallah Mlitiri, using his pinched right hand to conjure tension, “that his wife was practising…the witchcraft on him. There was always, always, a Moroccan soothsayer at their side.” 

“Freedom marches in the night,” roar the people in the kasbah. “Allah akbar.” Friday prayers ended an hour ago. Behind barbed wire, military platoons squint in the drizzle at the fizz of bottled emotions uncorked by the generals’ coup that forced Ben Ali into exile, following violent clashes and mass protests on January 14. Grey skies, warm rain on the gentle face of authority.    

Since the flight of Ben Ali, the self-appointed Committee to Protect the Revolution had been organising protests and inciting youths to camp out in the kasbah to demand the resignation of all the former President’s associates and the dismemberment of the secret police and the regime’s core — the RCD, or euphemistically named Constitutional Democratic Party. The dictator is believed to be in a coma in Saudi Arabia, but the revolution has reloaded. Unlike neighbouring Egypt, in Tunisia systemic change is being attempted.  

Killings and looting returned to the streets of Tunis in late February before mass resignations of opposition politicians from the interim government put politics on course for a far deeper transformation. The success of the kasbah protests has led to a new 77-year-old temporary president, Fouad Mebazaa, and an 84-year-old interim prime minister, Beji Caid el Sebsi, both too old to be part of the political future. Responding to the street, the old men liquidated the RCD and the political police, then promised to host elections for a constitutional convention in July that was announced with a fanfare on live TV.  

Tunis is different now; the nights are nervous.  The tomb-like calm of a one-party state has evaporated. The shops and cafés close at nightfall. Vendors have bricked up fronts in the souk. Corners are clogged with illegal vendors selling stolen perfume or contraband cigarettes. Traffic has gone awry. Locals shudder that one of the 9,000 criminals released from jail might be behind them. Barbed wire surrounds the tree-lined elegance of the central Avenue Habib Bourguiba. Uniformed men shout if you get too close. Armoured vehicles slumber at the crossroads. 

The difference from 1989 is that in East Berlin everyone knew why they were revolting and what they wanted the countries of the Warsaw Pact to become. In Tunis everyone knows what they don’t want, but the agreement stops there. 

Wasef is 22 and has been camping in the kasbah for a week. His friends all back different factions. Ben Ali’s censorship has ensured none of them really know what politics entails. “There are four groups here. There are the women’s rights campaigners, the Arab nationalists, the soft Turkish Islamists and then the extreme Islamists. They will win because the Left is too friendly.” His friend Hassan has an afro and a red keffiyeh, backs the communists and the legalisation of marijuana. “I defended the Jews and the sluts on the TV the other day and now the Islamist students are giving me grief.” His friends laugh.  

These boys have never left Tunisia, “but we have watched so many movies we know what it is like in a developed country.”  They are naively optimistic. Wide-eyed, they show me the bullets that tried to kill them and tell me their political dreams. “Come back in a year and we’ll buy you coffee because we’ll all have jobs.”

They are standing up against Pax Americana, resentful of the influence of Washington in their society and the presence of Israel in their region, but they are also young e-Arabs of the North African May ’68, sincere in their demand for pluralism and a stake in globalisation, while simultaneously rebels for a more Islamic way of     doing things, inspired by Turkey’s charismatic leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. No one wish overrides the other. Nor can they really be disentangled. The wave is raw, and might suddenly break against America if the attack on Libya goes wrong. 

“The atmosphere reminds me of Paris in 1968 after the departure of de Gaulle, there is the same feel of the Beirut as it was before the war, something of Morocco after the death of Mohammed V,” the bespectacled Abdellatif Abid gently enunciates from the politburo of the leftist faction, the Forum for Democracy, Labour and Liberty. The RCD and ultimately the Ben Ali clan was the state, sucking almost all technocrats and big business into its orbit of favours and rings of corruption. The result is that the political parties of the opposition now jockeying for the adulation of the bazaar and the industrial towns are those that were frozen out when the regime consolidated itself in the late 1980s. Liberals and those with a pro-Western orientation are discredited or lying low, nowhere to be seen. The IMF is a term of abuse. 

“There is no trust in political parties or political leaders now among the young, this could become a problem,” says analyst Raoudha Ben Othman from the University of Tunis. “The controlling apparat of the old regime means that none of the parties are more than factions and have yet to develop policy agendas to tackle the economic problems we face.” 

