Tunisian National Interest: Serving Whom? (Part 1/2)

Tunisia struggles to define who the bearer of national legitimacy is. This is the first of a two part series.

Tunisia is currently experiencing an intense hyperbolization of political sentiment. The glorification of the flag originates from multiple factors. Since the first demonstrations following the fall of the regime, the use of the flag has been a sign of a sort of national communion. Today, it has become an object of struggle.

Who bears true national legitimacy? Is it the party selected through elections? Is it the opposition party, which claims legitimacy of a different order? Which territories? Which generations? It is difficult to situate and include all its components. Such a comprehensive listing could stretch indefinitely.

One Mission: To Save the Arab Revolutions

Several corresponding factors could explain the current flame of patriotism — all of which could be summarized by a feeling of urgent necessity to “save the Tunisian revolution.” Often described as the “the last hope,” this feeling gives many Tunisians a mission they perceive as quasi-sacred. As François Hollande said during his speech to the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly in July 2013: “You carry a hope that extends beyond the Tunisian people, well beyond the Arab people.”

The responses to this alleged task, which has uncertain contours but is imagined by all as a “national duty,” are diverse. In one sense, it gives rise to a Tunisian particularism, most often expressed with formulas such as “Tunisia is not Egypt” (or not Syria, or not Qatar, or not Europe), or by the absolute: “Tunisia is unique.” 

Depending on its interlocutors, this discourse is constructed on the idea of the peaceful nature of Tunisians, on the legacy of Habib Bourguiba (and his influence on demography, for example), on the education, or even on the climate. Sometimes, it is simply the insignificance of the country that is claimed, ironically, as an opportunity: Tunisia, so little, could not be coveted. Thus, it must be possible to succeed in revolution.

Despite unfurling the flags and proclaiming an ostentatious national pride, the success or failure of this mission is often paradoxically perceived as independent of the will or the action of the Tunisian citizenry. For the enunciation of a national duty to hold firm, it often feeds on the impotence of international conspiracies, geopolitical theories, and suspicions that weigh on the political class in its entirety, among others.

This discourse sometimes even goes so far as to cast the Tunisian Revolution (the same one that it declares necessary to save) as an invention (be it occidental, American, Israeli, Qatari, Saudi) so as to reshuffle the deck of cards in the region. The elections in October 2011 fed this suspicion: they must have been manipulated to give power to the Islamists, who are allied with the United States (or others, depending on the rhetoric).

These arguments must not be taken lightly. They are signs of the installation of a long-lasting regime of uncertainty that has continued to intensify and thus engulf the country in a climate of fear, giving way to the feeling that “anything could happen at any time.”

A final sense in which this national duty is imagined­, invoked more by those in politics, is the “sacred union” that certain “events” may require. These events are disturbing notions that cannot be forcibly characterized as political or economic crises, but rather as a state of enduring global crisis. Nonetheless, the political consensus is proclaimed constantly, like an incantation, especially as tension and opposition is high between the different political paths. 

Additionally, it is based on a voluntary confusion between patriotism and national unity. The latter assumes a state of war and requires the silencing of opposition. The former, if it requires the respect of country and nation, does not necessarily imply the silencing of disagreement and opposition within them.

The Struggle of the Flag

This patriotic exaltation must be placed in its context of the diffusion of fear, which different channels of information and political discourse instill. This fear, which was believed to have fallen like a wall after the 2011 revolts, has taken another form: it is no longer the fear of the regime, of the state, that makes what Béatrice Hibou called “forced obedience.”

It is a more diffused fear, which combines the difficulty in obeying or respecting hierarchy (tainted civic capability, visible dysfunction of public services) with a disorderly panic in the face of real or imagined danger. Certain people invoke the “Egyptian scenario” as an eventuality like a scarecrow or a barely veiled threat — others cite the Salafist peril or a more general insecurity (pedophilia, crime, etc).

All of this has driven political actors to prioritize saving Tunisia and its revolution. However, this unanimous display of patriotism hides a ferocious struggle for national legitimacy. Each actor has his/her own idea of Tunisia. The central question becomes where is the national interest and who is best serving it today? Each then returns to a supposed treason in a new national and widely remarked bipolarity (Ennahda/anti-Ennahda).

One of these groups attests that the Islamists — including Ennahda — have never been in the service of the Tunisian nation. They are but marionettes whose strings are between the hands of some international actor, whether it is the Muslim Brotherhood or the jihadists. The information that is published on Tunisian news sites circulates rumors that suggest, for example, Rachid Ghannouchi’s visit to Istanbul in the middle of July could have been an occasion to participate in a secret meeting held by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The meeting was said to have been for the purpose of electing the president of the political bureau, the number two in power. Meant to offer proof that the meeting was held, videos from an Emirati channel show people moving about in what resembles the hall of a hotel.

Faced with these suspicions of infidelity to the nation, the Ennahda party members countered with a national display differentiating themselves from the Salafists associated with the black flag. The replacement of the national flag with a Salafist flag at Manouba University on March 7, 2012, and the indignation it provoked, marked the national spirit.

The young student, Khaoula Rchidi, who was used as an intermediary, was at the time solemnly thanked and decorated by the president of the republic. 

Since then, the mobilization of politicians in the current government insists on the legitimacy of the Islamist party in power and its national character. The reference to the Turkish example is used to show that the Tunisian Islamists, like their Turkish counterparts, do not seek to export their model, but only to instill it in a national context. 

The latest demonstrations that followed the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, on July 25, 2013, are of a distinctly red color, while the pro-Ennahda demonstrations following the assassination of Chokri Belaid (February 9, 2013) were composed of the flags of the party: white with a blue logo. At these demonstrations, the Salafist flags were also present en masse. The partisan image of these gatherings was replaced by the centrality of national legitimacy and its color: red. 

*[Note: Read the final part on October 27. This article was originally published by Jadaliyya.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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