Who to annoy next

 

© Dog Eat Dog Films / IMG Films

 

I could imagine Where to Invade Next, the new documentary by left-wing American filmmaker Michael Moore, annoying a lot of right-wing folks in the USA – if any of those folks were ever likely to sit down and watch a Michael Moore movie.

 

A gentle and humorous travelogue with a political slant, Where to Invade Next sees Moore ambling in his usual manner, like a cross between a docile grizzly bear and the Honey Monster, across various European countries (plus Tunisia in northern Africa), identifying various good things in their political and social systems and ‘claiming’ them for America – because these good things don’t exist in his less enlightened and more capitalist home country.

 

For example, Moore chooses Italy’s generous system of paid leave, which is absent in the USA even though, as he points out, productivity levels in both countries are about the same.  He chooses Slovenia’s policy of free tuition in higher education, something that in the States you pay for out of your own wallet (or your parents pay for out of their own wallets).  He chooses Iceland’s decision after its 2008-2011 financial meltdown to stick the 26 bankers responsible in jail, whist noting that the only equivalent banker to do porridge in the USA was a chap, Kareem Serageldin, who (probably entirely coincidentally) had a Muslim-sounding name.

 

Yes, I’d love to see America’s usual right-wing suspects – Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and of course current Republican Deranged Blowhard-in-Chief Donald Trump – watch Moore as he gradually and affably belittles the American Way in Where to Invade Next, until blood vessels start popping in their faces and smoke starts pouring out of their ears.  Indeed, one major American right-wing bawbag appears in the documentary: former Texan governor Rick Perry, shown during an episode where Moore highlights the gulf between the French approach to teaching sex education in schools, i.e. being mature, realistic and accepting about it, and the considerably more puritanical and scaremongering American approach.  In a clip from a TV interview, quizzed about why Texas has the third-highest rate of teen pregnancy in the country despite school programmes promoting abstinence, Perry splutters: “Abstinence… works!”  No wonder the live TV audience titters in the background.

 

Critics of Moore’s partisan style of filmmaking will no doubt complain about his selectivity.  He turns a blind eye to the negative aspects of the countries he visits.  He praises Italy’s paid-leave system but discretely ignores its unemployment rate (11.7% two months ago, compared with an American rate of 5%).  From his enthusiasm for all things French, you’d never guess that strikes have been ravaging the place lately in response to its government’s proposed labour-law reforms.  And he honours Tunisia’s reproductive health clinics and its commitment to women’s rights in its post-revolution constitution, drafted in 2014.  But as my partner immediately pointed out – both of us lived in Tunisia for three years, before, during and after the 2011 revolution – women have a much higher chance of being harassed on Tunisian streets than they do on American ones. 

 

Incidentally, whilst in Tunisia, Moore interviews Rachid Ghannouchi, the co-founder and guiding light of the former Islamist governing party, Ennahda.  Ghannouchi, whilst boldly declaring that the state has no right to tell people how to behave in their own homes, manages to shoot himself in the foot by noting that in his home, he tells his wife to cover her hair.

 

© Dog Eat Dog Films / IMG Films

 

To be fair, along the way, Moore makes the odd admission that not everything is hunky-dory.   As I’ve said, he mentions Iceland’s recent economic crisis – if only to highlight the fact that 26 greedy and reckless Icelandic bankers were banged away afterwards.  (Wonderfully, the prosecutor who got them sent down was called Thor.)

 

And I wondered if, while he was heaping praise on Norway for its penal system, which attempts to treat its inmates as human beings, emphasises rehabilitation over punishment and has achieved a reoffending rate amongst released prisoners that’s 60% lower than the equivalent rate in the States, Moore would mention the notorious Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik.  He does, though again to reinforce his own argument.  He interviews the father of one of Breivik’s 77 victims, who refuses to call for a harsher punishment (like the death sentence) for his child’s killer.  That, he says, would be going down the ‘evolutionary ladder’ to Breivik’s level and betraying the tolerant Norwegian values that the ‘piece of scum’ had wanted to destroy.

 

I have to say that the clip Moore uses to highlight the niceness of Norway’s maximum security prison made me wonder if it was actually nice at all.  He shows a video made by the prison staff as a way of welcoming new convicts.  It has the warders singing We are the World, the ghastly saccharine anthem first recorded by USA For Africa back in 1985.  Surely a few minutes of exposure to that would reduce the most hardened criminal in Scandinavia to a quivering jelly.

 

Indeed, Moore’s simplistic ‘this-is-good-why-don’t-we-do-the-same?’ methodology is critiqued by at least one of his European interviewees – a Portuguese health expert who observes that you can’t just implement in the USA the Portuguese policy of not arresting drug users.  That’s because in Portugal there’s a back-up system of health and social-welfare measures to help people who use and abuse drugs.  Without such back-up, which doesn’t exist in the States, the relaxed Portuguese approach to drug use simply wouldn’t work.

 

Nevertheless, in some ways, Moore’s rose-tinted – some would say downright biased – glasses are what gives the film its charm.  Partly this is because daily we get subjected to downright biased accounts of what’s going on in the world from the right; from right-wing shock-jocks in right-wing news outlets like Fox News, the Spectator and the Daily Mail.  So it’s cheering to have the same thing coming from the left for a change.  Also, Moore’s approach gives the film an agreeable sense of optimism.  There’s bad shit happening in America, he’s saying, but hey, the Europeans have implemented humane solutions to these problems and surely it’s not beyond our ken to solve them humanely too.

 

Indeed, what makes the film most subversive is Moore’s habit, throughout, of observing that the Europeans’ solutions were all, at some time in history, devised by Americans and / or first introduced in the USA.

 

It’s telling that Moore felt no urge to visit the United Kingdom during Where to Invade Next to pinch any good, humane ideas from us; presumably because we have none.  And with the referendum when Britain decides whether to remain in or leave the European Union fast approaching, I can understand why Britain’s own tribe of right-wing idiots like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith are so desperate for us to leave it.  Horrid ideas are rife on the continent, like paid vacation time for workers, decent school meals, effective sex education, free tuition in higher education, prisons that rehabilitate prisoners and tolerant drugs policies that actually reduce the number of people taking drugs.  No wonder that bunch want us to distance ourselves as much as possible from the place.

 

© Dog Eat Dog Films / IMG Films

 

Tunisia’s revolution two years later

 

Are you a glass-is-half-full or a glass-is-half-empty person?  Due to my dour, rainy Calvinistic upbringing, when I look at a half-drunk pint of beer, I tend to see a chasm of depressing emptiness in the upper half of the glass.  I envy those optimistic souls who revel in the sight of the half-pint of beer still occupying the lower part of the receptacle.

 

I suppose being of a glass-half-full or half-empty disposition affects how you view the condition of Tunisia two years after the revolution on January 14th, 2011, when the population rose up against the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, against his hateful Lady Macbeth-type spouse Leila Trabelsi, and against her Mafia-esque family, and chased them out of the country.

 

Those who see the glass as being half-full will point to how the anniversary of the revolution two days ago was marked by the gathering in central Tunis of various groups who don’t necessarily like one another – supporters of Ennahdha, the supposedly-moderate Islamist party that dominates the current ruling coalition, supporters of the main opposition party Nida Tounes, members of the trade union movement the UGTT, and some Islamic extremists who were protesting outside the French Embassy on Habib Bourguiba Avenue about French military intervention against their adulterer-stoning, limb-amputating, shrine-demolishing, music-banning brethren in northern Mali – and yet, despite the potential for trouble, the day passed off relatively peacefully.  Surely, optimists will say, this indicates that Tunisian politics, post-revolution, have acquired a certain maturity and people are able now to voice conflicting views without coming to serious blows.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/01/14/despite-revolutions-challenges-free-speech-valued-on-anniversary/; http://www.tap.info.tn/en/index.php/politics2/4644-two-years-after-revolution-divided-tunisians-rally-in-habib-bourguiba-avenue.)

