I last travelled to Tunisia almost 25 years ago. Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali and his regime had forbidden me entry; the Swiss authorities warned that: “an accident might happen at any time.” Now, as my flight winged south, my feelings swung between pleasure and apprehension. Pleasure at returning to a country I’d come to love and appreciate; pleasure, most of all, at visiting the very place where mass uprisings and public courage had first unseated a dictator and brought down his regime.
But I was apprehensive as well: Tunisia had made great strides toward democratic transition but tensions between secularists, Islamist reformers and Salafists remained strong and conflict-ridden.
The basic issues have not changed, and nothing has yet been definitively won in the struggle for transparency, democratisation and the end of political cronyism and corruption. Still, in the Arab world, Tunisia enjoys pride of place, and its role has been and will be decisive in the years to come.
My return to Tunis took place at a crucial juncture in the nation’s history: I wanted to see, to listen and to learn, while delivering the only message that seemed to me appropriate in today’s period of transition: that of responsibility, of listening in a spirit of reason, and of reconciliation.
In Tunis I heard voices of sincere concern, of women and men shaken by doubt, moved by emotion and yet fearful. What can the future hold for Tunisia, trapped in the throes of conflict between secularists, Islamist reformers and Salafists?
Meanwhile others, behind the scenes, were doing their utmost to manipulate these fears, depicting Islamists of whatever stripe as dangerous fundamentalists certain to plunge the country into the dark depths of theocracy; at the opposite extreme, Salafists painted all secularists ‘opposed to religion’ as stooges of the West, dangerous by virtue of speaking French.
Both categorisations as simplistic and dangerous as they are clear-cut; both are recorded, reported and broadcast in the media. They grab the headlines, and create a mistaken impression of Tunisian reality. For, in listening to what people, from the elite and from students to the man on the street, it was clear to me that most Tunisians of both genders are not caught up in this unhealthy attempt at polarisation; that they have a reasonable and open attitude toward what the country’s future identity should be.
The elections to the Constitutional Assembly provided the first indicator. The three principal parties all agree that secularists and Islamists should work together, and that the future of their country depends on it. Tunisians, despite foreign and domestic attempts at manipulation, remain vigilant, and continue to demonstrate a political awareness of which the Arab world is sorely in need today.
Still, people today are impatient; domestic political currents and foreign interventions are attempting to muddle the picture. I met numerous Tunisians who seemed slightly disoriented, who did not know what to think, who to believe in and to follow. Not only does the situation in Tunisia remain uncertain, but also developments in other countries that found themselves at the heart of the Arab Spring provide little cause for optimism.
Just next door, Libya totters on the brink of civil strife; Egypt remains in the hands of the military, a veil of silence has fallen over Bahrain, while in Syria civilians are shelled daily and die as the world looks on. What can be expected when yesterday’s would-be allies today become suspect in their calculations and their true intentions? What is Iran and Lebanon’s strategy in the region, and in Syria; what is Saudi Arabia attempting to achieve; what role is Qatar playing? What will be the outcome of the face-off between Russia and China on the one hand, and the western countries on the other hand, given the crucial importance of the Israel-Palestine conflict? What will be the impact of these tensions on relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims? These are critical questions, and Tunisia, which on February 25 hosted a conference on Syria, finds itself at the centre of these uncertainties and of the events that will have a decisive impact on its own future.
Instead of suffering the consequences of regional developments, Tunisians can wield the tools necessary to create their own destiny as the vanguard of the popular uprisings that have galvanised the Arab world. Tunisia’s responsibility, and especially that of its political and intellectual elites, is enormous.
All the protagonists of the nation’s social, cultural, economic and political life must work to overcome useless and counterproductive polarisation, and to find solutions to domestic, regional and international problems.
The political system must be reformed, and the judiciary — and the independence of magistrates — restored. Pride of place must be given to the fight against corruption, cronyism and insecurity. Tunisia has discovered its endemic poverty and a failed and discriminatory school system.
The newly elected representatives must make it their priority, and go beyond pitting Arabisation against instruction in French. Language instruction should be oriented toward mastering several instead of imposing an exclusivist policy in the name of an inward-turning and reductive approach to Tunisia’s cultural and linguistic identity.
On both the regional and international level, Tunisia must find new partners in today’s multi-polar world. It is not simply a matter of playing China or India against France or the United States, but of taking advantage of multiple alliances in North Africa, in the Maghreb as well as in the Middle East, or of managing the Israel-Palestine conflict that must remain a central issue.
The uprising, which was nationalist in nature, must now adopt an international and universal dimension, both in terms of the opportunities it holds out, and the values it defends.
On my return flight, I meditated on Tunisia’s historical moment. The tasks ahead are immense, and no one can evade their complexity. Lucidity, determination and hope continue to be the most reliable weapons in the hands of a people determined to build its future.
I encountered numerous women and men of great intelligence, alert and wise: in times of trouble and doubt, they constitute the promise that something indeed can be changed in North Africa and the Middle East. The fact of this promise is proof that something has already changed. Even as I write, Tunisia is on the move, heading toward a future that remains wide open.
Tariq Ramadan is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. He is the author of Islam and the Arab Awakening.