Coffee Hour: on A Week in Tunisia

Photo credit: Malek Khadhraoui

Click to listen to Chris and Mark in a wrap-up exchange on the less-than-revolution in Tunisia (30 min, 12 meg)

We’re lifting a ritual from the Cairo novels of the late great Naguib Mahfouz. Almost every day in the home of the patriarch Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, there was a gathering of sons, daughters, cousins and strays for gossip, score-keeping, reflection, sometimes an argument. So my fellow traveler and co-podcaster Mark Fonseca Rendeiro (from Newark, N.J. and now Amsterdam) are mulling impressions out loud of a week Tunisia coming up on the second birthday of the revolt that began the “Arab Spring.” What came of that breathtaking blaze of human solidarity for, as they said, “freedom, dignity and work”? A parliament dominated by Islamists, eventually. And along the way: an explosion of palpable popular pleasure in free expression — in music, satire, film-making, and liberated political debate. Tunisia will vote again on the “Islamist tendency” in presidential elections next year. In the meantime, Mark is observing that in every argument we heard about religious activism in Tunisian politics, there was never a peep about “the rise of a religion that hates the West.” There was deference rather to the recovery of observant Muslims from 30 years and more of cruel persecution. We met Tunisians waiting hungrily for the “real revolution” yet to come, but they can’t be typical even of the left. I asked the acerbic political cartoonist Nadia Kiari if she’d ever felt Tunisians were reenacting 1789 in Paris. “I hope not!” she roared. To her the French Revolution called to mind Robespierre, the Terror, probably Napoleon’s manhandling of Egypt, “and Sarkozy,” she exclaimed — of the French president who stood with Ben Ali two years ago against the burst of freedom in Tunisia. What if Tunisians wanted something less than a revolution, and got it?

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