 

And although I’d spent most of January 14th out of Tunis, it was pleasant to arrive back there at about 5.00 PM and find the streets quiet and relaxed – folk making their leisurely way around the shops that were open, coffee-drinkers and shisha-smokers sitting outside the cafes and enjoying the last part of the day, which had been a national holiday.  And incidentally, I liked how the clock tower at the bottom of Habib Bourguiba Avenue had had its column swathed in the red of the Tunisian flag, whilst the flag’s white circle, containing the crescent and star, had been positioned over the clock faces.

 

Meanwhile, Ennahdha’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi is definitely in the glass-half-full camp, if the following article, published in The Guardian on January 14th, is anything to go by: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/13/tunisia-pursuit-democracy-arab-model.  Supposedly penned by Ghannouchi himself (though I suspect his daughter Intissar, who’s contributed to the Guardian in the past, had a hand in it), the article claims that “Tunisians are for the first time the true protagonists of their history, and are engaged in an experience that will be a model for democracy in the region.”  “The governing coalition of secularist and Islamist parties,” writes Ghannouchi, “…(d)espite their differences…  have clearly demonstrated the possibility of reconciliation, co-operation and partnership between moderate Islamists and moderate secularists, an important model for the Arab world.”  He concedes that Tunisia faces severe problems of economic underdevelopment and unemployment and insists that the solutions “to many pressing demands can only be found in long-term structural change”.  Embarrassingly, Ghannouchi’s article put the Tunisian revolution as happening in January 2010, rather than January 2011, although in a later Guardian edition this error was amended.

 

I’m afraid I don’t find myself gushing with the same enthusiasm that Ghannouchi apparently is, and it’s not wholly down to my pessimistic nature either.  One concrete reason is the continuing harassment, intimidation and disruption caused by the Salafist extremists whom Ennahdha has not done enough to curtail, either because of incompetence, or naiveté, or – if you’re a conspiracy theorist – silent complicity in what the Salafists want to achieve, which is a Tunisia run under Sharia law.

 

By an unhappy coincidence, the night before the revolution’s anniversary, Sunday 13th, I joined some colleagues for a meal in a restaurant at the top of the hill in Sidi Bou Said, which is a village a little way up the coast from Tunis.  Sidi Bou Said is probably the most picturesque tourist spot in the vicinity of Tunis and it has two main claims to fame.  Firstly, the gorgeous lights and colours of the locality have attracted many famous artists over the years, both Tunisian (Yahia Turki, Brahim Dhahak) and European (Paul Klee, Louis Moillet, August Macke).  Secondly, it is the site of an important Sufi mausoleum – indeed, Sidi Bou Said takes its name from a Sufi saint who settled there in the late 12th or early 13th century – and is a place of Sufi pilgrimage.

 

When I arrived at the restaurant on Sunday evening, everyone was talking about a fire that’d done severe damage to the mausoleum the night before.  The staff in the restaurant speculated that the fire could have broken out accidentally, though as Salafists have been targeting Sufi shrines, both in Tunisia and across northern Africa – they consider the veneration of saints in Islam to be blasphemy – it seemed more likely to be an act of vandalism.  Indeed, the authorities have since confirmed that what happened at Sidi Bou Said was arson. (http://mideasti.blogspot.com/2013/01/mausoleum-of-sidi-bou-said-destroyed-in.html.)

 

Before entering the restaurant I’d suspected that something was up, because the street outside seemed to contain a lot of people – too many, at that particular point in the evening, for them to be tourists – and they seemed to be hanging about rather than heading anywhere.  It transpired that a government minister was dining in a restaurant across the street and these people had gathered to protest – presumably about the destruction of the mausoleum and about Ennahdha’s seeming inability to prevent such carnage happening.  When I left the restaurant I was in a couple of hours later, the crowd in the street had become even denser and it took some careful manoeuvring to get through it.  I have to say, though, that it was probably the most genteel, most middle-class-looking crowd of protestors I’ve ever had to worm my way through and they gave off no vibes of impending violence.  One man had even come along to protest in a wheelchair.

 

However, after emerging from the far side of the crowd, I saw coming up the hill a squad of policemen.  They weren’t in riot gear, but they were armed with batons and one guy at the back was furtively carrying a gun for firing tear-gas canisters.  So it didn’t seem like a good idea to loiter in the vicinity.  (The crowd gave an ironic cheer when the cops came within sight of them.)

 

It wasn’t until the next day that I discovered that the crowd wasn’t on the street to make a protest about the burning of the mausoleum at all.  The government minister in the restaurant was actually Tunisia’s foreign minister, Rafik Abdessalem, who was entertaining some visiting dignitaries from the Gulf.  Abdessalem has been embroiled in controversy recently.  He’s been accused of using public money to fund some expensive (and possibly scandalous) stays in Tunis’s Sheraton Hotel.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/01/02/foreign-affairs-minister-embroiled-in-controversy-over-hotel-stays/)  The folk outside the restaurant were indignant taxpayers, determined to make Abdessalem aware of their discontent.  I heard that eventually Abdessalem and his guests had to be escorted to safety via the restaurant’s kitchen.

 

Incidentally, Rafik Abdessalem happens to be Rachid Ghannouchi’s son-in-law.  If I were a Tunisian, I might be starting to wonder if there’s an unwritten rule demanding that all my country’s leaders, pre-revolution and post-revolution, bestow nice favours on their in-laws.

 

A glass-half-full person would no doubt point to those protestors the other night in Sidi Bou Said and say it’s wonderful that citizens in the modern Tunisia aren’t afraid to let their politicians know what they think of them.  No longer are they willing to tolerate any crap from their ruling classes.  As a glass-half-empty person, though, I have to say that when I see such reminders of mindless Salafist vandalism on one hand, and of old-style corruption-nepotism on the other, my heart sinks.  Either because of incompetence the main ruling party here seems unable to stamp out the two spectres of religious extremism and corruption, or because of self-interest it seems unwilling to stamp them out.

 

However, to end this entry on a cheerier note…  Here are a few photographs of the achingly lovely Sidi Bou Said on a less turbulent day.

 

 

Rachid against the machine

 

In the past fortnight I have noticed two opinion pieces in the British media concerning the Arab Uprising.  Incidentally, the ‘Arab Uprising’ seems to have become the BBC’s new term for describing what had formerly been called the ‘Arab Spring’.  Presumably this is because the political and economic sunshine in North Africa and the Middle East has not been summery, or even particularly spring-like, since events in Tunisia kick-started the thing nearly two years ago.

 

One was by Gerald Warner, who is described in his now-defunct Daily Telegraph blog as ‘an author, broadcaster, columnist and polemical commentator’.  Some, especially those who have to grit their teeth whilst wading through his columns in the Scotland on Sunday every week, would translate ‘polemical commentator’ as ‘right-wing tosser’.  In his December 2nd column in the SoS, he used recent events in Egypt to pour scorn on liberals who’d dared to believe that the Arab Spring / Uprising would produce anything other than chaos, bloodshed and hardline Islamic oppression: “Old Middle Eastern hands could have told the starry-eyed Guardianistas that democracy on the Nile does not produce the same outcome as on the banks of the Thames.”

