Tunisia Adrift Two Years After Dawn of Arab Spring

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By Marc Champion

Here's what happened in Tunisia on Monday, the second anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the suicide that lit the fire of the Arab uprisings.

Several thousand people gathered to mark the day in Sidi Bouzid, where Bouazizi killed himself on Dec. 17, 2010 after his cart was confiscated by a local official. The anniversary gathering was, according to local reports, a subdued event. People expressed impatience at rising unemployment and the lack of improvement in living standards since Bouazizi's death.

Also on Monday, the Seychelles detained and then released Mohamed Sakhr el-Materi who is the son-in-law of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and who was convicted in absentia of corruption last year by a Tunisian court. El-Materi left the Seychelles for points unknown, and Tunisian officials were upset because they wanted to extradite him.

The same day, Alcatel-Lucent, a telecommunications equipment company, said it would build a fiber-optic broadband network with local wireless communications provider Tunisiana, over the next four years.

In Sidi Bouzid, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, a former dissident and exile in Paris, told the crowd to be patient. “I understand your legitimate and illegitimate anger and fear," Marzouki said, according to a report on Tunisia Live. "But we are dealing with an aftermath of 50 years of dictatorship that we cannot fix in 12 months only."

In Tunis, at the Lodge, a restaurant that could be in any European capital, blogger Lina Bin Mhenni, author of "A Tunisian Girl" bog, said she was "disgusted" with events since the revolution. The country was going backwards under the government ruled by Ennahda, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and radical Salafists who seemed to have risen from nowhere, she said. She doesn't look at Facebook much any more because opponents use it to make death threats against her and insult her.

In the lobby of a hotel in central Tunis, some colleagues and I met with Mouldi Ali Mujahid, the leader of Al-Asala party. I asked him what kind of Tunisia he would like to see grow out of the revolution. Like President Marzouki, Ali Mujahid was a former exile in France, but he is a Salafist.

His answer was that as an Islamist, he wants to see an Islamic state -- one in which the laws of the land would be adjusted in line with the Koran (which he said he knows by heart). It would not, he said with unfeigned disgust, be "medieval" like the Taliban's former regime in Afghanistan. He said he was there during the Mujahideen war against the Soviet armed forces in the 1980s. Asked if he fought, he smiled and said to draw your own conclusions, adding that he hadn't been back since.

Ali Mujahid said he is a non-violent Salafist, as most are, and that he tells more radical co-religionists to go fight on the frontlines in Syria if they want to carry out armed jihad, not in Tunisia. (He also said it's a kind of test, and they don't ask to go.) Nor does he want to see Tunisia become like Saudi Arabia. "I know the Wahabbis," he said.

No, his model is Andalucia, the Muslim-ruled state that was based in southern Spain around the turn of the millennium and became a center of medieval learning and religious tolerance. He could not come up with a more current model to follow.

So in all, the anniversary was a fairly typical day for Tunisia, unmarred by the sporadic strikes and violence that have rocked the country lately. Salafists will not rule Tunisia, and the current confusion may one day be seen as natural. But the country seems adrift.

(Marc Champion is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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-0- Dec/18/2012 15:36 GMT