The confusion in the air is because the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions are actually several revolutions at once. They are workers’ rebellions against unemployment and soaring prices, a revolt against Pax Americana and the humiliation of Iraq, an elite shaking off incompetents that have cut them out of globalisation, and the insurrection that pushes the Islamists into the open. Everyone supports the revolution for a different reason and has radically different ideas where it will end up.

The decision to ban the RCD and the political police has created a cohesive group of unemployed, moneyed counter-revolutionaries but has also stripped the system of its managing elite. Many key public services, especially the police, are not running at full capacity. A brute on crutches grabs me on the waterfront. “The RCD beat me up and broke my legs. They offered to pay me a hundred dinars to smash up that shop. They are everywhere.” The country is gripped by a fear of saboteurs that in the provinces has turned into witch hunts. 

The Committee to Protect the Revolution is dominated by leftists, communists, Islamists and Arab nationalists, none of whom has a policy agenda or any experience of management of any description. The irony is that the revolution by unemployed and disorganised, leaderless men in their twenties is now   being offered a political menu in a time-warp.  

She wears a beret. She froths at the mouth about saboteurs. There will be no Eastern Europe modus vivendi with those who ruled. “The revolution is unfinished, we need a purge of all regional, local and political posts to rid us of the RCD,” spits Rahyia Nasroui, a vocal lawyer on the Committee and wife of the leader of the newly influential Tunisian Workers Communist Party, which links itself to the ideology of socialist Albania. For her the revolution is about a lot more than an ousting. “We need to rebuild our economy so it is not reliant on the outside world — on something like metallurgy, like farming.”

Music from a Berber wedding jangles though an open window. I am talking to Maya Jribi, the secretary general of the Progressive Democratic Party. Claiming 10,000 members, it is one of the weightier pro-democracy, pan-Arabist outfits. It has contributed a minister to the first transitional government. You might expect her to detail a long list of measures to tackle youth unemployment; instead she waves away the question of specifics, telling me that “the programme is coming.” Cartoons of murderous Zionist rabbis and Jewish stormtroopers cover the yellow, chipped walls. 

The communists and the PDP are not alone in staking claims to the secular vote. New, yet horrendously anachronistic political figures have emerged. One such figure is the Baathist politician Hassan Kassar. This old Seventies lounge suit, smoking and coughing in a brown hotel lobby, tells me: “Only last night I was watching the best of Saddam Hussein on YouTube and was moved to tears.”  

You might expect the leading social democratic party, the Ettajdid movement in its quintessentially Parisian office near the hawkers on the Place de l’Afrique, to take a conciliatory tone towards the West. “Pax Americana began to collapse here in Tunis,” says its mechanical general secretary Janayadi Edj Ejawed. “I hope.” 

We may see ourselves and our story in the protests in Tunis, but the ageing politicians that hope to ride the wave feel bitter revulsion towards Europe precisely because it appeals — a Europe for which they feel they have remodelled themselves only to be patronised. 

“Tunisians are torn, they want to hate France but the dream they have is to be a Parisian Arab with a restaurant in Belleville. This insults our pride,” confesses a friend in a bar-à-zinc straight from a filmset of inter-war Paris. 

The centre ville of Tunis looks like Jean Marie Le Pen’s Paris seen through an apocalyptic lens: a French city flooded by Arabs, of chipped stucco and elderly North Africans wearing the suits and long-coats on sale before decolonisation, where peddlers exchange broken mobile phones for fruit on the steps of belle époque mansion flats. Tunis looks like a dilapidated European city. That is precisely what it is. 

Before independence in 1956, Europeans made up five per cent of the population of Tunisia; with Sephardic Jews the figure was almost nine per cent. French, Italians, Maltese and Spanish settler families had lived in the green hills around Carthage for over 150 years. In the 1950s, France proposed a deal for joint sovereignty with Tunisia, hoping projects like the “French Union” or the “French Community” could retain the single, social economic space that linked Paris to Tunis and Bamako. Albert Camus favoured such an arrangement, before the squalid Algerian campaign intensified, which might have looked something like the European Union. Neither side could admit the other’s place in the Maghreb. The logical became impossible. 