 

(http://www.scotsman.com/scotland-on-sunday/opinion/comment/gerald-warner-after-the-frenzy-of-the-arab-spring-comes-the-harsh-islamic-winter-1-2671175)

 

The other piece was authored by Mehdi Hasan, a journalist involved with the Guardian, New Statesman, Al-Jazeera Television and the UK edition of the Huffington Post.  One of Warner’s despised Guardianistas, Hasan is something of a punch-bag these days for Britain’s right-wing commentators – only rarely, it seems, does the Spectator columnist Rod Liddle write the name ‘Mehdi Hasan’ without preceding it with the words ‘the idiotic’.  A Hasan-penned article appeared in the New Statesman on November 29th, wherein he conceded that “recent events in Egypt don’t help those of us who desperately want to be optimistic about the future of the region”.  Nonetheless, he declared defiantly: “But do you know who I trust? The Egyptians. And the Bahrainis. And the Jordanians. And the Syrians. Whatever the season, spring or winter, they will have their freedom.”

 

(http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2012/11/ignore-neocons-i-refuse-give-on-egypt-or-arab-spring)

 

Now in my entire life I have never agreed with a single word that Gerald Warner has written, and if I ever did I would probably rush to the nearest clinic to check if I was suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.  I find it particularly ironic that Warner should mouth off about the horrors of Sharia law, considering that in the past he’s excused the murderous regimes of Franco and Pinochet on the grounds that because both fascist dictators were devout Roman Catholics (as he is) they couldn’t have been that bad.  The moral code Warner would like us all to live under might not go as far as advocating the death penalty for the sin of apostasy, but it certainly wouldn’t be a barrel of laughs either – I imagine it would be as much fun as living in Eamon de Valera’s Irish Free State circa 1935.  Still, the recent antics of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi have made my heart sink.  Morsi seems to have split his country down the middle with a giant political chisel in his haste to approve an ambiguously-worded constitution that would allow Islamists to make life miserable for Coptics, Sufis, pesky liberals and uppity women.

 

(http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/09/egypt-hopes-betrayed-mohamed-morsi)

 

Where does that leave the other country at the forefront of the Arab Spring (sorry, Uprising), Tunisia?  By a coincidence, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahdha, Tunisia’s supposedly moderate Islamist party and the biggest player in its post-revolution government, also turned up in the British media lately.  He was interviewed in the Guardian last week by the firebrand (though on this occasion noticeably deferential) left-wing journalist Seumas Milne.  Interestingly, Ghannouchi identified the ‘Scandinavian’ model as the one he was most eager for Tunisia to follow.  But don’t worry, all you devout Salafists out there, he wasn’t talking about Swedish permissiveness or Danish pornography (‘hot love and cold people’, as the saying used to go), but the Scandinavian economic and social model, where more than a little of capitalist society’s profits goes to a creating a decent safety net for the less well-off.  Folk in hard-pressed parts of Tunisia like Siliana and Sidi Bouzid would tell Ghannouchi that there’s a hell of a long way to go before the economic and social climate there is anywhere near as comfortable as it is in Scandinavia.

 

(http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/video/2012/dec/04/rachid-ghannouchi-scandinavian-economic-model-tunisia-video)

 

Meanwhile, it’s disappointing that Seumas Milne, whose past articles in the Guardian have included The Problem with Unions is they’re not Strong Enough, Five Reasons Public Service Workers are Right to Strike, The Return of Anti-Union Propaganda, The Right to Strike is being Threatened by the Courts, An Assault on Unions is an Attack on Democracy Itself, and A Generation on, the Miners’ Strike can Speak to our Time, didn’t ask Ghannouchi about why his government has fallen out so badly with his country’s trade union organisation, the Union Géneralé Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT).

 

The UGTT has been vitriolic about the Tunisian government and Ennahdha in particular.  It blames the country’s political leaders for the violent police handling of protestors, including trade unionists, who were demonstrating about the lack of jobs in the town of Siliana in late November and early December.  It also blames them for a recent assault on trade unionists in Tunis while they commemorated the assassination of UGTT founder Farhat Hached (killed in 1952 by La Main Rouge, a French paramilitary group seeking to prevent Tunisian independence).  The attackers were allegedly members of the League for the Protection of the Revolution, a faction supporting Ennahdha that had already been accused of responsibility for the death of opposition party Nida Tounes activist Lofti Naqdh back in October.

 

In fact, so incensed was the UGTT that it had planned a general strike in Tunisia today, December 13th, though the strike was called off yesterday after last-minute negotiations between it and the government.  As yet, I haven’t seen any details of what was agreed.  (Knowing the keen sense of rivalry that Tunisians have with the Egyptians, I can’t help suspecting that the UGTT and the government agreed to compromise only because they didn’t want Tunisia to look as hopeless as Egypt looks at the moment.)

 

Ghannouchi, and Ennahdha generally, must be feeling lonely at the top these days.  Not only have they earned the ire of the UGTT, but the ultra-religious Salafists – a group they’d spent the last year trying to be civil towards – have been saying beastly things about them too, most notably Nasreddine Aloui, the Salafist imam of Ennour Mosque. This followed trouble in late October in Tunis’s Manouba district, which resulted in two Salafists being shot dead during a confrontation at a local police station.  Interviewed on a live TV show, Aloui called for a jihad against Ennahdha, whom he denounced as puppets of the US government.  He even waved a kafin (a burial shroud) in the air while he called on young Salafists to sacrifice themselves in the upcoming war on Ennahdha.  Predictably, his call-to-arms didn’t impress government minister Samir Dilou, who happened to be appearing on the show at the same time.

 

(http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/11/02/imam-incites-salafist-youth-to-fight-ennahdha-on-live-television/)

 

Hindsight is both a wonderful and a worthless thing.  However, Ennahdha could have done things better in the year or so since it became the main party of power.  It could have paid less attention to political wrangling and bickering and focused more on the economy, which many would argue was the real driver for the revolution.  Poor folk – including many unemployed young men – living in the country’s interior rebelled against the old Ben Ali regime because they faced shockingly grim economic prospects.  Richer folk living along the Mediterranean coast rebelled because the Mafia-like way in which the country was run – if you had a business, Ben Ali’s gruesome in-laws, the Trabelsi clan, invariably came calling looking for a cut of your profits – whittled away the money you already had and deterred entrepreneurs from setting up new operations and generating new money.

 

At the same time, Ennahdha was over-lenient with the Salafists, whose behaviour gave outsiders the impression that the country was unstable, discouraging tourists from visiting and making potential foreign investors think twice about putting money in it.  Some viewed the appeasement of the Salafists as being part of a secret, sinister plot by Ennahdha to gradually move Tunisia towards being a hardline, Sharia-controlled state, and I’m sure Ennahdha politicians, as Islamists, would like to see Tunisians being a bit more Islamic than many of them are at the moment.  But I’m inclined to think this was more down to political naiveté and inexperience.  They tried to be reasonable towards the Salafists, assuming that they’d be reasonable back.  This didn’t happen.  The Salafists seemed to believe that having the right to express their opinions and to protest peacefully also give them the right to attack TV stations, galleries, bars and embassies.  And as Nasreddine Aloui’s TV outburst showed, they didn’t take it well when, finally, the authorities ran out of patience and began to meet force with force.

 

Wiser heads will say that a revolution is never an event and always a process.  One Tunisian acquaintance of mine, who’d been schooled in France and therefore knew all about the French Revolution (which is credited as lasting a decade, and led to Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration, the July Monarchy and two more revolutions in 1830 and 1848), told me: “We will set up a new government…  And if they are no good, we will throw them out and set up another government…  And if they are no good, we will throw them out too…”  Unfortunately, this fact has not been appreciated by some other Tunisians, who expected their living standards to rise the morning after Ben Ali and the Trabelsis had fled.

