Are the Arab Springs an Islamic Renaissance? Random thoughts after a busy election day..

Since the very morning of this first “after-election” day, the atmosphere in Avenue Bourghiba has been “worried”. Even without official numbers and with results not released yet, the majority of journalists, artists and intellectuals that overcrowd the beautiful outdoor cafes and “terrasse” all along the Avenue have been very worried by the rumors that circulated since yesterday night. Ennahdha, the Islamist party, has probably won the elections, reporting the majority of votes, hence the most representatives at the soon-to-be first Tunisian Constituent Assembly.

I have spent all the morning sitting with these people, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and discussing about the future of Tunisia. Different people, whom I met in different cafes along the Avenue, repeating the same sentence as a broken disc: “I `ve never thought Tunisian people could be like that”.. “It`s like looking at yourself in the mirror and discovering a side that was always hidden” ..”We didnt know our own people. It`s just like having to get up after a nightmare”..”Is this the feeling we were hiding behind  decades of dictatorship?”…”I really dont know who my fellow Tunisian citizens are”..

I remember to have felt exactly this way some years ago (and more than once) in my own country. “How can my own people be like that? Didnt` I know them? what`s wrong with them?”..Maybe, a better question after so many years of “Berlusconism” would be: “what`s wrong with me? and why I didnt understand what was going on?”.

I spared this question to myself and to my poor interlocutors and took a cab for another meeting in a different area of town. Speaking with the driver in Tunisian dialect only (which I force myself to understand, even if I`m too used to “bilad as-Sham”) I discovered that he didnt vote. I asked him why and he answered “kullu kif kif” (they are all the same)..plus “I dont know for whom I should have voted..it`s so confusing,there are  too many parties” and, again, they are “kullu kif kif”. Then he added:” the youth did the revolution..we watched..let them vote..let us watch the results of their vote”.

At the meeting, again sitting with journalists and intellectuals working for a famous local radio station, same situation as Avenue Bourghiba. Maybe, with a better sense of humor: some of them started to address to the female presenters -all gorgeously dressed and beautiful- that “in a very close future you will have to wear hijab (the veil) or maybe niqab (the integral veil)”. The males were exorcising the “Islamists` treat” by saying: “at least, I will marry four of you!”. Melted with the humor there was a certain feeling of defeat, indeed. A bad feeling of misunderstanding, as if your own child had done something completely wrong, completely against your beliefs.

Another taxi, driving me to another area of town. This time, the taxi driver, knowing when I was heading to - Nessma, the TV station which few days before the elections broadcasted the French movie “Persepolis”, consequently generating street protests (see my previous post on it)- shouted at me:” why are you going there? they are against our religion, they have offended  Islam!”. Then added :” I voted for Ennahda, I am a Muslim and my identity is Islamic. I want this to be acknowledged by our new democratic country”. The guy was struggling to make his life: feeding children, sending them to school. He just wanted a simple life, and his Islamic identity to be reflected by the new Constitution.

After the Tunisian-dialect-only cab ride I`ve  finally reached the studios of the “incriminated” TV station. Here, lots of young people, I would describe them not exactly as intellectuals but basically a globalized youth, was commenting the elections (partial) results, again with a mixed feeling of irony and defeat. All secularized Muslims, all fearing an “Islamic state” to erase their “secular culture” (I will here translate with “secular” something which in Arabic sounded more as “civic culture”, thaqafa madaniyya).

Then the first guests came. They were supposed to join a live debate on the elections. None of them was from Ennahda, they were all coming from defeated parties or from parties which gained something, but not in “pole position”. I asked the show producer why Ennahda was not there, and he replied that they had invited them, but hadnt heard back, probably as a “counter-reaction” to the “Persepolis” issue.

A lady from Takattoul, one of the parties which actually did not (apparently) go bad at the elections, started to challenge the other guests on the Ennahda identity issue. “What did the Tunisian people choose? did they choose a model of society or a political party?“. Then she added: “The old distinction between we (the secularists or leftists) being more “pro-West” and them (the Islamists) being more sharqiyyn (Oriental) has been proven wrong. All the “Westernized” Tunisians, those who live in Europe (particularly in France) have voted for Ennahda”. And then: “We have been defeated cause we do not know how to work with the people, we do not know how to reach out to them. Ennahda knew how to do this, and had social links with the more disadvantaged classes. They exploited this knowledge. But they are a party, just a political party which has learnt how to use this skill”. “They are not a movement, not a model for society, they are just a party like the others”.