The independence movement rejected the rights of Europeans to remain in North Africa and retain property. They rejected a link to Europe. Within a decade more than 170,000 Europeans had migrated to France from Tunisia, including the present French minister of foreign trade, Pierre Lellouche, and the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë. The victory of the anti-colonial struggle was a colossal defeat for Tunisia. France turned its back on the southern Mediterranean, preferring to cut deals with local sultans like Mohammed VI or Ben Ali, and kept its distance. 

Today France is institutionally merged more with Bulgaria than this partly Francophone country two hours from Charles de Gaulle airport. The door to the very things Tunisians dream of — a partnership of equals with Paris, massive structural funds, visa-free travel and the chance to play politics in a world city — closed in 1956. The most pervasive feeling in the Arab world before the uprisings was a deep disappointment. All those past 50 years of broken utopias and fascist or socialist experiments had brought so little.  

Protests for secularism are staged in the town of Hammam-Sousse and Tunis. The walls of the colonial theatreare besmirched by women’s rights graffiti. Islamists come up again and again in conversation. “There is an Islamist menace here,” says the intellectual Sophien Ben Hamidi, a member of the national trade union’s international bureau. “Their project is opposed to the project in Tunisia since independence of openness and modernity, opposed to Tunisia as a Francophone country.” The finest families of Tunis say: “It can’t happen here.” The young say: “The peasants won’t vote, we don’t have to worry about them.” 

Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi returns from exile. Ten thousand followers of his Islamist front, Ennahda, throng the arrival halls. Off the Rue d’Angleterre, the supporters of what is surely destined to be democratic Tunisia’s largest party are setting up shop. “We are all meeting for the first time, we were underground, in exile,” says a surly organiser in a bare room. “When the people follow sharia the economy will just boom,” a cataract-eyed supporter insists. The door opens. Two serious-looking African imams from the Sahel garbed in red robes and fez discuss the politics of theKoran while street boys push tables, then mount the plasticised banner of God. 

“We don’t have a systematic technical programme yet, we have all been in exile or in prison for 17 years, we don’t know each other,” says Noureddine Arbaoui, from the executive committee of Ennahda. “We are inspired by the Turkish AKP, we are not going to ban anything, our leader is not seeking office, we are moderates.” When I press him he cannot answer. He is not lying to me. He does not know what to say. Like any man who has spent 17 years in prison, mostly in solitary confinement, he moves slowly with motionless eyes in a perpetual stare. 

“When I came out of prison on that first day, it was so frightening. Women I remembered young, now old, friends completely changed. The family situation, it was another family. These telephones and this,” he flicks his hand, “this internet…thing.”

Sheikh Ghannouchi cannot be reached. He is in Turkey for four days of discussion with the AKP on developing a viable programme, boast the staff. His texts are known to be moderate within political Islam. On January 22 he denounced the extremist Hizb ut Tahrir and spoke against the dream of a united Muslim caliphate.  Among Islamists he has argued for a movement “not rooted in the obscure theories of Said Qutb”. But he is also an intellectual atop a movement that never expected to become an incoming party of power, whose fractious members interpret his vague words very differently. 

“They don’t know anything about Tunisia and that’s a huge problem,” croaks the former number two of the party, Abdelefattah Monou, who put it on the track away from the politics of purity that ripped apart neighbouring Algeria. “They have been in jail or in exile. The movement is composed of different strands. The moderate pro-Turkish strand is dominant but there is a strong band of extremists that want to impose sharia law. None of them have any experience at all. They are totally disconnected from society.” 

Tunisian analysts estimate the party will score around 25 to 35 per cent of the vote and will be by far the largest group in the coming constitutional convention. The danger posed by Islamist parties is usually their Bolshevik organisation. In Tunisia, the very incoherence of the Islamists is the worry, as it is so unclear what they will become or who will rise to the top in elections and appear in a government. The immense gulf between the developed coastal cities facing Europe and the hinterland, firmly part of an Arab-Berber Maghreb, means the intellectuals in the Tunis cafés, stripped of any knowledge of this illicit topic by the dictatorship, have no idea how the Islamists or any other front will fare beyond the capital.  

