Tunisian Revolution: Has it passed by already?

Tunisian Revolution: Has it passed by already?

If you take a short trip to the birthplace of the Arab Spring you may hear the joke: “Has anyone seen the Revolution passing by here?” The joke carries a lot of ironies with it. Life on the streets of Tunis or in the resort towns of Sousse and Sidi Bou Said are hardly different now from two years ago. Yet, there seems to be a bit of a change in the air.

On a recent trip to Tunisia with a group of my colleagues, I had the chance to see firsthand how people there cherish their new found liberties. While walking on the Habib Bourgiba Boulevard on a Friday afternoon, I talked to a three young women. One wore a headscarf and spoke English, while the other two were dressed in French style of clothing and spoke, of course, French.

“I have not seen too much of a change,” said the one with the hijab. “We did the Revolution for the freedom of expression,” said the others. A guy on the corner of the street came and told me “gas prices are higher now, but at least we can complain about it.”

Rida Saidi, one of the prominent figures in the current coalition and the Vice Premier from An-Nahda, has served years in jail for that liberty. In his modest and Maghreb-style office, he told me why it was no surprise that the Arab Spring started in Tunis.

“It was a struggle for decades. It did not happen overnight. Nor was it a Facebook revolution,” Saidi said. “One thing we are proud of is [the fact that] no one can take this Revolution hostage as his own. Everyone sacrificed. Women, youth, workers, leftist, everyone [made sacrifices]. So when drafting the new Tunisian Constitution we are working altogether for our future.”

Dr. Muhammed Adil of the Turkish-Arab Strategy Institute, who also traveled with us, gave credit to ousted President Zeynel Abedin Ben-Ali. “If he had not gotten the message and left the country fast, we could have been in worse shape than Libya or Egypt,” said Adil. “But French and Ottoman influence is still very much alive here. The state structure was very solid and didn’t crumble. Wages were paid and daily business continued during the revolution.”

Not surprisingly, the rumor on the streets of Tunis is that Ben-Ali’s family has sought refuge in Saudi Arabia or Qatar these days.

But recent attacks against U.S. Embassies in North Africa, spurred because of the film “Innocence of Muslims,” created another debate. The current government in Tunis believes that the remnants of the old guard are still active on the streets of Maghreb. From Libya to Egypt they are the “usual suspects” of the Salafi rage that hit the U.S. and French Embassies.

So it was interesting to see the leader of An-Nahda Rashid Gannushi harshly criticizing the attacks and threatening to kick the Salafis out of the coalition if demonstrations continued.

Almost one third of Tunis’ GDP comes from tourism revenues. Most visitors are (or were) from Italy and France. If fundamentalism takes the Revolution hostage, Tunisians know that they will fall into the abyss of economic despair.

“To have a sound democracy,” said Saidi. “We know we have to have a very solid economy. Our relations with some European countries are much stronger than some [of our] Arab brothers and we would like to keep it like that.”