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.