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In a Worried Corner of Tunis

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Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images
Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) party, Tunis, June 28, 2011

Outside Tunis one afternoon in late September, I visited the Tunisian American Association for Management Studies, which offers vocational training and literacy courses to working-class women. The center is located in a whitewashed two-story house in the suburb of Borj Louzir, not far from the ruins of Carthage. It’s a gritty and sun-baked neighborhood of mosques, small shops, and cement-block bungalows, with battered cars parked in the alleys. A sewing class had just ended when I arrived, and the participants—a dozen girls and women between the ages of fifteen and fifty, most of them wearing headscarves—agreed to talk to me about the country’s first democratic election, scheduled to take place on October 23.

In recent weeks, polls have showed that Ennahda (Renaissance), an Islamist party banned by the dictatorship of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was poised to win about one third of the vote. Ennahda’s leaders insist that if they win they will respect equal rights for men and women and maintain a division between Islam and the state. Still, they are widely distrusted, and the prospect of an Islamist plurality in the constituent assembly—which would give the party major influence in shaping a new constitution—has heightened anxiety across Tunisia, one of the more liberal countries in the Arab world.

Many women in the sewing circle, though, seemed pleased by the prospect of an Ennahda victory. “Ennahda is the party of Islam,” said a fortyish woman, her head wrapped in a beige headscarf, who gave only her first name, Laila. (The legacy of fear instilled by the ousted dictatorship remains strong in Tunisia, and many people I spoke to worried about being publicly identified.) During the Ben Ali years, when open Islamic observance was discouraged in daily life, women were banned from going covered in the workplace and in school, and Ben Ali’s hated security police periodically harassed and even arrested women wearing the hijab on the street. Mosques were always closed between prayers, and women and young people who attended Friday prayers were closely watched. “I don’t want to vote for a party that does not consider Islam,” Laila said, as half a dozen women in the classroom nodded in agreement. “We need to take care of our religion.”

Maherzia, a woman in her twenties who went uncovered, shook her head in disgust. Ennahda spoke with two voices, she said, offering mild public pronouncements while also espousing extremist sentiments, including support for sharia law. “I’m worried that they’ll force me to wear the veil before I go outside,” she told me. “I’m worried they might force women to stay at home, and not go to associations like this.” Maherzia recalled the group’s violent past: in 1991, Ennahda militants attacked the ruling party’s headquarters in Tunis, killing one person and splashing acid in the faces of several others. “They say they are moderates, but in the old times, they threw acid and killed people. How can they be trusted?” After the women left, Chema Gargouri, a former fellow at Stanford University and the founder and director of the association, told me that the party had gained ground in Borj Louzir since the revolution by organizing study groups in mosques, combining reading of the Koran with a political message. “If you don’t vote for Ennahda, you’re betraying our religion,” she summed it up.

On January 14, 2011, President Ben Ali and his wife, Leïla Trabelsi, fled in a six-car convoy from the presidential palace in the Sidi Dhrif suburb of Tunis, adjacent to the far better known, touristy suburb of Sidi Bou Said, and boarded the presidential jet for Saudi Arabia, where they remain in exile. Ben Ali left after three weeks of protests ignited by the self-immolation of a young vendor, Muhammad Bouazizi, in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. About three hundred people were shot dead by the regime’s police and security forces in the Tunisian revolution, which inspired a wave of uprisings across the Arab world.

Since that tumultuous period, Tunisia’s transition to democracy has taken place rather smoothly. The 30,000 members of the military returned to their barracks after the first few days, ceding power to civilians. (This was in marked contrast to Egypt, where a Transitional Council made up of nineteen generals continues to call the shots.) Further protests in downtown Tunis soon forced out two interim governments seen as being too close to the ancien régime. Ben Ali’s party was dissolved and its governors fired. Twenty independent radio and television stations have received licenses. The minister of defense, the minister of the interior, and other key figures from the old regime are on trial, facing charges ranging from corruption to murder; hundreds of indictments have been filed.

The new interim government, led by Beji Caid Essebsi—a respected octogenarian lawyer who had served in the first Tunisian government after independence from France in 1956—has been in place for seven months, and has won respect for establishing an administration that is open to scrutiny and has made its financial accounts public. Revenues from tourism have fallen off dramatically since the uprising, and there is some grumbling about the slow pace of prosecutions, but “people are confident,” I was told by Elyes Gharbi, one of Tunisia’s newly independent journalists.