 

It certainly wasn’t appreciated in the West, where the modern news media is obsessed with catering for short TV-conditioned attention spans.  Every news item becomes a narrative, invested with a quick, easy-to-digest structure that has a beginning, middle and end, and receives a title as catchy and glib as a politician’s sound-bite.  Thus, what happened in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 became the ‘Arab Spring’ – an event, not the first stage of what was likely to be a long, gruelling and torturous process.  Liberal Western commentators were only too happy to hail it as the day that Arab societies shook off their oppressors and turned into democracy-loving, equal-rights-for-everybody Shangri-Las.  And when this didn’t happen, right-wing Western commentators were only too happy to pronounce the whole thing a catastrophic failure that would usher in a new Dark Ages to North Africa and the Middle East.  A lot of people would be advised to hunker down, study their history books and exhibit a little patience.

 

What happens next in Tunisia?  Elections are supposedly due next year and it’s conceivable that Ennahdha could lose power.  If they do, will they – and their fans in the League for the Protection of the Revolution – accept defeat gracefully?  Or will there be a massive schism and a potentially destructive stand-off like what’s happening in Egypt just now?  I think there are grounds for optimism, because Tunisia isn’t Egypt (and despite what the narrative-obsessed Western media has told people, the Tunisian Revolution is a very different beast from the Egyptian one).  Tunisians are better educated, their country (thanks to the myriad outside influences that have figured in its history) has always seemed more outward-looking and the Tunisian army – which would have a major role to play in solving a constitutional crisis – has, until now at least, behaved with integrity.

 

One thing is for sure.  The West should get over the idea that it’s sensible to support the likes of Ben Ali, Mubarak or even (the rehabilitated) Colonel Gaddafi on the grounds that “Okay, he’s a bastard, but at least he’s our bastard.”  Gerald Warner, for example, sings the praises of Mubarak, who “was the best friend the West had in one of the most tinderbox areas on Earth; he made uneasy peace with Israel, kept the lid on smouldering fanaticism and was a reliable ally.”  Maybe so, but he was still a bastard, a corrupt bastard who robbed his people blind.  As did Ben Ali, his wife and her kin.  And sooner or later, with such bastards running (and robbing) the show, the general population will rise up and get rid of them.  I often think that if, back in the days of the Blair government, Cheri Blair had been following Leila Trabelsi’s example, siphoning off Britain’s wealth and dishing it out to her relatives like the actor Tony Booth and the journalist Lauren Booth, incensed Daily Telegraph readers and Spectator readers would have been the first to storm the barricades.

 

Of course, if Western powers have been backing this or that dictator until their moment of departure, they needn’t expect any love from the population afterwards.  It might seem realpolitik to support a bastard, but surely it’s even more realpolitik not to support an eventual loser?

 

If anyone qualifies as an ‘old Middle Eastern hand’ that Warner mentioned in his quote at the start of this entry, it’s Robert Fisk, the Independent’s correspondent for the region.  He made a pertinent remark about the Arab Spring / Uprising phenomenon in an article a month-and-a-half ago: “It is a slow business: every reader of this article will be dead of old age before the Arab ‘revolution’ is complete.”  Mehdi Hasan may be optimistic about it, but I’m afraid he’ll have more than a few grey hairs before he finds out if his optimism was justified.

 

(http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/regardless-of-whether-obama-or-romney-wins-americas-relations-with-the-arab-world-will-change-8229921.html)

 

Robert and Rachid – friends again

 

Straight after my last blog entry about Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s main governing party Ennahdha, comes news that Britain’s Independent newspaper has apologised to him for publishing an interview with Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, who cast aspersions over Ennahdha’s funding.  He claimed that the Emir of Qatar had pumped money into Ennahdha prior to last October’s Tunisian elections.  Ghannouchi was incensed that the Independent printed Muallem’s claims – for one thing, had they been true, Ennahdha would have broken funding laws for political parties in Tunisia.  (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/corrections/rachid-ghannouchi-8203500.html)

 

What surprised me was that, so soon after this apology, the Independent should publish an interview with Ghannouchi: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/rached-ghannouchi-says-he-doesnt-want-an-islamic-state-in-tunisia-can-he-prove-his-critics-wrong-8225092.html.  What surprised me even more was that the interviewer was the Independent’s veteran Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, who’d conducted the interview with Walid Muallem that’d caused all the bother in the first place.  When he announced that he was suing the Independent, Ghannouchi had made a point of describing Fisk as an ‘honourable man’, but even so – I’d assumed that Fisk would be off Ghannouchi’s Eid al-Adha greetings-card list for a while.

 

Perhaps mindful of the bad blood that just passed between his newspaper and Ghannouchi, Fisk went easy on his interviewee and allowed him to do most of the talking.  However, I would like to have seen a little more debate and argument from Fisk (which he is capable of providing).  Ghannouchi claims that the attack on the American Embassy and International School on September 14th was carried out by common criminals and not by religious-extremist Salafists blaming all things American for the anti-Islam movie Innocence of Muslims.  However, this goes against what I read in one eyewitness report at the time – and the eyewitness was a pretty convincing one, the American School’s principal, who was on his premises trying to ward off the attackers.  (The kids, thankfully, were not in classes just then.)

 

According to the principal, the attackers came in two waves – first, religious extremists, who broke into the school grounds and made a point of setting fire to the school library, and then a shower of opportunist looters who ran in and helped themselves to computers and other school equipment.  Given the Salafists’ track record of attacking TV stations, art galleries and theatrical performances, it sounds wholly in keeping with their character that they should burn a roomful of books.

 

The principal’s story appeared in a news article on the site Tunisia Live Net.  Maybe I’m being paranoid, but I find it a little suspicious that the article has recently vanished off their website, so that it can no longer be used to contradict Ghannouchi’s claims.

 

Ghannouchi’s defence of the Salafists on September 14th is based on the following logic: “There is footage of people looting the contents of the US school and the embassy, including the canteen that sells alcohol in the embassy, and many of the attackers helped themselves to the alcohol. I don’t think these were Salafis.”  But just because there is evidence that one group – the ordinary criminals – was present, behaving unlawfully, it doesn’t mean that the other group wasn’t there and wasn’t breaking the law too.  In fact, the principal’s account describes how both Salafists and ordinary criminals broke into his school at different moments and did damage.  And indeed, Tunisia has just sent Salafist leader Abu Ayub to prison for inciting the embassy attack – which suggests the Tunisian judiciary disagrees with Ghannouchi’s belief that the Salafists were innocent bystanders.  (http://gulfnews.com/news/region/tunisia/tunisia-jails-salafist-leader-1.1093819)

 

Elsewhere, Ghannouchi peddles his usual line about why it’s necessary to take a softly-softly approach with the Salafists, to reason with them rather than penalise them for bad behaviour: “We understand democracy not just as a tool of government but also of education. I was in Paris in ’68 and these were revolutionary times.  But one of its leaders, Cohn-Bendit is now in the European parliament.…  There were examples of so-called extremists in Europe, the Red Army and Action Directe and through democracy they were able to be tamed and re-educated.  So why can’t we imagine that we also can tame our violent actors?  Through democracy, they will be slowly part of this democracy, rather than destroying it.  I always tell some of our friends in Europe that through democracy they were able to tame the beasts – so why don’t you give us time to do the same with ours?”

