Is Tunisia out of the woods?

Sunday 04/12/2016

Revolutions are a risky business. All out­comes become possible. Sometimes a new hopeful social order is born and other times the revolution turns into an ogre feeding on its own children.

Saying this should not be construed as a vilification of revolutionary effort. It is not exemplified by popular uprisings but lies in the daily grind to bring about change far from the spotlight. Socrates was executed for his dogged effort to introduce dialectic reasoning in the public sphere. That attempt was the least exciting but the most revolutionary in human history. Using a quiet effort in the Socrates manner, a few scores of people can in time succeed in planting the seeds for a new society, far from all forms of hullaballoo and with no need for heroics.

I sometimes think that too many selfies have ruined the true recent revolutionary efforts by turning them into spectacles. It would be interesting to see how true that observation is in the case of the Syrian revolution.

In any case, we must admit that in human history failed revolu­tions way outnumber successful ones. All we have to do is look at the number of failed revolutions during the Roman empire or the Muslim empire or in modern Europe. Think of the failed revolts by slaves, serfs, workers or students. Successful revolu­tions seem to have been the exception rather than the rule. This is not good news really, but that is unfortunately the undeni­able truth. Even in the case of successful revolutions, rare are the ones that have not been followed by years of terror and hell. Revolutionaries, reformists and conservatives know this very well. This is why the fundamental rule of politics is to avoid revolu­tions at all costs.

Sometimes revolutions are a necessary evil, especially when facing a megalomaniac dictator such as Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, for example. They may become the last resort when people’s rightful demands are met with artillery and genocide. Reaching that point of no return simply signifies that hope has disappeared from the horizon.

In the case of some of the revolutions of the “Arab spring” in Libya, Yemen and Egypt, failure seems to have been inevitable. But will the Tunisian experiment turn out to be the exception? The Tunisian revolu­tion is the only one in which hope in achieving the much-desired democratic transition was not lost.

The preparations for transi­tional justice in Tunisia can be seen as a sign that Tunisians are hopeful to escape paying the heavy price of revolutions. Yes, there were times of insecurity, especially under the Troika government, when extremist Islamist ideologies were gaining ground and proclaimed “Revolu­tion Protection Leagues” were trying to take hold of the street. The hundreds of Tunisian youth fighting with the Islamic State (ISIS) are the product of those times. But the leagues have been dissolved and extremist ideolo­gies muzzled.

Three factors played key roles in ensuring the success of the Tunisian experiment. The first is Tunisian women. Since the first days of the revolution, they were at the forefront. In 2012 university student Khaoula Rachdi chal­lenged extremist Islamists as they attempted to replace the Tunisian flag on top of the university building by the ISIS black banner. Tunisian women were also able to undo all attempts during the Islamist-led government to take away their rights.

The second factor is the army. The Tunisian Army was and continues to be a truly national army. Whether fighting terrorists and smugglers along the borders, keeping order on the streets or dispensing aid in times of crisis, the Tunisian Army kept its distance from politics, even behind the scenes, and left civilian affairs be decided by political parties and civil society.

The third factor is the reformist legacy of Habib Bourguiba, the first president of Tunisia. The first thing political Islam tried to do in Tunisia was wipe it out from the national memory. It failed miserably. Tunisians clearly distinguished between Bourgui­ba’s legacy and that of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s second president who was toppled in 2011.

In reality, denigrating Bour­guiba’s legacy amounted to denigrating the Tunisian Islamic tradition, a legacy of tolerant and reformist scholars. The plan was to create an identity crisis among Tunisians and then fill the void created with imported ideologies. But it was not to be. Women, the army, a vibrant, educated youthful civil society and a strong modernist legacy in Tunisia put those plans to rest once for all.