Tunisia's Triumph

by by interview by Malcolm Burnley

One Tunisian street vendor self-immolated in December, and thousands responded in revolution; one dictator was disposed of in January, and millions responded at the polls. Hamdi Smaoui, a 19-year-old Tunisian, witnessed them both: he was a photographer and videographer during the revolution, and on October 23, he voted in his country’s first fair democratic elections since the ouster of Zine El Abibdine Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia for 24 years. At a primary school in Soukra, a city the size of St. Louis, Smaoui waited five hours in line with friends before voting for The Congress for the Republic (CPR), a center-left and secular party which finished second in the results.  90 percent of registered voters—3.1 million Tunisians—cast their vote in the elections; the Islamic party Ennahda took 90 of the 264 total delegates.

Most observers, including domestic and foreign officials, heralded the elections as a success and hope they’re indicative of further fair elections in the Middle East.  Tunisia not only sparked the Arab Spring, but has since shown the most lasting democracy and civic stability. Unlike in Egypt, where waves of violence have ebbed and flowed since Mubarak’s overthrow, and Libya, where violence never ceased, Tunisia has remained peaceful up through its elections.

Smaoui says that Tunisians are eager to continue building infrastructures post-Ben Ali. After a tumultuous winter, he has returned to his studies of computer science at a university in Bizerte, Tunisia. Though Smaoui has previously applied for a US green card, and still harbors hopes of citizenship abroad, he spoke glowingly of his first taste of democracy at home, speaking in English, his third language (Arabic and French). The interview was conducted in exchanges over Skype and Facebook in the week after the election.

The Independent: Describe Ennahda, the winning party in Tunisia’s first election.

Hamdi Smaoui: It got 90 seats.  Ennahda is an Islamic movement but I want religion out of politics.  It will cause problems in the future.  I don’t want my country to turn into Iran or Afghanistan.  Most of the time, they say they are a modern party and they say they have moderated.

Indy: What do detractors not like about Ennahda in particular?

HS: You know that Ennahda is an Islamic movement, so for example, alcoholic drinks are not allowed in Islam.  And personally, I drink like a pirate. (he laughs out loud) I don’t like that the night clubs and bars will be closed, but recently the leader of that party said on a TV show that these things will not be changed and everything will remain.

Indy: Who are Ennahda’s supporters?

HS: Most of the people who support that party are old men and women. Maybe they pity Ennahda and its members because Ben Ali hated them and jailed them for many years, so they think it is the most separate party from the old regime of RCD (Ben-Ali 's party).

Indy: Why did you vote for CPR?

HS: I chose CPR because the leader, Moncef Marzouki, is a man of politics and a smart and good person. He opposed Ben Ali from a long time ago. The CPR has a good agenda, with programs to reform the judiciary, health care, education, and also fight financial corruption.  Its ideology is closest to our thoughts and I trust them.

Indy: The New York Times ran an article describing Ennahda’s overwhelming financial advantage. Was that apparent?

HS: They spent the most money.  And I think they got this money from the United States or Qatar.  My friend told me that the leader of their party had coffee with John McCain. But France does not support the party.  Sarkozy said that “we will watch this party closely, to protect against human rights...”  I am worried about this party.

Indy: Do you think the US is looking for oil or a stake in the new government?

HS: Tunisia was always a partner of the US because Tunisia is a strategic site in north Africa, near Europe and the Middle East.  Many US aid personnel and many businessmen have started to invest in Tunisia.  But for me, I love the USA and am pleased about that.  God bless America and Tunisia.

Indy: In your opinion, why has the Tunisian revolution transpired more peacefully than others in the region, like Egypt?

HS: Tunisia was the first revolution and was the better one. We made it more peacefully and in fewer days.  It started on December 17 and Ben-Ali ran from the country on January 14.

Indy: Is there a country you believe you should model your democracy off of?

HS: It is important for us to make our own democracy.  We have our own characteristics and properties.

Indy: What are those specific Tunisian characteristics?

HS: Tunisia is a very small country and the population is about 11 million. 70 percent of the graduating students are unemployed and we don't have enough jobs.  Most Tunisians don't care about politics and religion, they only care about making money and spending money.  We are very peaceful, we want to live comfortablly, we want the entertainment and the good life.

Indy: How do you compare Ben Ali (now in absentia in Saudia Arabia) to Muhammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak?

HS: I don't care about Ben Ali any more, but I still care about the money he stole from us, a huge amount that is still frozen in Swiss bank accounts. Ben Ali was a little bit better of a person than Mubarak and Gaddafi, and he didn't kill as many people.  However, I don’t think Gaddafi deserved to die like that.

Indy: Do you believe the state of Tunisia will be better off in 20 years?  Will democracy last in North Africa?

HS: I think Tunisia will be better in the future, and trust me, Tunisia will be the only democratic country in North Africa. Most people in Libya are less educated and illiterate.  Egypt is complicated by how many religions they have and how aggressive they are. In my opinion, religion should be out of politics or there will be critical consequences.