 

Well, there might be something in what he says, though drawing a parallel with Germany’s Red Army is unfortunate.  The main players in that particular group didn’t gradually mend their ways by virtue of being citizens in a democratic society.  They were punished, severely, and some of them didn’t live to see the end of their punishments.  Ulrike Meinhof, Holger Meins, Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader and Jan Carl Raspe were arrested in the early 1970s: Meinhof hung herself in her cell in 1976, Meins died on hunger strike in 1974 and the remaining three apparently committed suicide at Stammheim Prison in 1977 (though inevitably conspiracy theories about state executions abound).  Among the survivors, Christian Klar spent 26 years in prison and only got out in 2008, Brigitte Mohnhaupt did 24 years until her release in 2007, and Eva Haule was incarcerated from 1986 to 2007.  Horst Mahler spent a comparatively brief ten years in prison until 1984, but some would dispute his rehabilitation – he is now a far-right Holocaust denier, has described Adolf Hitler as ‘the saviour of the German people’ and was imprisoned again for eleven years in 2009.  None of this suggests ‘re-education’ and ‘taming’ through the miracle that is modern democracy.

 

And more to the point, even if the far future does contain a moment of magical enlightenment when Tunisia’s Salafists will start to be reasonable and stop behaving like intolerant, ignorant bullies – how many more ordinary Tunisians will have to suffer until then?  How many more women, academics, journalists, artists, foreigners and Sufis will have to put up with their antics while the Tunisian government treats them gently in the meantime?  And, while stories of Salafist violence continue to emerge from Tunisia, how many more tourists will elect to go elsewhere for their holidays, how many more foreign investors will decide not to risk their money in Tunisian business ventures, and much more will the Tunisian economy suffer?

 

In a democracy, any elected political party should be able to guarantee its citizens, all of them, that it will protect them from violence and intimidation in the here and now.  If Rachid Ghannouchi’s party is unwilling or unable to guarantee that, it isn’t fit to govern.

 

Was this Ghannouchi’s Romney moment?

 

And on the Salafists’ shit-list in Tunisia this week were… the Sufis.  After targeting TV stations, university campuses, theatre performers, artists, pub and hotel-owners, Americans and children attending Tunis’s American school, I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later the bearded, scowling ones in gowns and sneakers would get round to directing their wrath against those adherents to the more mystical and esoteric aspects of Islam.  On Monday night, Salafists broke into the Sufist Saida Manoubia mausoleum in western Tunis, drenched it with petrol and set it alight.

 

Sufis have suffered other incidents of Salafist vandalism in Tunisia lately.  On September 14th, when the local and international media were preoccupied with the violence being directed at the American Embassy and American International School in Tunis, Salafists also trashed a Sufi lodge on the Cap Bon peninsula (http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=54891).  And I suppose it was inevitable that all this would happen in Tunisia, as there has been a recent pattern of violence against Sufis by Salafists and other Islamic hardliners in the northern half of Africa – in Libya (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-19380083), in Egypt (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/apr/11/salafis-attack-sufi-mosques) and of course, courtesy of the Al-Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine group, in northern Mali (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/06/2012630101748795606.html).

 

Last December, I wandered into a photographic exhibition in a small gallery in La Marsa that was displaying big, framed colour and black-and-white pictures from the Tunisian revolution in late 2010 and early 2011, which of course heralded the Arab Spring — still happening in a drawn-out and bloody way in Syria.  One photograph showed a protestor holding up a placard emblazoned with the word TOLERANCE.  The placard spelt TOLERANCE with a Christian cross as the T, a CND symbol as the O, a Jewish Star of David as the A and a Muslim crescent and star as the C.  Unfortunately, thanks to the Salafists, tolerance in post-revolutionary Tunisia seems more and more like a pipe dream.

 

By an unhappy coincidence, on the night that the Saida Manoubia mausoleum was being razed, I was attempting to chill out in my apartment by listening to an album called the Rough Guide to Sufi Music.  Here’s an example of the mellow but hypnotic Sufi music that I was listening to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B1uZr7abbLY.

 

(c) Fethi Belaid / AFP / Getty Images

 

***

 

Meanwhile, in other Tunisian news, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the supposedly moderate Islamic Ennahdha party that dominates Tunisia’s current government, has been subjected to some embarrassment Mitt Romney-style.  A while back, you’ll remember, secretly-filmed footage of Romney emerged that showed him making a speech to a well-heeled audience and dismissing nearly half of the American electorate – i.e. the half likely to vote Democrat – as state-supported, tax-avoiding spongers who, frankly, weren’t worth his attention.  The footage captured one of those rare but precious moments when a politician dropped his phoney public-relations bullshit for once and said exactly what he thought.

 

With Ghannouchi, a video has been doing the rounds on social media where he talks about gradually Islamising Tunisian society, so that eventually Sharia law would be implemented and undesirable things like alcohol would be banned.  This goes against all the moderate, live-and-let-live language that Ghannouchi, for most of the time at least, has been spouting in public to reassure Tunisian secularists and liberals.  Is this, then, another moment of truth where we get, Mitt Romney-style, to see into the head of a politician and see the opinions that really lurk there, the opinions not judged fit for public consumption?  (http://news.yahoo.com/questions-rise-over-tunisian-partys-moderateness-094539943.html)

 

Well, Ghannouchi has gone down an awful lot in my estimation in the last year and a half, but there are a few things to be said in his (possible) defence.  Firstly, Ennahdha spokespeople have argued that in the video he was directing his comments at the country’s Salafists, in an attempt to mollify them.  By holding up the prospect of a more Islamic Tunisia, he was encouraging them to work towards achieving their goals in a sensible, gradualist way, rather than merely ostracising them and driving them into the arms of Al-Qaeda.  However, plenty of Tunisians would argue that, by being over-tolerant of the Salafists and turning a blind eye to much of the trouble they’ve caused recently, Ennahdha has actually done as much damage to the country as a few Salafist terrorist cells would ever manage.  The steady drip of news stories about Salafist protests, riots and rowdiness during 2011 and 2012 have scared away tourists, made foreign investors think twice about putting money in the economy and given Tunisia an increasing reputation for instability.

 

There is also a Tunisian tradition, stretching back into the bad old days of Ben Ali, of discrediting one’s political opponents by taking their comments out of context and editing them to make them sound far more extreme than they actually were.  And to be fair to Ghannouchi, the video does show evidence of tampering (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/10/11/secret-video-reveals-ghannouchis-vision-for-islam-in-tunisia/).  So perhaps this was a case of Ghannouchi being stitched up by his political enemies.

 

Finally, should we feel shocked that a politician in a supposed democracy has a long-term agenda, which even some of the people who voted for him or her on a short-term basis may be uncomfortable with?  It’s a common criticism of democracy that it only encourages politicians to think for the short-term, i.e. only as far as the next election.  But in fact, any politician worth his or her salt will think about how to change people’s values, beliefs and sympathies in a major way over the long term, and about how to effect those changes by bringing in new policies.  In other words, you subtly carry out some social engineering in order to create an electorate who will keep on voting you back into power.  Margaret Thatcher was just one example of this.  In the 1980s, she started to sell municipal housing off to the working-class people who’d formerly rented it from their local councils, and she sold to the general public shares in large utility companies that’d moved from government to private ownership, calculating that she’d eventually end up with a home-owning, shareholding electorate who’d be more inclined to vote for her brand of conservativism.

 

Of course Ghannouchi would like to have a more Islamic Tunisia (though probably not Islamic to Salafist levels of adherence) because such a country would be less sympathetic to secular parties and more sympathetic to his own one.  As a politician who can only wield power with the approval of a majority of his public – i.e. a democratic one – he would be daft not to want that.

 

***

 

Ironically, though I’ve just compared Ghannouchi to Mitt Romney, it’s perhaps another US presidential candidate whom he ought to be emulating – the youthful Bill Clinton in 1992, who successfully ran against incumbent president George Bush Senior with the memorable campaign slogan ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’  The past weeks have seen strikes and unrest in Tunisia’s hard-pressed regions – Gafsa, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid – that are worst stricken with unemployment (up to half of the eligible working population in some places).  In Sidi Bouzid, the security forces even had to escort the governor away from his office for his own safety (http://tap.info.tn/en/index.php/regions/1256-protesters-force-governor-of-sidi-bouzid-to-leave).  Ghannouchi and Ennahdha may come to rue their preoccupation with religion, because at the end of the day it’s not religion that puts bread on people’s tables.  It’s the economy — stupid.

