Will Tunisians Rue Their Revolution?

Opinion

By John R. Bradley

Published February 02, 2011, issue of February 11, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It is somewhat ironic that Tunisia would be the catalyst for revolutionary upheaval in Egypt and, quite possibly, for future uprisings in the Arab world. Tunisia’s founding father, Habib Bourguiba, turned his nose up at Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism, emphasizing instead his own country’s uniqueness and forging close ties with the West. And, as I have repeatedly found over the years by way of their lukewarm response to my distinctive Egyptian dialect, ordinary Tunisians don’t have much love for Egyptians, who are seen as hypocrites for their pervasive, but often superficial, displays of piety.

The real irony, however, is that as a result of its Jasmine Revolution, staunchly secular Tunisia may increasingly come to resemble contemporary Egypt, a deeply conservative country that, over the past decade, has so enthusiastically adopted Wahhabi-style customs that, in some areas, you might as well be in Saudi Arabia.

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions do, of course, provide a ray of hope for Arab pro-democracy activists. But amid the jubilation we should not forget that the corollary of greater democracy in the Arab world until now — from Morocco to Yemen, Bahrain to Palestine — has been a greater role for Islamist movements.

For all that their media-savvy spokesmen — and they are always men — pay lip-service to democracy and pluralism, Islamists in both countries share similar goals and outlooks. Ultimately, they are guided by the belief that a return to the fundamentals of Islam is the solution to everything. They want to Islamicize their societies, if necessary from the bottom-up or, if given the opportunity, from the top down.

Already, the Muslim Brotherhood — with its long-cherished goal of establishing an Islamist state in Egypt — is seizing the moment to increase its sway. Meanwhile, Tunisia’s long-suppressed Islamists are returning from exile and being freed en masse from prison. (The Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders had to break out of their Cairo prison.)

Before the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia was one of the most liberal and secular societies that the Islamic world has ever known. The veil is banned in public institutions, polygamy is outlawed and mosques are shuttered outside prayer times. Tunisia is the only Muslim country where abortion is legal, and frank sex education is compulsory in high schools.

How long will this secular order last? Presumably not very long if Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the newly un-banned Ennahdha Islamist movement, has anything to with it. To mark Ghannouchi’s post-revolution return to Tunis, secular women demonstrated against any move toward a more Islamist way of life. They have good reason to be worried, because the Islamists are likely to find post-revolutionary Tunisia highly fertile ground.

In the past few years, more Tunisian women have been donning the veil, and recordings of recitations from the Quran could, as never before, be heard blasting from taxis, restaurants and local shops. That trend is likely to deepen as Tunisia’s young people despair of a quick fix — democracy or no democracy — to the country’s economic woes (which are not dissimilar to the problems currently facing many European countries).

In both Egypt and Tunisia, the revolutions are certain to make their countries’ economic problems far worse in the immediate term. Tourism is the lifeblood of both economies, and Westerners have been evacuated en masse. The once-peaceful Tunisian and Egyptian streets now have a reputation for being filled with gangs of thugs and looters. It could take years for both countries to salvage their images. Foreign investors, the second pillar of both economies, are re-thinking their plans, stability always mattering more to them than democracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood will have a much easier time cashing in on the resulting misery. Exploiting the room given to it by the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood has already transformed the religious face of much of Egyptian society. If the Brotherhood gains sway over the government — whether by seizing power or, more likely, joining in a new governing coalition — it may find itself in a position where it is able to put the the institutional heft of the Egyptian state behind its agenda.

Tunisia’s Islamists will find the going tougher, but the momentum is on their side. Two decades ago, during the last elections in which they were allowed to partake, Islamists may have won as much as a third of the vote. Although it might seem like sacrilege to utter such a thought now, secular Tunisians may one day even come to regret that their revolution ever took place.

John R. Bradley is the author of “Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and, most recently, “Behind the Veil of Vice: The Business and Culture of Sex in the Middle East” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.