“Our inspiration is India and Turkey.” - Tunisia party leader

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  1. ejazr

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    November 7, the day after Eid al-Adha, was sombre for Tunisia. It was on this day in 1987 that a coup by Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali deposed Habib Bourguiba, one of the tallest old school figures of the Arab world and founder of Tunisia, who ruled the country for three decades from 1957. The 23-year-long rule by Ben Ali and his coterie of family and friends left this Arab country on the western coast of the Mediterranean in disarray.
    The trigger for change came when a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi burnt himself last January to protest the corrupt administration. The shock of it snowballed into a mass protest with people gathering at Ibn Khaldun Square in Tunis demanding that Ben Ali step down. Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia went to the polls on October 23—“the first truly democratic exercise in the Arab world”.
    Between January and October, nearly 100 political parties were born in Tunisia. Also, the number of civil society organisations went up from 8,000 to 20,000. In fact, given the tight deadline, some of the poll aspirants didn't get time even to get their latest photo clicked and gave old ones while filing their nomination, producing an interesting montage of old and new images on the walls of the country.
    Despite taking their first baby steps towards democracy, many Tunisians are sceptical about the future of the country as the Hezb Ennahda, an Islamist party, won the election by getting 42.4 per cent of the votes. However, Ennahda is busy dispelling the notion that it is a hardline Islamist party. “We are different from all that you have seen in the name of Islamist politics,” said Moadh Kheriji, a close aide of party leader Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi. “Our inspiration is India and Turkey.”
    From the beginning, the uprising in Tunisia was different from the ones in the neighbouring Arab countries. In Egypt, the protests lost ground in a stalemate between the generals and the revolutionaries in the Tehrir Square; In Libya, the demand for change triggered a civil war. In Tunisia, however, local committees were formed within the municipalities of different cities to keep law and order and the government running. Election held in this backdrop was, therefore, unique.
    Walls of Tunis and other cities were divided among various political parties to display their posters. Photographic guidelines were issued for the people to exercise their democratic right. “It was an emotional moment for many in Tunisia and people did not mind standing for the entire day for their chance to cast the vote,” said Dr Laryssa Chomiak of The American Research Center in Tunis. “Voters knew that they were making history and many had tears in their eyes and they understood that both they and the electoral officers needed enough time to conduct the polls in a free and efficient manner. Despite the arrival of Ennahda on the scene, the polls electrified Tunisia. We have not yet recovered from the great success of a free and fair exercise of the people's will in the election.”
    According to Chomiak, the roots of the beginning of the revolution in Tunisia and the larger movement called the Arab Spring lie in the global economic slowdown. “As European tourists started staying home to save money, Tunisia's tourism sector took a hit,” said Chomiak.
    Tourism is an important revenue generator for Tunisia, which is popular among holidaymakers for its cobalt blue skyline, blue waters of the Mediterranean coast, the famed cafes, mosques and sidewalks covered with blue tiles and delicious cuisine.
    While the new political system is drawing attention for its social and religious agenda, the average Tunisian wants the economy to be put back in order. “Tunisia always had a strong cafe culture,” said Inis, a resident of the resort town Sidi Bous-Said, whose family maintained close ties with the late Bourguiba. “But these days, unemployed young men spend the entire day smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee at roadside cafes. The cafes have emerged as a kind of refuge for the unemployed people of Tunisia. Politics in our country has to focus on economy first.” And that exactly is what Ennahda is focusing on, said Kheriji. “We want the world to know that in Tunisia, we encourage economic prosperity,” he said.
    The approach helped allay apprehensions about the party's Islamic agenda. Party leader Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi is travelling across the region to observe the uprisings in Egypt, Syria and Yemen, and understand how far his country can go on the Islamist path. Given Tunisia's French way of thinking and living, and the fact that the Arab Spring took root here, the Tunisian people think that the country won't go totally Islamic overnight. Even the Islamists do not feel that they have the moral right to take advantage of a popular movement which erupted spontaneously without any Islamist leader showing the way.
    “The Arab Spring was launched by the Tunisians who wanted their economic hardships to end and an expression for their political will,” said Inis. “We will not allow our hard-earned freedom to be played with by any party because this was a movement that came from commonly shared problems in Tunisia.”
    Another reason why the protest managed to cover so much ground could be the cosmopolitan culture of Tunisia that promotes discussion on difficult issues. “Decades of authoritarian rule failed to erase this cosmopolitanism, and the martyrdom of Bouazizi became a narrative that stitched the personal hardships of a man's life with that of the greater problems of his country,” said Chomiak. Many believe that Tunisia has set an example for other Arab nations to follow. “Tunisia with its unique mix of Arab and French enlightenment will lead the change in the Arab world,” claimed an observer.
    Now all eyes are on Ennahda. The Tunisian people have made it clear that if the party does anything against the popular sentiment, it will be shown the door through a re-election. And the party knows it. “We will operate in a multi-party democracy in Tunisia,” said Kheriji.
    According to Chomiak, like the BJP which has been mellowed down by the pluralist society in India, Ennahda has started learning that it is the country that will lead the party and not the other way round. The popular sentiment on the streets is not to curtail the rights of women, religious minorities and other vulnerable groups.
    Without diluting Tunisia's French and Italian heritage, Ennahda may seek to reorient its cultural life. “Turkey also has an Islamist party in power, but the Turkish women have the right to choose or reject the veil,” said Kheriji. “We want the Turkish Islamic model mixed with the Indian multi-party system for Tunisia.”
    With its rich human resource and a political system that can ensure stability, Tunisia will continue to be the light of the Maghreb region, said Kheriji. “We invite India to come and see the changes we have brought in,” he said. “We are here to show that Islam is perfectly compatible with the modern way of life. Having been with the west for long, Tunisia will now join the rising economies in the eastern part of the world like India and China.”
    On November 25, Morocco, the western-most Arab country in Maghreb, will go to the polls. Reports say that the victory of the Islamist party in Tunisia has given to the Islamists in Morocco, which currently has a monarchist government.
    As THE WEEK team got ready to leave, an Ennahda activist said the dargah of Khwaja Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi was highly venerated in Tunisia. Hopefully, it is the light of the Sufi Islam that Tunisia will present before the world as the Arab Spring unfolds in 21 Arabic-speaking countries in west Asia and north Africa.
     
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