I meet Mustafa and Kamal on Avenue Bourguiba, where they protested in January 2011 to get rid of the dictator who ruled their country with an iron-fist for 23 years. Tunisia has changed a lot since then – and celebrated its 56th independence day last week as a free nation. Both men said they will be out again to consolidate the gains of the revolution. "We couldn't have [talked like this] before, no way," says Mustafa, a 25-year-old originally from Tabarka in the north of Tunisia. "The only thing I could have told you is how great Ben Ali is, what a good man he is."
But how independent is free Tunisia from the grips of its former colonial master and its allies? A demonstration last week by a group of fringe fundamentalists calling for sharia law has got some secular Tunisians in a funk again, as well as worrying the French, who are opposed to Ennahda. An opposition politician told me there are even rumours of a French-supported coup. It is clear that the next stage of western connivance in the subjugation of the Tunisian people is the widespread media and political fear over the democratically elected Ennahda party, which is Islamist. But despite constant derision by the western media, Ennahda revealed on Monday that they would not make sharia
, or Islamic law, the main source of legislation for the new constitution. Wouldn't it be better to judge them on their actions rather than conspiracies about their intentions? "We realise we have a historic responsibility to get this right, we are genuinely inclusive," Said Ferjani, who sits on the Ennahda politburo, told me.
The course from actively arming a kleptocratic dictator to pushing for the Tunisians to support "western values" is familiar. As Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth
: "As soon as the native begins to pull on his moorings, and to cause anxiety to the settler, he is handed over to well-meaning souls who … point out to him the specificity and wealth of western values."
Initially, when people were getting shot by snipers on the streets of Tunis, Hillary Clinton, said the US "didn't want to take sides" and was worried about the "unrest and instability". Sarkozy's administration even offered
to send police advisers to Ben Ali to quell the uprising. In the end, over 200 perished. Since the revolution has won out, Clinton and Sarkozy have moved on to praising "progress" in the country while also expressing apparent concern that Ennahda don't impose Iranian-style dictatorship on the Tunisian people (the US or French didn't care when it was Pinochet-style dictatorship).
But the fear of Ennahda is misplaced, and based on western desires to remain in firm control. There are plenty of clear differences in Tunisia to 1979 when the Iranian revolution overthrew another western-backed torturing tyrant, the Shah. First, Ennahda have assembled a coalition including secular socialists and social democrats to form their government. The president Moncef Marzouki
is a secular human-rights activist who spent decades in the wilderness fighting the US-backed atrocities being committed against dissidents in Tunisia.
The second point is that Tunisian civil society is engaged with the process and will only grow. One of the retrograde patterns you see in a Middle East speckled with US-backed dictatorships is that Islamism is often the only avenue to express dislike of the current state of affairs. The space for secular left movements has been completely crushed since the pan-Arabism of Nasser in Egypt worried the US enough to extinguish the left across the region. Clearly what scares the west more than any Islamist, then, is a secular revolutionary left opposed to the neoliberal order we set up over the past 40 years. That would really hurt the bottom line.
Islamists themselves have often been quite welcoming to the model of the Bretton Woods institutions
and with the neoliberal order trying to impose itself on Tunisia, it will be near-impossible for the ruling parties to try something else (even if they want to). Ennahda at the moment has no discernible economic programme, and talked to me mainly about how much it wanted to attract foreign investment, rather than launching on the massive public works initiative that the country really needs. So far, Tunisia has followed US and Bretton Woods dictates to the book, privatising many of its state-owned assets and eviscerating public institutions and subsidies for fuel and food. Many actually compare Ennahda to the Justice and Development party (AKP) in Turkey, and it is no secret that the AKP has been a dream for business and international capital.
On the Avenue Bourguiba, 9th of April 2012
In its time in power, the AKP privatised a raft of public assets including Tekel, the state-owned tobacco and alcohol company, which it agreed to sell off as part of the "structural adjustments" attached to a $16bn loan agreement with the IMF. Before Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, started acting like the new sultan, the business press was in raptures
about the AKP. This is why I worry for Tunisia – not because of Islamists, but because of neoliberals. With the period of dictatorship over, the economy in Tunisia is now the big issue – with high unemployment everyone here talks jobs. Bretton Woods dictates have proven a disaster around the world as a development model. Ennahda should look elsewhere, for its own survival.