The most difficult part of the post-revolution period is still to come. In Tunisia’s experiment with democracy, 111 parties have registered to take part in the October 23 election. The participants range from Attajdid (Innovation), a coalition of ten leftist parties and political associations, some of whose members were harassed and jailed by Ben Ali, with some of their leaders in exile, to eight bloggers who rose to prominence during the uprising and who are running as independents. None of the parties, however, can match the organization or the financial strength of Ennahda. Although the party was largely unknown among the younger generation when it was legalized in March, the religious leaders quickly formed cells made up of former political prisoners, returning exiles, and the devout in hundreds of communities, and mobilized new members through a network of mosques. “They are by far the best-organized political party,” Ghabi told me. The sophistication of the Islamists and the respect for the imams in the mosques, combined with the lack of experience and funding of the secular parties, could bring Ennahda a big victory, Gharbi and other observers say.

One morning I visited Moez Sinaoui, the chief spokesman for the interim government, in his third-floor office in the prime minister’s headquarters outside Tunis’s souk; he was in the middle of arranging one of his twice-weekly press conferences—a new practice, he told me, that had been inspired by White House briefings. Between fifty and sixty reporters typically show up, subjecting cabinet ministers, police officials, and others to vigorous questioning. “We even put in a blue background, just like [Obama spokesman] Jay Carney has,” he told me. A foreign service officer during the dictatorship, based in Tunis, Rome, and Washington, Sinaoui resigned his post in 2007. “I didn’t want to be an ambassador under this dictator,” he told me, explaining that diplomats were often instructed to steer potential foreign investors to ruling family members, who would then demand a cut of as much as 80 percent of any proposed business venture. “It was a mafia.”

Prime Minister Essebsi recently appointed a committee to investigate corruption, and the government has confiscated banks, real estate, and other property from 112 relatives and members of the “second circle”—non–family members with close connections to the regime. Investigators uncovered $27 million in cash and jewelry in safes hidden behind bookshelves in Ben Ali’s palace. A European Union task force is tracing the wealth that Ben Ali and his family are suspected of stashing in overseas bank accounts, though Sinouai admits that it could take years to retrieve what he says “are many billions.” “It took the Philippines seventeen years to get the money back from [Ferdinand] Marcos,” Sinaoui told me.

He acknowledged that people are getting impatient, and that such frustration could play into the Islamists’ hands. The justice system, he said, is a “catastrophe,” riddled with judges and prosecutors who were in cahoots with the regime. The police served for two decades as tools of the dictatorship. A team of police officers from Spain has made several visits to Tunisia since the revolution, advising the police force on how to manage the transition from a totalitarian system to democracy. “They are explaining human rights, how to arrest people, how to respect the physical integrity of the person,” Sinaoui said.

Frustration has also built up over the impunity enjoyed by Ben Ali and his family, most of whom escaped abroad when the revolution broke out. The Saudi Arabian government has refused repeated requests to turn over the former president and his wife to face justice in Tunisia. Convicted in absentia in June for embezzling state funds and sentenced to thirty-five years in prison, Ben Ali and his wife have also been indicted on another 159 counts in both military and civilian courts for murder and corruption.

For the time being, anyway, Tunisians have indulged in small acts of vengeance. Ben Ali’s name has been scratched off of schools, street signs, and the façade of a huge mosque he built on a hilltop down the road from his palace. Streets and plazas named after November 7—the date in 1987 when Ben Ali deposed Tunisia’s founder and president, Habib Bourguiba—have been renamed for January 14, the date of Ben Ali’s exodus. Hundreds of people still make visits every week to the vandalized villas of Ben Ali’s relatives, including Belhassan Trabelsi, older brother of Ben Ali’s wife and owner of Kartago, the country’s largest private airline. Two days after he escaped to Italy in his yacht on January 13, mobs broke down the walls of Trabelsi’s sumptuous estate, burned down the house, and trashed the garden. “It’s a wonderful feeling to see it all destroyed,” I was told by one young man, who stood with four friends, marveling at the piles of garbage and shattered mosaics in Trabelsi’s swimming pool.

The leader of Ennahda is Rachid Ghannouchi, seventy, a somber-looking man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a brick-red skullcap, who was born in the village of Hammet Gabes, in southern Tunisia. Educated at the University of Cairo and at the Sorbonne, Ghannouchi originally had a reputation as a radical Islamic preacher who condemned secularism in Tunisia and progress in women’s rights. Jailed and tortured under Bourguiba, who opposed orthodox Muslim influence in public life, he was released during a brief democratic opening after Ben Ali seized power. (Bourguiba maintained that Tunisians were not ready for full-fledged democracy, and he had the National Assembly declare him president for life in 1975.) In 1989 Ennahda came second to the ruling party in elections, officially winning 17 percent of the vote. (Many Tunisians believe that the ruling party rigged the final result and that Ennahda actually did far better.) Two years later Ben Ali turned against the Islamists, jailing 25,000 Ennahda activists; five thousand of them escaped, including Ghannouchi, who fled to the United Kingdom.

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