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Story Publication logo October 22, 2011

Tunisia's Surprising New Islamists


Image by Ellen Knickmeyer. Tunisia, 2011.

Ellen Knickmeyer has been traveling the Arab world from the first weeks of the revolutions to tell...

Media file: tunisiarev.jpg
Hamza ben Abdallah and Sofiene Dhouibi standing in front of the palace of the ousted president - the palace is in the distance, between them. Image by Ellen Knickmeyer. Tunisia, 2011.

Mohamed Bouazizi's mother, Manoubia, has left her cramped home, with its faint smell of sewage, in the central Tunisian farm town of Sidi Bouzid -- the town that gave birth to the Arab Spring. She has moved to an apartment provided for her near the Tunisian capital, a more convenient location for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other visiting world dignitaries wishing to pay their respects.

Feyda Hamdi, the Sidi Bouzid policewoman whom townspeople say relentlessly hit up Manoubia's son for petty bribes from his fruit business, confiscated his wares, and even slapped the 26-year-old when he couldn't or wouldn't pay, remains in Sidi Bouzid. Long out of prison for her run-in with Mohamed on a frosty morning last December, Hamdi is off the police force, having claimed that the stress of her time behind bars disabled her.

The ex-policewoman is spotted alone from time to time in Sidi Bouzid now, a controversial figure, shunned by many in the flat, brown town.

So say two other residents of Bouazizi's hometown, Sofiene Dhouibi and Hamza ben Abdallah, two polite and thoughtful university graduates, both now 25, whom I first encountered in Sidi Bouzid in January. When I met Sofiene and Hamza, the protests sparked by the Dec. 17 confrontation between the overweening small-town policewoman and the hard-working and overwrought young fruit vendor had just toppled Tunisia's president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Sofiene, then two years out of college and still unemployed, quietly seething with anger about his predicament, was showing up in late January for what were still daily protests. He had taken part from the first minute of the demonstrations, which began in Sidi Bouzid the day after Bouazizi, raw from his encounter with the policewoman and despairing of ever earning a living in dignity under the corrupt Ben Ali, set himself on fire in front of a city building. The morning after Bouazizi's act, when it came time to confront the police, Sofiene threw some of the first rocks hurled during the protests that have rocked the Arab world over the subsequent 10 months.

"I can honestly say I was among the first 50" people protesting, Sofiene says now, when I meet the two young Tunisians over dinner to catch up. He's not bragging, but he is watching to make sure I write down the number correctly. "I am proud, because I am one of the 50," he explains.

Hamza, a friend of Sofiene's and an ex-classmate of Mohamed, had just graduated from university the day that he drenched himself in a liter and a half of gasoline and struck a match. But hailing from a better-off family and with better prospects than either Sofiene or Mohamed, Hamza had stayed on the edge of the first protests. His role was to post some of the first Facebook videos, which slowly spread the word about an uprising in a concrete, whitewashed plaza in a tomato-growing town near the edge of the Sahara. By no means stars in the revolutions, Sofiene and Hamza nonetheless were among the pivotal first few dozen of the millions in the Arab world driven to act.

The uprisings that began in their hometown have since removed a third Arab dictator from power, sparked warfare with a fourth stubbornly clinging to power (Yemen), and suffered daily massacres by a fifth (Syria).

I'm back in Tunisia, though, because I want to find out whether the revolutions have started to address some of the causes of the anger among the younger generation of activists. I'm back, too, because Sofiene had told me over Facebook that both he and Hamza had finally found work.

I was glad to hear about Sofiene's job in particular. In January, he had told me about the thousands of jobless, young Tunisian men who, hopeless, were taking the dangerous step of paying smugglers to take them across the Mediterranean to Italy in search of work.

I'd worried that Sofiene, desperate, would try the same route. But without connections, Sofiene finally found a job the hard, drab, safe way: A software company had finally answered one of the two years' worth of email applications he had sent, and offered him a job in Tunis. Hamza had also found a job, as an engineer, and moved to the capital as well.

We met up again in Sidi Bou Said, a cobblestone resort village a few miles outside Tunis (not to be confused with their hometown, Sidi Bouzid). Sofiene, already thin, was leaner. Hamza, relying on restaurants for his meals now that he was working, was huskier.

