21 March 2012

TUNIS – Radical Islamists are making inroads in the Arab world’s most advanced, liberal, and tolerant country. And the secularists think the United States is helping them do it.

Thousands took to the streets of Tunisia’s capital Tunis yesterday to celebrate the end of French colonial rule in 1956. As one might expect on independence day, most were in an anti-imperialist mood. Who are the “imperialists” in the Tunisian imagination today? Not the French. Not anymore. The “imperialists” of today are the United States and, oddly enough, Qatar. Both are seen, fairly or not, as the backers of Tunisia’s Islamists.

“No to America, no to Qatar, the people of Tunisia will always be free.”

I heard that chant all morning on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Tunis’ own Champs-Elysees named after the modern republic’s Ataturk-like first president. Demonstrators were protesting Washington’s warm relations and close cooperation with the new ruling party which already appears to be slipping in popularity.

“People here think the United States is cooperating with Ennahda,” said local journalist Ashraf Ayadi, referring to the Islamists who won 42 percent of the vote in the election last October. Even though a majority of Tunisians voted against them, they still got more votes than any of the other various parties, so they got to choose the prime minister.

“People here are against the United States helping Ennahda,” Ayadi continued. “All Americans who come here are against the Islamists, but the American government is supporting them. I wish we had a good, modern, respectful Islamic party. I’m a Muslim and I’m proud of it, but I’m not proud of this party.”

The Americans are with the Islamists. They support Ennahda in Tunisia and the Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia.

I’ve heard this complaint from every single secular person I’ve interviewed in this country without exception, from academics and democratic activists to journalists and teachers. They seem to be unanimously shocked and dismayed and appalled. The subject comes up again and again in conversation even when I ask about other things. It’s impossible to spend any time here whatsoever without hearing about it.

These people are not part of a marginal fringe movement like their Egyptian counterparts. Politically secular Tunisians make up half the country or more. And they’re depressed about what is happening now. Rami Sghayier, a young activist who does volunteer work with Amnesty International, seems to speak for most when he says, “We made the revolution and they got the power.”

They, of course, are the dour men and women of Ennahda, Tunisia’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“It is a fascist party,” Sghayier continued. “They tried to convince people they’re just defending religion and they won the election that way, but they have a fascist program. They said if they win they will create 500,000 jobs for unemployed people, but they gave the ministry of employment to a different party. Nothing happened. They’re not even trying. It’s a fascist party because it’s protecting the Salafists and other extremists. We don’t only have the Salafists here, we also have Hizb ut-Tahrir. The interior minister did not even move his finger when the Tunisian national flag was attacked at Manouba University by Salafists. Last week, on March 7, they took down our country’s flag and replaced it with their black flag.”

He was referring to the black Salafist flag, the same one used by the bloody Abbasid caliphate and al-Qaeda.

“We are not satisfied,” he said. “Some people are saying we need a new revolution. Others are saying it’s the second chapter of the same revolution. Every week there is a protest.”

It’s strange indeed that young liberal activists, the natural allies of Americans, are angry because the United States is perceived as being with the Islamists, but, like it or not, that’s how it is here.

It’s not because Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim Brother. No one here believes that preposterous theory. Nor is the United States doing anything evil. Washington is trying to establish decent relations with the government, partly by congratulating and complementing the victors. That’s what diplomatic governments do. The US would behave no differently if the prime minister were from one of the liberal parties.

This is not new. Washington had decent relations with the previous authoritarian regime, not because anyone thought Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was the Winston Churchill of North Africa, but because he was in charge, reasonably friendly toward us, and not a Saddam-style mass-murderer. There’s some resentment toward us on the streets here because of it, but it’s not necessarily the deranged anti-Americanism that exists in some parts of the Arab world. It’s the sort of weary frustration and distrust our two countries should be able to move past, but Obama’s apparent support for Ennahda, real or imagined, is making it difficult to improve our image in the hearts and minds of Tunisians who share our values.

Most Tunisians don’t seem to understand Washington. And the administration does not seem to understand Tunis. Western governments, including the Obama administration, decided Ennahda is a moderate Islamist party that they can do business with, but secular and liberal Tunisians think that analysis is a load of old bollocks.

I met with Zeyneb Farhat, director of Tunisia’s national theater, El Teatro.

“Most journalists in the West,” I said, “describe Ennahda as a moderate party in almost every single article about this country.”

“These are not serious people,” she said. “They have no idea what they are talking about. Ennahda is not moderate. Let me tell you, nobody at the United States Embassy in Tunisia was informed. Nobody. That’s why Hillary Clinton twice told Ennahda that their merchandise is not what was sold a few months ago in order to get support from the American administration.

“We’re closely following all the declarations of the people in government. Two days ago the minister of the interior was speaking more to Hillary Clinton than to the people of Tunisia when he said, ‘Nobody is above the law and the Salafists will be punished.’ But they’re not. Of course they’re not. He was lying. Just a few days ago there was a demonstration in front of the parliament by Salafists carrying the black flag and demanding the implementation of Sharia law. Officials from Ennahda were with them. We are not children. We know how to read signs.”

It’s important to remember that the majority of Tunisians voted against Ennahda. If either the Democratic or Republican party in the United States won a mere 42 percent of the vote, the election would rightly be called an epic shellacking.

Ennahda failed even more miserably in the recent student union elections when 88 percent at the universities voted against them.

I get an earful of complaints every day, but none of Tunisia’s liberals or leftists blame me for what’s going on. Most instinctively understand that I’m on their side at least in a general way, and they’re right. Some are from the hard Che Guevara left, but most who self-identify as liberals and progressives are the real deal. They aren’t the Jacobins that so many in Cairo turned out to be. This country is politically, culturally, and intellectually ahead of Egypt by 100 years.

The vibe at the demonstration in Tunis was radically different from those I saw in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. No one was raped or assaulted. The police did not fire tear gas. They certainly didn’t shoot anybody. Aside from the mild and impersonal anti-Americanism, Tunis on independence day looked and felt more like Paris than Cairo.

It’s hardly an Islamist environment here. Some women wear headscarves and a miniscule number cover their faces, but most dress like Europeans in the coastal cities where the majority live. Beer, wine, and hard alcohol are sold and consumed all over the place. I’ve even found beer in random little towns in the rural parts of the country. There is no drinking age. Seventeen year-olds can drink if they want to. Prostitution is legal. The brothels are regulated by the state and their proprietors pay taxes. “They are good people,” one Tunisian said when I told him how odd it is to see decadent libertinism in a country with an Islamist prime minister. “The brothel owners are a lot better people than some around here.”

I ran into Kamal Djellouli, a grizzled old left-liberal activist famous for attending every single demonstration in Tunis. He looks like a 60 year-old hippie from Haight-Ashbury.

“I am shocked that the United States is taking the side of the Islamists,” he said and laughed out loud at the absurdity of the world in 2012.

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