The live show after this first one was more interesting, as it featured some high level intellectuals as the sociologist Hamadi Redissi. He was very outspoken vis-a`-vis Nessma TV itself and said: “The Persepolis affair could have lowered the Islamists` appeal or actually helped them to gain more. The latter is what actually happened. There was a popular counter-reaction to a channel which was trying to “show the people the possible bad consequences of choosing Islam as the fundamental of the state”. The people felt offended and this ended up to raise Ennahda popularity”.

But when some of the other guests started with the “self-pity” phase, Redissi was very rational in reminding everybody that: “the independents failed..the marxists failed..the nationalists failed…even the constitutional parties failed..but the reasons for which Ennahda is winning are not only related to religion.There is a refusal of the past in the popular vote, there is the frustration for the financial crisis, too..there is the identity issue, whereas Islam becomes an identity mark. Then there is the Nessma factor, which has a marginal role but, still, it`s a part of this chain”.

One of the guests echoes: “yes, and there is the huge gap between the countryside and the city..the gap between hundreds of intellectuals and millions of people. Religion ended up to be a culture among cultures”.

This sentence -“the gap between hundreds of intellectuals and millions of people” – resonates in my head as I reach my hotel, back to Avenue Bourghiba. There is a festive atmosphere and I cannot prevent myself from asking to the hotel staff -in Arabic only- if they are happy for the elections results (still temporary even now at 1am). Yes, sure they are. “The entire hotel staff voted for Ennahda” says the concierge and adds “my neighborhood -in the banlieu of Tunis- has all voted for Ennahda, so everybody is celebrating”. The situation is so surreal, if I only think of all these (hundreds of) people, sitting here outside, discussing politics, sipping their beers and blaming on their fellow Tunisians who did not understand how civilized the country was supposed to be. I`m trying to count how many hotels are here in town, and picturing myself a scene where all the staff in each hotel in town is celebrating while all the intellectuals that are sitting in all the cafes are actually complaining (and I`m wondering: what about the cafes staff, will they all be like the hotels staff?).

The concierge smiles at me as for calming down an hypothetical fear that I should have -as a Westerner- :” we wont oblige everybody to wear the veil! We just want a little bit of order and of dignity, we want respect for our traditions, family, religion..”.

I`m not scared at all and I trust his words completely. But I cannot prevent myself from thinking that his discourse towards order and security and tradition resembles so much to a discourse that I`ve been hearing for years in my country, and it was not coming from an Islamist party. They all resemble each other, it is a small world  and even people who seem not to have anything in common might have tons of stuff indeed.

But then I contradict myself again and think: if we have let somebody as the weirdest mix ever -a separatist party, a former Fascist party and a self-declared liberal party which is indeed protecting their “little club” interests- govern together, despite the conflict of interest, the legal issues, the unveiled corruption etc why should we be scared of a party that has been banned for years and has not done anything yet? Let them govern, then let the people decide again..That`s the bitter-sweet rule of “Democracy”.

Then I cannot prevent myself from thinking, as a leftist, as a secularist: there is something wrong not in them, but in us. We have moved away from the streets, retired in our comfortable lounges where we had talked philosophy, watched arty movies, discussed fine intellectual questions..and what`s left? somebody else has taken the streets. This should not lead to a complain, rather to a reaction. Dear fellow Tunisians, please do not complain. please be aware of what you have done, you have run the first democratic elections in your country. This is a hell of a lot.

We cannot pretend, us who were on the ground, not to have been aware of the fact that the Arab springs will be the Islamic Renaissance (Nadha, in Arabic..and it`s not by chance). We cannot pretend not to have known that a democratic Middle East is gonna be an Islamic Middle East, at least at a first stage.

And, in the very moment I`m writing this, I get a news alert from Al Jazeera saying that Ennahda is prepared to make an alliance with some of the other parties, even if secular.At the end of the day, politics is politics, no matter if  we are in Ennahda`s new Tunisia or in Berlusconi`s  old Italy.   

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One thought on “Are the Arab Springs an Islamic Renaissance? Random thoughts after a busy election day..

  1. Pingback: Tunisia, da Ben Alì all’Islam (moderato?): i dubbi in Rete : Quotidiano Online

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