 

Things have been made more complicated by the death during recent clashes in the town of Tataouine of Lofti Naqdh, the Secretary General of the Regional Union of Agriculture and Fisheries.  Naqdh was also a local co-ordinator for the opposition party Nida Tounes (Tunisia’s Call), which has been enjoying growing support in the current economic and political uncertainty.  Involved in these clashes was the League for the Protection of the Revolution, a faction with close links to Ennahdha, and Nida Tounes supporters accuse them of being responsible for Naqdh’s death.  (In an announcement that suggests the possession of psychic powers, the Ministry of the Interior declared that Naqdh had died of a heart attack, even before an autopsy had been performed on his body.)  Needless to say, in social-media-savvy Tunisia, Naqdh’s demise is currently all over Facebook.  (http://www.tap.info.tn/en/index.php/politic/1745-lotfi-naqdh-s-family-requests-new-autopsy)

 

The timing of this economic and political controversy is unfortunate, because this coming Tuesday, October 23rd, sees the first anniversary of Tunisia’s post-revolution general election.  Technically, the current government’s mandate should also end on Tuesday – but the new constitution that should have been delivered by now hasn’t been, and fresh elections are only being promised for June 2013, still eight months away.  Tuesday, then, is going to be a contentious date and protests, riots, civil unrest and general mayhem have been forecast.  And, once again, the hard-pressed people of Tunisia – ill-served by their political leaders – are battening down the hatches.

 

Two more articles of interest.  The first suggests that even if Ennahdha gets the biggest share of the vote in the next election – which polls suggest it might, though with a majority reduced from last time – Nida Tounes may be able to sneak into power through coalition with the smaller parties.  And, craftily, it’s been courting those small parties assiduously.

http://www.northafricapost.com/927-tunisia-managing-the-next-phase.html

http://www.demdigest.net/blog/2012/10/tunisia-on-the-brink-opposition-activist-killed-in-first-political-assassination-since-revolution/

 

Welcome back to Tunisia

 

It’s just over two weeks since I returned to Tunisia and a lot has obviously been going on during that time.  Here is a round-up of some of the stories that have made the news headlines recently.

 

DRINKING IS A SIN, SAY SALAFISTS (BUT WRECKING HOTELS ISN’T)

 

Sometimes it’s difficult enough drinking in the bars of downtown Tunis – thanks to the near-lethal miasma of cigarette smoke that fills them, and the shifty demeanour of some of the regulars, which encourages you to do your boozing with your back against the nearest wall, and the acrid taste of Tunisia’s national brew, the chemical-laden Celtia beer.  On top of those things, you don’t also want to contend with the possibility of an invasion by a hundred fat bearded blokes in smocks and sneakers smashing bottles and furniture and bellowing “Al-sharab haram!”, which means “Drinking is a sin!” in Arabic.  Though to be honest, I’ve been in a few Tunis pubs where this could happen and nobody would notice any difference.

 

Anyway, a day after I returned to Tunisia, the printed and online media were full of tales about how Salafists – oh, how I’d wanted to spend at least a few days back here without seeing that word in print again – had attacked an establishment called the Horchani Hotel in Sidi Bouzid, the town in central Tunisia that in late 2010 saw the first stirrings of the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring.  The Salafists burst into the hotel on September 3rd and ransacked its bedrooms and kitchens, as well as smashing up the hotel-bar and its contents.  This was the culmination of a four-month campaign whereby Sidi Bouzid’s bars had been forced to close down one by one because of Salafist violence or because of the threat of it.  The Horchani Hotel had been the last hold-out.  With it out of action, the town is now dry (http://observers.france24.com/content/20120906-tunisia-sidi-bouzid-runs-dry-after-salafists-destroy-last-remaining-bar-hotel-horchani).

 

Alcohol is something that Salafists don’t like drinking and naturally they think it isn’t right for anyone else to drink it, either.  So it’s awfully thoughtful and generous of them to take action on the public’s behalf like this, without even pausing to consult anyone first.

 

According to the September 5th edition of La Presse newspaper, which reported the incident with the headline SALAFISTS STRIKE AGAIN WITH IMPUNITY, the local forces of law and order didn’t bother to turn up until well after the damage was done – despite being informed that trouble was brewing a quarter-hour before the invasion took place.  The hotel’s owner, Jamil Horchani, also told La Presse that among the guests in his hotel at the time were a couple of Dutch holidaymakers who “through their interpreter, swore to never again set foot on the soil of this country, after the moments of terror that they experienced.”  Seeing that this story was also reported on the BBC news website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19481835) – it was the third most-read article there at one point – and it has since appeared on at least one holiday website too (http://news.cheapholidaydeals.co.uk/salafist-muslims-ransack-hotel-in-tunisia-because-it-serves-alcohol/), I suspect there will be plenty of potential tourists who, after reading about it, will decide not to set foot on the soil of this country at all, ever.

 

TUNISIAN GOVERNMENT TO PUNISH ARTISTS FOR DISTURBING THE PEACE

 

Two artists whose works were displayed this June at the Printemps des Art Fair in La Marsa are now facing prison sentences of up to five years for ‘disturbing the public peace’.  The exhibition led to riots by Salafists – yes, them again – who believed some of its contents to be ‘blasphemous’, and by criminals who’d opportunistically crawled out of the woodwork to do some looting and pillaging.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/09/03/campaign-to-defend-artists-accused-of-disturbing-public-order/)

 

The fact that the artists, Nadia Jelassie and Mohamed Ben Slama, are accused of being responsible for the disorder (which resulted in the imposition of a curfew for several days), rather than the Salafist / criminal mob who actually carried it out, is in itself mind-melting.  However, I fail to see what is so outrageous about their artworks anyway.

 

Jelassie contributed to Printemps des Arts a sculpture that dealt with the practice of putting people to death by stoning.  Though the fact may be uncomfortable for some Tunisians, stoning is still a feature of certain Islamic societies.  There have been recent reports of it happening in the northern Mali town of Anguelhok, which at the moment is controlled by militants acting under the jurisdiction of AQIM, al-Quaedi in the Islamic Maghreb (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/07/201273021254165201.html).  And here’s a link to a short film that Iranian-born comedian Shappi Khorsandi made last year for Amnesty International, highlighting the situation in her home country: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQGqerNE3MY.

 

Also displayed was a painting by Ben Slama, which was condemned for showing God’s name spelt out by configurations of tiny ants – allegedly, this reduced Allah to the level of puny insects that scurry around in the dirt.  But in fact the Koran depicts ants as being an intelligent species that even possess their own language.  (See http://www.quransource.com/miracles/en/hy/content.asp?f=scientific_80 and http://quran.tanyt.info/index.php?lang=en&sura=141)  And as I’ve said before on this blog, it seems only logical that artists should glorify God, if they want to glorify Him, by pointing out the wonders of His handiwork in nature, both big and small.  (As a little kid in Northern Ireland, I was made, Sunday after Sunday at my local church, to sing the children’s hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, which concluded with the lines: He gave us eyes to see them / And lips that we might tell / How great is God almighty / Who has made all things well.)

 

But what both works are guilty of is the fact that they encourage people to think a little.  And thinking, of course, is anathema to the Salafists, or at least to their most extreme, vocal and violent elements.  Unfortunately, it seems increasingly to be anathema to the Tunisian government too.

