TUNIS (the North African capital formerly known as Carthage) — Farida Ayari is giving us an assertive reporter’s first-draft history of the great Arab event that began in Tunisia two years ago — the “Arab Spring” of fond memory, or the “revolt,” or the “upheaval,” as Amin Maalouf calls it. “What revolution?” Farida Ayari responded when we first met. “The revolution is still to come.”
I am hearing three big themes in her story:
(1) It was a workers’ revolt, as usual in Tunisian politics over the past century, before it was a middle-class cause. It began deep in the hinterland when the abused street vendor Mohamed Bouazizzi set himself afire in the town of Sidi Bouzid. Then and ever, unrest ran deepest in the farming and phosphate mining regions far from Tunis and the coastal resorts.
(2) Islamic activists, who’d been victims of the equal-opportunity oppressor Ben Ali, captured the parliamentary elections on the strength of organization, sympathy for past suffering, and assumptions of moral purity now compromised by cronyism and incompetence in office. The presidential election next year is up for grabs, but liberal democrats (who learned their head-over-heart politics in Europe) have still to find a resonant language in local politics.
(3) Ethnically diverse, relatively modern, moderate and prosperous Tunisia is not a “miniature” of the Arab world, “but maybe we are a laboratory.”
If we succeed to set up a genuine democracy which will be reconciled with a moderate Islam (considered as a personal thing for each person, with the liberty to worship or not worship) and if we install democratic values and an economic system that will be distributing wealth equally among people in the region, then I will say: yes! If we succeed then the whole Arab world will succeed. If we fail, it is finished for the Arab world for many many years. You will have a fundamentalist wave from Tangier to Tehran, and forget democracy. If fundamentalism takes root, it will be a dark age for the region for many, many decades.
Farid Ayari in conversation with Chris Lydon in Tunis, November 10, 2012.