The under-25s account for 55 per cent of Tunisia’s population and don’t care about the Islamists. They are enjoying what they have won. Loud music beats on the back streets, crowds wear Converse trainers, colourful clothes and afros. This is “24 Hours for the Revolution”, a free-speechathon, a “what I lived through during the revolution,” freedom songs, too much coffee and a 2am debate about the United Nations — but the Arab ’68 is strangely unpolitical. Nobody wants to talk about the parties. “Sous le kasbah, la plage,” a dancer with green come-hither eyes smirks.  The mood turns nasty as a Tunisian UN employee tries to talk about Libya. Insults — “you’re a Western spy.” 

The wave is about freedom, but that does not make it accepting of Western interests in the region. Wajde is a bumbling, rotund young reporter. He encapsulates this contradiction and is in love with Al Jazeera. “It is wonderful, amazing. Now we can finally say what we want, there is no more ‘zero-copy’ I have to send of the paper to the ministry, there is no more censorship.” He beams like a friend. We are in a dirty, fluid-smelling, kebab shop. “But I really think the Arabs’ revolution is the first step, in sweeping away these family governments, these corrupt governments, towards the final liberation of Palestine and Jerusalem through Arab democratic strength.” The kebab is finished. He scrunches up the grease-paper, deadly serious. 

Wajde introduces me to a friend. Rami is getting bored now that the kasbah protests have been wound up and the revolution is moving from the streets to committees. “They say it’s our revolution, the old people, there is no sense in us fighting. Everywhere you go the young are free doing what they always wanted to.” Young rebels are loading trucks of supplies set to hit the desert highways to refugee camps on the Libyan border. A split-second decision is made. Rami, together with his rogue friend Aiman, offers to drive me to the camps. 

Night and a gravel road. Dashboard lights dance on the windscreen. Aiman tunes the radio through the static and talks over the news from Libya. “There’s no sense in us fighting. They’ll all fall in our wave — Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya. Our energy, it’s just going to prevail.” Hedgerows of cacti in moonlight. They tune the radio to intifada love songs. The highway south is desolate. Libyan number-plates go the other way.

Near Kasserine, a hill town towards Algeria where more than a hundred fell in revolutionary fighting, shepherds in brown hooded cloaks glare at our passing car. Eight checkpoints. Kasserine is charred. Every government building has been set alight. Barbed-wire rings what it can. Scores of soldiers, guns slung or pointed, open boots and demand papers. 

“What are you doing here? How do you know a foreigner? When will you leave?” 

Sassi Bouallagui from the local Committee to Protect the Revolution has a face entirely made of horizontals under thick grey hair. We meet in the local café. Sarsi wears an oversized old coat. The café is full because everyone is unemployed. “There are only two parties in this area, the communists and the Islamists, and a few people from human rights organisations who are leftists or local lawyers,” he grimaces as he sips tea.

“We are trying to contain protests and dialogue with the army. We are fighting against saboteurs.” On February 25 Ben Ali thugs torched parts of the town. “Here the revolution means complete social class transformation. We need to uproot and purge all RCD elements.” That is not what it means in Tunis. 

“If the Islamists want to co-operate with us, we’ll co-operate with them. If they want war I’ll give them war.” The cafe is quiet. Sour men smoke and dream of sneaking into Europe. “I am getting worried. A friend in Le Kef in this region was pushed out of teaching at the local high-school. Those Islamists said, ‘Atheists can’t teach there.'” 

Behind us eloquent graffiti — “FUK You Ben Ali.” The time warp is deeper in the hills. “You speak Russian. Ah, since you are also a communist and from the motherland of socialism I must buy you a falafel.” There are enmities and ambitions enough for a low-level civil war in Kasserine. 

“We didn’t know it was like this outside. Even if there are ten revolutions it won’t get better. It’s Europe for me,” blurts out Rami as the road winds through hills and scrub towards Sidi Bouzid. Squat Berber houses cling resourcefully to exhausted soil. 

“The revolution is about jobs, about infrastructure, about development to this forgotten city,” says Hazar Gharbi from the local Committee to Protect the Revolution, dominated by communists, trade unionists and Islamists. His phone rings. The army want him to defuse another protest. The meeting has taken longer to arrange as he is frightened of secret Israeli journalists, posing as Englishmen reporting for Haaretz. 

“If in a year the development does not come then we won’t hesitate to take to the streets again.” In this dreary, sticky café, unemployed Amin shows me a Facebook video he has made with his unemployed friends —”Our Aspirations.” To dramatic music, photographs of tourist villages on the coast are contrasted with the slums of Sidi Bouzid. “We want Sidi Bouzid to be like that,” he says. 

