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

Tunisia struggles to define who the bearer of national legitimacy is. This is the last of a two part series. Read part one here.

The business world has also made its entrance in this field. “There is no allegiance except to Tunisia” (La wala’illa litunis), say immense billboards in all of Tunis. The formula is strange; the basis of the national flag is an implicit echo of the Muslim profession of faith (there is no god but Allah).

Red spots have invaded public space: bus stops and billboards of all sizes, with or without the slogan. This organized and institutionalized form of political posting, outside of an election campaign period, is striking. Also visible are the portraits of martyrs, printed in color, hanging here and there, on storefronts and on walls. Sometimes, a banner is used to commemorate the martyrs on the walls of a building. What strikes the viewer in this campaign is its ubiquity. It has replaced the advertisement in the city. Knowing Tunisia’s economic hardships and imagining the cost leads one to wonder: What does this mobilization mean and from where does it originate?

Since last January, the economic sphere has become increasingly present in Tunisia’s political landscape. Slim Riahi, leader of the young Free Patriotic Union liberal party (UPL), is known to have facilitated the meeting between Béji Caïd Sebsi and Rachid Ghannouchi in Paris in mid-August. Amongst the entrepreneurs, the communication experts and the media owners were on the front lines.

There is a legitimate desire to preserve the freedom of expression in the face of Ennahda’s “totalitarian” (although this is undermined by the condemnation of the director of the channel Ettounsia and founder of the production company Cactus, Sami Fehri, or through other accusations targeting journalists). This is part of the explanation. But also of note in this initiative is the presence of a Tunisian liberal lobby close to the opposition in social and regional proximity and even in family ties.

There is an emergence of a generation of “leaders” who want their economic success to benefit political activities in this new democratic context. Most of these entrepreneurs in their forties had started their career under Ben Ali and were then criticizing the corruption of the president’s circle, as well as the breaks that this predation represented for the smooth running of business.

After a period under the radar, those circles are now very much present through their economic control and the organized posting campaigns and through their support of Nida Tounes and its old leader, Béji Caïd Sebsi. The paradox of this new language of political communication is its “youth-oriented” display and its massive support of a leader in his eighties.

Berlusconization?

Four personalities are specifically emerging: Sami Fehri, a 41-year-old director of the channel Ettounsia and founder of the production company Cactus, in jail today; the Karoui brothers (Nabil, 48-years-old and Ghazi, 46-years-old), owners of the Moroccan channel Nessma TV and of Karoui & Karoui world, a communication company; and Slim Riahi, a 39-year-old businessman who has recently entered the communication industry (Essebah), owner of the Tunisian “African Club” football club, and founder of the Free Patriotic Union.

The Karoui brothers were at the center of the news when they aired the film Persepolis. Nabil presented his apologies after he was prosecuted for disturbing the public order. His trial was perceived as the first sentence impeding on the freedom of expression after the Ben Ali era. The two brothers had built their empire in the 1990s, between Algeria and Tunisia, by partnering with Silvio Berlusconi and the producer, Tarak Ben Ammar. They are today somewhat self-effaced, while welcoming the “La wala’illa litunis” campaign on their network.

Sami Fehri is also a media figure. He founded the production company Cactus in 2002 and is now partnered with Ben Ali’s brother-in-law, Belhassen Trabelsi, to fund entertainment shows and Ramadan soap operas (Maktoub). He founded his own television channel, Ettounsia TV, in March 2011. His legal troubles, which explain his imprisonment, were based on the suspicions that he had illegally used resources from the Tunisian national television. The channel he founded, today suspended and hosted on another private channel, al-Hiwar al-Tunisi, is considered to be the most watched channel in the country.

Slim Riahi is probably, among those few forty-somethings, the most politically engaged. He took part in the October 2012 elections as the head of his party, UPL. He developed a campaign to attract voters with a simple and efficient slogan, tied to an immediately recognizable gesture.

Riahi seems to possess a considerable wealth, collected thanks to his Libyan connections in the construction and oil industries. He is the typical businessman engaged in a political spectacle: at the head of a football club, investing in social work and press groups.

These young entrepreneurs and media figures project an image of a Tunisia that seems to be the core of their politics: “their Tunisia” is open to the world, liberal, accepting, and enterprising. “Their Tunisia” also coincides with the rise of the human rights of Tunisian woman, with the desire to maintain an open market, and the containment of the threats to order and security in Tunisia.

The UPL campaign, articulated around the word “Tawwa,” now adds a sense of urgency (campagne « tawwa ») — with characters supposed to represent Tunisia in its diversity, demanding the end of a state of servitude, of unemployment, of painfulness. All of this is presented with a brushed up visual aesthetic, contrasting the realities of the country.

The private television channels all together reflect a desire to give a voice to Tunisians, but also to convey a light, free, and modern image. The talk shows are modeled after their European or American counterparts, columnists interrupt the discussions in debates that are too long, comedies are slowly emerging (including a local version of the French program “Guignols de l’info,” today defunct).

The most popular shows (particularly the political ones) are immediately discussed and analyzed on social media and beyond. This combination of private television and social media creates an imagined Tunisia (an imagined community, in the words of Benedict Anderson), which becomes an implicit site of reference for the Tunisian urban elites. This implicit nation is fed by polls, consumer research, and takes little time to understand or analyze what brings, for instance, a great part of the population to support the regime in place or to completely desert political debates.

Epilogue: New Configurations?

In addition to the patriotic display, the Irhal movement emerged on August 24 at the doorsteps of the National Constituent Assembly of Bardo. It established itself as a movement of national salvation. The elected members claim to be the defenders of legality. Elsewhere, an advisor to the president claims “to preoccupy himself first with the common good.”

This is the political landscape that exists in Tunisia today: almost a staged and scripted landscape. However, beyond those cameras movements, we are waiting to see the emergence of new configurations, as the country seems to be suffocating under those who lay claim to it.

Is there a policy, which can include both an anti-Islamist modern elite — we have to remember that Ben Ali’s elites proclaimed their allegiances under an anti-Islamist pact — and a society that is more Islamicized? Is it the only fracture that needs to be emphasized? Are there not territories that are ignored and more patent inequalities?

In this game of symbolic appropriation (flag, anthem, “Tunisian” Islam vs “Gulf” Islam, language, etc), it is clear that binaries cover once more the essential: the growing poverty, indebtedness, the vulnerability of households, and the absence of a future for the youth. It is thus not surprising to see posters becoming the site of a more subtle and diverted struggle.

*[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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