 

GHANNOUCHI SHAKES HIS FIST AT FISK

 

Meanwhile, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the supposedly moderate-Islamic Ennahdha Party that is the main component of the Tunisian government, has threatened to sue Britain’s Independent newspaper.  This isn’t because of anything the newspaper itself said.  Rather, it’s in response to an interview that the newspaper’s veteran Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, conducted with Walid Muallem, who is foreign minister to Bashir al-Assad, the mass-murdering and weasel-like president of Syria.  During the interview, Muallem claimed that in the run-up to last year’s Tunisian elections, Ennahdha was generously funded by the Emir of Qatar.  The reporting of this claim has clearly upset Ghannouchi.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/08/31/head-of-islamist-ennahdha-party-to-file-suit-against-the-independent/)

 

Now, as a trained journalist, I know that under British law (well, under English law at least – I did my training in London) you have to be extremely careful in repeating contentious comments made by your interviewees.  Printing such comments can leave your publication open to being sued for libel as much as the individuals who made them.  However, it seems mean-spirited of Ghannouchi to go after the Independent, one of the few British newspapers that doesn’t view the world through a belligerent right-wing prism, and in particular to go after Fisk, who is one of the very few British journalists who gives the Arab cause a sympathetic hearing.  Even Ghannouchi had to admit that he regarded Fisk as “a respectable man.”  So why not simply sue Muallem, a leading figure in a far from respectable regime?

 

Actually, I suspect that Ghannouchi is still sore at the Independent for an extremely prickly article that Fisk wrote about Tunisia back in February this year.  In it, he portrayed the post-revolutionary Tunisia as a hellhole of unemployment, censorship and rising religious extremism, something that’d been achieved with the connivance of the government.  At the time, I thought the article was overheated – for his research, Fisk seemed to have spent too much time hanging out with his Tunisian journalist mates, who were being unnecessarily paranoid and exaggerating their case.  Now, however, I’m not so sure.  Here is what he wrote: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/poisoned-spring-revolution-brings-tunisia-more-fear-than-freedom-7237464.html.

 

AT LAST – GOOD NEWS ON THE ECONOMIC FRONT!

 

However, one piece of good news – slightly good news – has appeared on the economic front here in Tunisia.  The unemployment rate seems to have plateaued and even gone down a little.  According to the country’s National Statistics Institute, in the second quarter of 2012, unemployment dropped from a hefty 18.1% to a still-hefty but slightly better 17.6%.  Evidence, perhaps, that following the revolution the economy is finally chugging into life again?  (http://www.silobreaker.com/unemployment-rate-down-05-in-second-quarter-of-2012-5_2265973905841717291)

 

Unfortunately, shortly after that figure was announced, this happened: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/09/14/at-least-3-dead-28-wounded-after-clashes-at-us-embassy-in-tunisia/.

 

And still it isn’t over.  Coming soon, to a French embassy near you…  http://world.time.com/2012/09/19/french-satirical-cartoons-spark-ire-in-the-arab-springs-birthplace/.  Oh, bollocks.

 

It’s quiet… too quiet?

 

Following the shenanigans last week in Tunisia, whereby protests against an allegedly ‘blasphemous’ art exhibition in north-of-Tunis suburb La Marsa led to street violence and the imposition of a series of curfews, common sense seems to have prevailed.  A mass post-mosque demonstration, planned for Friday by Islamist groups of varying degrees of moderation / extremism, was finally called off and, come Friday, very little happened.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/06/15/live-updates-june-15ths-call-to-protest/.)  As a consequence, the curfew was lifted on Friday evening.  It’d be reassuring to think that the common sense displayed then will continue, though to be honest I’m not holding my breath.

 

In particular, it’d be reassuring to think that the ultra-Conservative Salafists will now engage in some reflection and understand that, by creating a ruckus every time they observe something that offends their fragile sensibilities, they are making themselves greater and greater pariahs in Tunisian society.  Just about every Tunisian person I’ve spoken to lately has been heartily sick of their petulant dramatics.  Admittedly, it’s likely that they weren’t directly responsible for at least some of the mayhem that occurred last week.  When the real Salafists get annoyed at a perceived lapse in public morality and hit the streets to aggressively protest, there are plenty of opportunist low-life around who are all too happy to call themselves Salafists and join the disorder too – though rather than shout for the sanctity of the Koran, they head for the local Magasin General, smash their way in and make off with whatever catches their eye in the electrical appliances department.  I’ve also heard conspiracy claims about elements from the old Ben Ali regime, who’ve been crawling out of the woodwork, inciting and rabble-rousing and generally doing their best to make a bad situation worse in the name of destabilising and discrediting the new, post-revolution Tunisia.

 

Still, whoever the culprits may be, these crimes happen while the Salafists are agitating.  If they don’t like having the blame for everything laid at their door, they should try engaging their brains before they engage their mouths and their fists.

 

Meanwhile, I’m starting to feel a bit sorry for Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the moderate-Islamist Ennahdha party, who the middle of last week called on his supporters to join the protest march planned for Friday.  This was in spite of the Tunisian government, of which his party is the biggest component, calling for those protests not to take place.  Indeed, as Friday drew near, the government warned that demonstrations wouldn’t be allowed to take place – http://www.tap.info.tn/en/en/politics/15682-no-permit-for-fridays-march-interior-ministry.html.  I suspect there are now members of Ennahdha who regard Ghannouchi as being like a mad relative that families in old gothic horror stories had to keep locked in the attic for everyone’s safety.

 

At the same time, however, the reactions of several government ministers to last week’s events were shamefully mealy-mouthed – they criticised the rioters, yes, but almost in the same breath condemned Tunisia’s artistic community and talked about introducing new anti-blasphemy legislation.  (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/06/201261313558863257.html.)  Who, I wonder, would be responsible for analysing each new work of art and judging whether it is blasphemous or not?  The Salafists?  If that were ever the case, I think Tunisia’s art scene would be a bit on the wee side.  Understandably, Tunisia’s Union of Artists is pissed off about this and is calling for governmental resignations: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/06/15/union-of-tunisian-artists-calls-for-minister-of-culture-to-resign/.  Also, as well as being craven, the government’s attempts to be all things to all men doesn’t make sense from a law-and-order point of view.  Why give a bunch of religious hotheads at least part of what they want, if you’re trying to stop them from rioting?  Won’t they just riot again when they discover something else – tight jeans, beachwear, DVDs, booze, rock ‘n’ roll music – that raises their ire?

 

One section of Tunisian society that surely had the right to protest last week were the members of its tourist industry, which employs about 400,000 people directly and is believed to impact upon the livelihoods of nearly a million more.  In fact, at the weekend they did march on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, peacefully, calling for better maintenance of public order than the past few days have seen, so that foreign holiday makers aren’t scared away. (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/06/16/tourism-sector-demands-better-enforcement-of-public-order/.)  There’d been signs that the Tunisian tourist economy would perform better this year than it had in revolutionary 2011, especially as the current weakness of the Tunisian dinar against foreign currencies should be reeling in visitors.  God knows what damage has been done now, however.  It can’t even be argued – as had been argued on previous occasions – that last week’s disturbances took place in areas far away from the tourist sites.  For example, La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said are popular stops on the Tunisian tourist circuit and they both witnessed trouble last week.  (https://www.osac.gov/Pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=12541.)

 

(It’s ironic that Sidi Bou Said should be affected by unrest sparked off by a couple of paintings, considering that one of its biggest claims to fame is Paul Klee’s arrival there in 1914.  Klee was supposedly fascinated by the quality of the light and colours he found in the village.  I wonder if he’d have been quite so enamoured with the place if today’s crop of Salafists had been running around at the time.)