Posturing and aggressive, a gang in sunglasses presses us into downloading “the rare footage” of them beating up policemen. They are really proud of this. “What does dignity mean, what does the revolution mean?” retorts Hamid, whose animation degree is in little demand out here. “It means a car, a house, a wife, it means being a man. If in a year it isn’t here we’ll all still be drifting through the café, not knowing what we’re doing, not knowing where we’re going. We’ll riot again.” 

The gang escorts me to the slum inhabited by the family of Mohammed Bouazizi, the unlicensed vegetable-seller whose self-immolation outside the local administration sparked these men to riot, and revolution to erupt from Tunisia to Bahrain. 

“Don’t ask me about what I don’t understand!” shrieks Bouazizi’s mother when I ask if she plans to back a party, come July. “All we want is for the mosque to be praying 24/7, that’s it,” says his 16-year-old sister. “We are earning £2 a day with the vegetables. Things are OK.” 

It is simple families like these that will decide the fate of Tunisia or Egypt at the ballot box. Nothing has changed in Sidi Bouzid, and the country now faces dire economic straits as the economic illiterates jostle for power. The situation is unlikely to remain at this level, let alone improve. Renewed rioting will test the viability of Tunisian democracy.

Normally the road to Ras Ajdir is clogged with oil containers and Libyan truckers heading to the ports of the north. No more trucks are leaving Libya. Uniformed men hail the car and open the boot — could there be weapons in there? Documents are checked. Ben Ali’s thugs are driving rented cars across Tunisia. Every checkpoint is frightened lest my Citroën is an incoming drive-by shooting. The technocratic government in Tunis has slipped away. South of the city of Sfax this is a country under military rule. 

The radio reports that stabilisation in Tunisia is making good progress. Two hundred kilometres away, running street battles between the army and protesters bloody the grubby city of Gafsa. They wanted jobs at a phosphate plant. There are casualties, two dead. We have no idea as the road leads through the curfew and locked-down dusk of Tatooine. 

“This is our Sahara. This is our oil. We are to work in our Sahara.” Those are the shouts of strikers camping in the dust by an office on the edge of the desert. “We want work here, now, now.” Two men from Tatooine drowned this week as they were sailing to Sicily; everybody knows about it. Everyone knows that another gang are trying next week. 

It is too late to drive any further. We are becoming aggrieved and showing it at the constant inspections. In a bare room Sahara traders pitch in off the road. The TV is tuned to a Libyan channel. Freezing footage of green flags on an all-hour loop: “Gaddafi and God, Gaddafi and God!” 

The ochre earth at Ras Ajdir. The dunes are low, the trees are scarce and Africans are lying on the floor of the refugee camp. “Libya problem for blacks…Libyan take mobile…take money…take bag…rebel chase us…Gaddafi chase us,” mumbles a Malian for his gang of total losers in the lottery of war. “Cross desert…not enough to drink…Go home…with nothing.” 

“Get back, get back,” the Tunisian soldiers in olive fatigues push and swear at 200 Sudanese. They don’t and their dialect pulls others into the chant, behind the frenzied waving of cardboard slogans. “Down with Bashir! Ambassador out, ambassador out, take us home, ambassador fly, ambassador fly out!” The Sudanese mob waves in a frenzy, breaks up again. “Allah akbar, Allah akbar, Allah akbar.” 

“It’s always like this in the refugee camp. Yesterday it was the Ghanaians, then the Ugandans. Little riots, they’re getting desperate when they realise they are poor-country nationals who are marooned,” an aid worker tells me.

A thousand hysterical Bangladeshis are chanting a slogan no one can understand, marching nowhere, purposefully. They shout until they scream. Uncountable thousands head in unwashed swirls to the soup kitchen. Coughing, shouting, the smell of gasoline and faeces — the taste of a humanitarian catastrophe. South Asians and Africans lie on their backs in thickets of trash. 

The UAE is building a halal encampment for ethnic Libyan refugees by the border gates. At the exits, Islamists with curling ringlet beards greet each refugee with a plastic bag containing cookies and a carton of juice. At the entrance there is only quiet. 

“What started as a revolution here has turned into a war there,” says the Tunisian border guard. “It’s nothing do with us. It’s a civil war, not our revolution any more.”