Six months after the start of Tunisia’s revolution, there are few signs of optimism on the streets of the capital
Wiping his hands on his apron as chickens turned on a spit, Haj Ali Yocoubi gestured from his restaurant towards a burned-out building and a few carcasses of cars. The chef in his 50s witnessed some of the worst repression of January’s Tunisian revolution, when police killed several young protesters in Ettadhamen, this poor, densely populated suburb known as the “badlands” of Tunis. Since then, sporadic rioting has raged past his pavement tables.
Last month Yocoubi closed his restaurant early as the unrest flared following more anti-government protests. A state curfew was imposed as young men went on rampages, burning banks, shops and police stations and looting.
“It’s as if people are on a knife-edge. This is a tinderbox. It seems calm but you sense it could blow at the slightest thing,” Yocoubi said. “People still can’t find jobs. For the first time we feel free to speak out, but there’s a political limbo. We hear about democracy, but now we’d actually like to live in one please.”
It is six months since the rural fruitseller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in despair at the humiliations of the regime, sparking a people’s revolution that ousted Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and inspired uprisings across the region. But Tunisia has yet to properly celebrate its revolution.
The fragile interim government has not inspired confidence, elections have been postponed until October and trust in politicians is low. The same police who once dominated one of the region’s most feared and ruthless police states still largely hold their jobs – beating more than a dozen journalists who tried to cover renewed anti-government demonstrations last month.
Bloggers and activists still fear phones tapped. Lawyers say the corruption and dodgy business deals of the old regime continue. The justice system is still compromised. Crucially, the vestiges of Ben Ali’s banned former party, the RCD, lurk in the shadows, some regrouping as new parties, others accused of stoking violence and disruption.
Last week 11 people died and about 150 were injured in the desolate southern mining town of Metlaoui, after fierce tribal clashes erupted over desperate competition for scarce jobs. Two local clans brutally fought each other with hunting rifles, axes, iron bars and homemade bombs, some people were knifed to death or had their throats slit – bringing the revolution’s total death toll to more than 240.
Among the 92 people arrested in Metlaoui were members of Ben Ali’s old RCD party and local businessmen. Many said the old ruling party had deliberately fuelled rumours about job discrimination to spark chaos and destabilise the region.
In Ettadhamen people understood the Metlaoui rage. In the north Tunis suburb several poor estates rub up against each other with an estimated 400,000 people crammed into six square kilometres (2.3 square miles). Many arrived in the country’s vast and mismanaged rural exodus of recent decades. Unemployment is high. Some families have only one relative who works, often a cleaning lady, sometimes for a salary of 200 dinars (£89) a month.
Several local people were killed when police opened fire during the revolution protests and there has been sporadic unrest since. The micro-credit NGO, Enda, which has financed many local workers, is now offering micro-loans to people whose shops or small businesses were trashed or looted in disturbances.
“All I want is work,” said Hicham Hermi, unemployed for two years after a short stint at a textiles factory sewing labels for big brands. “Unemployment is our biggest problem and it’s worse than before. Yet people who worked for the administration under Ben Ali still have their jobs. This revolution was about justice but where is that justice?”
Demonstrations swept Tunis last month after the former interior minister Farhat Rajhi claimed Ben Ali loyalists were planning a military coup if the newly legalised Islamist party, Ennahda (Renaissance), won the election. He later backtracked, but protesters still feared that the revolution could yet be hijacked by vestiges of the old regime.
The October election will appoint an assembly to write a new constitution, the basis for what people hope will be the first fully-fledged modern democracy in the region. But it is a huge challenge for this country of 10 million people which, since independence in 1956, has been a single-party state. The nature of the spontaneous people’s revolution – leaderless, non-ideological, non-religious – has left political uncertainty. Citizens worry they will lose control of their own destiny. A bewildering array of over 82 new parties have sprung up in recent months.
A poll last week showed the majority of Tunisians are optimistic for the future but 60% have little or no trust in politicians. Even faces on politicians’ posters remind people of the dreaded personality cult of the old regime. More than a dozen smaller parties are believed to be old RCD members in new clothes.
The favourite to win elections, Ennahda, is currently polling at around 17%. Poor suburbs such as Ettadhamen are fertile ground for the party. Local representatives have a bright new headquarters, and are already on the campaign trail.
“Our strength is that we’re grassroots, we’re not from another planet,” said Abderrazak Hassine, 50, an unemployed insurance worker, who like other party members describes prison and torture under Ben Ali. He concedes that after 20 years underground, party activists are mostly over 40 and need to recruit a younger generation. He calls the ageing activist base “a torso in need of limbs”.
Defining the party as moderate Islamists in the vein of Turkey’s AK party, Hassine dismisses concerns of Tunisia’s secular parties that the Islamists will roll back the women’s rights which made Tunisia a feminist exception in the Arab world.
“We haven’t forced anyone to wear a headscarf,” he said. “We’re for human rights for men and women. We haven’t ordered anyone to stay in the home. We’re not against tourism. Alcohol is dangerous and counter to Islam but we can’t stop people from drinking it by force. We believe in pluralism, we’re one party among others.”
A short drive away in a residential street of the Ariana district, feminists and leftwingers gathered at the party offices of Ettajdid, a former communist party which has reinvented itself as moderate left. Women activists reminisced about decades smuggling dissident leaflets hidden in babies’ nappies on flights from Paris. “I’m worried the Islamists will try to deal with unemployment by making women work part-time. We’ve already had 50 years of a one-party state, I don’t want to see another party repeat history by taking too much power,” said one woman banker.
Ettajdid has formed what it calls a “modernist, progressive” front with a dozen other parties to counter the Islamists. “We believe Ennahda has a right to exist, but Tunisia must keep the separation between religion and politics,” said Jounaïdi Abdeljaoued, who sits on the party’s leadership.
“This hasn’t been a joyous revolution,” said Amel Hamrouni, a Tunisian singer, who will run as an independent in the elections. Most agree. There were no mass street parties to celebrate, because after Ben Ali’s flight came curfews and a struggle to contain the violence of his loyal militia. Recent months have seen a succession of weak and contested interim governments, political uncertainty and doubt. The post-revolution cultural renaissance is yet to really begin.
“The problem is that the old regime hasn’t disappeared,” said Mokhtar Yahyaoui, a judge and human rights activist who sits on the Council for the Safeguard of the Revolution. “Businessmen who worked with Ben Ali are still fully active, financing new parties, people from the old RCD are still active, politics and the justice system hasn’t reformed. “When you think what this country was four months agoand what it is now, we’ve made a big leap. But I hope we can make another one.”
Across the city, the blogger Bassem Bouguerra showed pictures of his black eye and bruising after he was detained by police last month for using his mobile phone to film officers beating a cameraman at a demonstration. He was held for two hours in a police van and subjected to what he called “mental and physical torture” including threats to rape him with a stick. “It’s business as usual for the police,” he said.
The growing blogosphere is not yet confident that the vestiges of state censorship have disappeared. Out of principle, the new media community has vowed to fight the state blocking pornographic sites, which they fear could open a door to other official censorship.
“Tunisia doesn’t know where it’s going,” Bouguerra said. “But it knows where it came from and it doesn’t want to go back there.”