 

Still, in the midst of all this mess, I suppose there’s one big crumb of comfort for Tunisians.  At least they aren’t living in Egypt.

 

Tunisia – you’re still grounded!

 

We have now embarked on a third night of curfew in Tunis.  However, as tonight’s curfew started at 10.00 PM and will only continue until 4.00 PM, I suppose it could be described as a ‘curfew-lite’.  As I said in my previous post, the Tunisian government imposed the curfew following a couple of days of violence where extreme-Islamist Salafists – plus, no doubt, some criminal elements looking for an easy opportunity to do a bit of looting – rioted in response to an art exhibition that they deemed ‘blasphemous’ in the Tunisian suburb of La Marsa.

 

Government ministers have also responded verbally to the trouble and I’m afraid that what they’ve said has been very disappointing stuff.  They’ve castigated the rioters, true, but they have also talked about bringing in new anti-blasphemy laws to clip the wings of Tunisian artists in future, and talked about prosecuting the organisers of the La Marsa exhibition, and lamented about the immorality of modern, radical art generally.  (http://www.alarab.co.uk/english/display.asp?fname=%5C2012%5C06%5C06-13%5Czalsoz%5C919.htm&dismode=x&ts=13-6-2012%2011:19:10)

 

While describing the violence as ‘acts of terrorism’, the Minister of Human Rights, Samir Dilou, claimed at the same time that Muslims — including, presumably, the Salafists — could defend their values if they felt those values were being insulted.  (In Britain, various shitty right-wing tabloids like the Daily Mail insult my values every day of the week.  However, if I reacted by firebombing their offices, I would expect to be arrested.)

 

Meanwhile, the Minister of Culture, Medhi Mabrouk, denounced the artworks in the exhibition as blasphemous and called for Tunisian art not to be ‘revolutionary’ but to be ‘nice’.  While his words may be the result of an unfortunate translation into English, they seem to sum up what former Tunisian president and former tyrant Ben Ali might have told the country’s artists during his two-decade reign: don’t be revolutionary, just be nice.

 

In reaction to this, some of Tunisia’s artistic community staged a protest in front of the Ministry of Culture building yesterday, though the artists whose work appeared in the exhibition didn’t join them.  Salafist agitators have circulated their names and photographs on the Internet, many of them have received death threats and, for their own safety, most of them are now in hiding.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/06/13/angry-artists-respond-to-attacks-with-protest-in-front-of-ministry-of-culture/)

 

A few words about the exhibition and the artworks that have caused this disruption and mayhem.  I know at least two Tunisian Muslims who visited the exhibition in La Marsa, Printemps des Arts, before the Salafists got around to being offended by it and wrecked the place.  Neither of them felt there was anything on display that was actually offensive.  One painting showed Allah’s name spelt out in configurations of tiny black ants, which the exhibition’s critics have been ranting and raving about since the weekend, but I find it hard to understand how that is sacrilegious.  As a kid in Northern Ireland in the 1970s – a place that was overrun with religious extremists of the Protestant and Catholic varieties, a place where the theatrical debut of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar was greeted by mass protests in Belfast – I remember being told many times to look for the ‘glory of God’ in the natural world around me.  This was reinforced by a syrupy children’s hymn I was made to sing on countless occasions, All Things Bright and Beautiful, whose final verse went:

 

He gave us eyes to see them,

And lips that we might tell,

How great is God Almighty,

who has made all things well.

 

You could argue that the Printemps de Arts painting was merely telling us how God’s wondrous handiwork is visible in all things, even in the simplest organisms, such as insects.  However, it is probably a little difficult to discuss the interpretation of an artwork with some fanatic whose philosophy is ‘burn first, analyse later’.

 

Meanwhile, there is controversy about whether another ‘blasphemous’ picture, depicting the Prophet Mohammed on horseback, was actually in the exhibition at all.  The exhibition’s organisers claim that a mischief-maker falsely included it among the real exhibition pictures when they were posted on the Internet.

 

Tunisia’s conservative Islamist leader Abu Ayoub has called for a mass demonstration against these alleged blasphemies following Mosque on Friday – tomorrow – which no doubt the Salafists will enthusiastically attend.  However, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, the main player in the governing coalition, has also called on his party’s supporters to take part in the demonstration.  In a confused statement, Ghannouchi regurgitated the line that people should defend their religion against sacrilegious artists and urged people to march – alongside the Salafists, presumably – to ‘protect’ the revolution.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/06/13/ennahdha-leader-rached-ghannouchi-calls-upon-followers-to-protest-on-friday/)  If Ghannouchi had been in Tunisia at the time of the revolution, and not in exile in England, he might have been aware that the artistic community played a rather more prominent role in that revolution than the Salafists did.

 

Thus, the Tunisian government’s message to the Salafists seems to be: you can’t always get what you want… unless you riot, invade art galleries, vandalise property, ransack police stations, throw missiles at the security forces and generally cause such a kerfuffle that curfews have to be imposed on much of the country.  Then you’ll get government ministers singing to your tune and making life difficult for those people whom you took violent exception to.  Needless to say, this will encourage more trouble in a few weeks’ time when the Salafists find something else to be offended by.  And, for them, there are surely many more things in Tunisia that are offensive.  There’s alcohol, produced by the Celtia beer brewery and various vineyards, and sold in shops, pubs, hotels and clubs.  Around Tunis, at least, there are women who don’t cover their hair – who even dye it blonde – and some of the younger ones wear revealing skirts or tight jeans.  There are shops selling DVDs packed with ungodly Western decadence – films that promote sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and the idea that women can lead lives of their own.  There are Tunisian kids who wear heavy metal T-shirts.  And of course, there are tourist resorts full of filthy foreign tourists indulging in every possible form of vice.  Yes, all that needs to be stopped.  You should go out and riot again.  The government seems minded to agree with you, once you’ve generated a little noise.

 

Rachid Ghannouchi – a man who, until recently, I had a certain respect for – made some particularly mind-melting comments about how the current curfews are damaging Tunisia’s tourist industry, coming as they have at the start of the summer.  If he’s so eager to protect tourism, why is he urging his followers to march next to the Salafists tomorrow?  The Salafists’ antics are guaranteed more than anything else to wreck what’s left of the country’s tourist industry (which has lost a third of its revenue since the revolution).  I was in Scotland two weeks ago when Salafists went on a rampage in the north-western Tunisian town of Jendouba, burning bars and off-licences.  I saw this reported on the BBC.  Jendouba is nowhere near the tourist resorts, but your average tourist won’t know that.  Your average tourist will only get the impression that in Tunisia, if you try to sit at a beachside bar and drink a glass of beer or wine, you will be attacked by a religious fanatic with a beard and robes.  So it’s best not to go there for a holiday.

 

A few months ago, while the Salafists were campaigning for the introduction of Sharia law in Tunisia, I read an interview with one of their number who claimed that Tunisia didn’t need tourism anyway.  The local economy, said this Salafist, could run just as well on farming.  Well, that’s certainly the way things seem to be heading – and no doubt the Salafists would love to see the country become a place of ten million peasant agriculturalists, since hardship and poverty constitute the best recruiting ground for their brand of religious extremism.

 

Finally, with government ministers demanding that art should avoid giving offense, I wonder who exactly will draw the line between what is deemed to be offensive and what isn’t.  The answer, of course, will be those people who are most vociferous about being offended – the Salafists again.  However, with them acting as the country’s moral guardians, you can not only forget about art that tries to be revolutionary.  You can forget about Medhi Mabrouk’s ‘nice’ art too.  You can forget about all art, full stop.

 

Here’s a link to pictures of the Printemps des Arts exhibition that started this whole crisis, in case you’re wondering what the fuss is about: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/06/02/in-photos-printemps-des-arts/