Standing on a Sidi Bou Said promontory Hamza pointed out Ben Ali's snowy-white villa on the adjacent cove and made clear that he and Sofiene were among the lucky ones. With most tourism and much investment scared off by the revolutions, the number of jobless in Tunisia is believed to have doubled, Hamza told me. (A study led by an economics professor at the University of Tunis estimated that unemployment had increased 143 percent in March 2011, soon after the uprising, compared to the same period a year before.)

Unemployment, one of the main complaints of protesters around the Middle East and North Africa, was cited as the main concern of 60 percent of Tunisians surveyed in a poll ahead of Sunday's first post-revolution elections. On Oct. 23, Tunisians will elect members of an assembly to write a new constitution.

Even before the revolutions, the Arab region had the highest rates of youth unemployment and overall unemployment in the world.

When Sofiene joined the first protests in January, rolling a police car out in the street to be burned, he did so because, "I didn't have employment, I didn't have a job. I didn't have anything to lose," he says now.

These days, though, Sofiene is a textbook example for those who argue that job creation calms unrest. Sofiene still tries to get out to the political protests in Tunis on weekends when he can. "Other times, I can't. I work, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,'' he says, a little apologetically. "I don't have time off."

And one thing I quickly realize this visit that I hadn't picked up on in January: Sofiene and Hamza, both of whom dress in typical Western clothing, are both pretty religious.

I make some comment about Salafists from next door in Libya supposedly setting up shop on the Tunisian island of Djerba. "We're Salafis!" Hamza exclaims, smiling uncomfortably for a moment.

"Well, not Salafis, but..." Hamza trails off. He talks briefly of how he went to the Libyan border to lend humanitarian assistance during the revolution, and that he found the Libyan Islamists very good people. He and Sofiene tell me they support Tunisia's en-Nahda party, an Islamist group forced underground by Ben Ali. The party is expected to do well in next week's vote. Few other parties have succeeded in organizing and gathering support.

As elsewhere in the Arab world, the joining of forces to rise against dictators momentarily blurred the lines between secularists and fundamentalists. But months later, in countries where the dictators no longer rule, the distinctions are growing sharper every day.

Religion hadn't come up in Sidi Bouzid when I was there in January, other than Mohamed Bouazizi's mother crying when she told me she feared for the soul of her son, as a suicide, if he had truly intended to burn himself to death that day.

On this visit, faith is a recurring topic.

When I first asked Sofiene to meet for dinner in his district of Tunis, he flatly refused. Later, he explained that it would have been impossible, in his working-class neighborhood, for me, as a single woman, to eat at a restaurant with him and Hamza.

That evening, after the three of us sat down at a restaurant in languid Sidi Bou Said instead, Hamza quietly sought assurance in an aside to me that I wouldn't be ordering alcohol. And before I got down to proper interviewing over our meal, Hamza seemed driven to fill any silences by discussing the differences between Christians and Muslims.

After dinner, Hamza and Sofiene took me to a bluff to show me Sidi Bou Said's panoramic view of the Mediterranean. As we stood talking, we realized that a steady flow of young Tunisian couples was approaching the scrub-covered bluff in the dark. The young men and women edged their way out of sight just downhill, holding hands.

We watched, all taken back, to differing extents, at the numbers and openness with which young Muslim Tunisians were using the heights of Sidi Bou Said as a makeout spot.

As we gazed, and Hamza and I talked, it became clear to me that comparatively liberal Tunisia will be facing some rollback.

Ben Ali's predecessor in office outlawed polygamy, assured women equal rights in divorce, and legalized abortion. Hamza, watching with Sofiene and I as young Tunisian lovers assiduously helped each other in and out of the scrub, told me that Tunisia had also legalized prostitution. (In fact, prostitution is technically illegal in Tunisia, but brothels nevertheless have been allowed to operate with government sanction, according to a U.S. State Department report. Under Ben Ali, Tunisian girls who wore head scarves were sometimes ordered to take them off if they wanted to attend school, the same report says.)

Too much, clearly, for a democratizing Muslim country today. Newspaper reports claim that fundamentalists burned down at least three brothels after Ben Ali fell.

Still, for self-proclaimed political Islamists, Sofiene and Hamza's prescriptions were fairly mild. The civil rights of all would be respected, especially those of women, Hamza told me. For example, he said, it was a sin for women to leave their hair uncovered, but Tunisia would leave that for God, not the government, to punish.

Tunisia would try to push a little bit more strongly in the world, do more on behalf of Palestine, they told me.

"And if a regime's not good, we can get rid of him," Hamza says. "We are tired of dictatorships."


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