Visiting Tunisia three years ago, I thought that it was easy enough to see the main problem. The state was publicly dedicated to modernity and secularism and development—what used so long ago to be called “Westernization”—but it didn’t really trust its citizens to be grown-ups. The country had only had two heads of state since becoming a republic in 1957, after winning independence from France in 1956, and the second of them had come to power in a palace coup. I wrote that without ever seeing President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, I could have passed an exam in his superficial physical characteristics, since his face was displayed everywhere one looked. He had been known to exceed 90 percent of the vote at election time; so seldom a good sign. Policemen were to be seen in Internet cafes; another distressing symptom. The official excuse for all this was that special measures needed to be taken against Islamic extremists, but those adopting this seductive line had forgotten what Saul Bellow says at the opening of Augie March: “Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.”
Still, it wasn’t as if Tunisia had a massive and wasteful military or an exorbitant dictator who named every building after himself. When compared to its immediate neighbors, Libya and Algeria, the country had done relatively well in avoiding the extremes of personal megalomaniac despotism a laMuammar Qaddafi and full-blown civil war (which in Algeria’s case took the lives of almost 150,000 people in recent memory). One found the political atmosphere constipated and conformist rather than outright terrifying. Perhaps one reason the Tunisian crowds were able to mobilize so swiftly and to such immediate result—splitting the army leadership from the police in a matter of a few days—was simply that they knew they could. There was scant likelihood of the sort of all-out repression and bloodshed that was met by, say, the protesters against the Iranian mullahs. Thus, and sadly, it’s probably premature to say that the events in Tunis are harbingers of grass-roots movements in other states of the region. (Still, Qaddafi’s own deranged response to the rebellion, ranting about the horrible prospect of a “Bolshevik or American revolution,” was truly heartening. Just to know that he is sweating …)
I remember Edward Said telling me that I’d enjoy a trip to Tunisia: “You should go there, Christopher. It’s the gentlest country in Africa. Even the Islamists are highly civilized.” And certainly, there was a sort of only partially misleading douceur de vie in the Frenchified streets and squares of the Mediterranean towns and villages, as well as in the magnificent city of Kairouan, a center of Islamic learning for centuries, the breath-catching Carthaginian and Roman sites in Tunis itself and in El Djem, and the historically Jewish island of Djerba off the south-eastern coast. When the ancient El Ghriba synagogue there was truck-bombed by al-Qaida in April 2002, the government rushed to express solidarity and to undertake rebuilding, and the Tunisian parliament was unusual in the region for having a Jewish senator. Along the boulevards, young couples in jeans held hands without awkwardness, and I seldom saw a headscarf, let alone a veil or burqa.
I was interested to see an interview last week with a young female protester who described herself and her friends as “children of Bourguiba.” The first president of the country, and the tenacious leader of its independence movement, Habib Bourguiba, was strongly influenced by the ideas of the French Enlightenment. His contribution was to cement, in many minds, secularism as a part of self-government. He publicly broke the Ramadan fast, saying that such a long religious holiday was debilitating to the aspirations of a modern economy. He referred with contempt to face-covering and sponsored a series of laws entrenching the rights of women. During the 1967 war, he took a firm position preventing reprisals against the country’s Jewish community, avoiding the disgraceful scenes that took place that year in other Arab capitals. Long before many other Arab regimes, Tunisia took an active interest in a serious peace agreement with Israel (as well as playing host to the PLO after its expulsion from Beirut in 1982).
Not to idealize Bourguiba overmuch—he became what is sometimes called “erratic,” and at one point proposed an ill-advised “union” of Tunisia with Libya—but he did help to ensure that Tunisia’s secularism and the emancipation of its women was its own work, so to speak, rather than something undertaken to please Western donors. It will be highly interesting in the next few weeks to see how this achievement holds up after the Perón-style tawdriness of the Ben Ali regime has potentially discredited it.
During my stay, I visited the University of Tunis, attached to the “Zitouna” or “olive tree” mosque, to talk to a female professor of theology named Mongia Souahi. She is the author of a serious scholarly work explaining why the veil has no authority in the Quran. One response had come from an exiled Tunisian Islamist named Rachid al-Ghannouchi, who declared her to be a kuffar, or unbeliever. This, as everybody knows, is the prelude to declaring her life to be forfeit as an apostate. I was slightly alarmed to see Ghannouchi and his organization, Hizb al-Nahda, described in Sunday’s New York Times as “progressive,” and to learn that he is on his way home from London. The revolt until now has been noticeably free of theocratic tinges, but when I was talking to Edward Said, the name of “al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb” was still unknown, and atrocities like the attack on Djerba were still in the future. We should fervently hope that the Tunisian revolution turns out to transcend and improve upon the legacy of Bourguiba, not to negate it.