(This article first appeared in the vol. 11, #5 May 2011, issue of the Public i , the newspaper of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center.)
The Tunisian uprising that deposed dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali is of enormous historical significance for the entire region of North Africa. A recurring and resounding call during the uprising has been for dignity and freedom. "Dignity," as the word has been used by the participants and transmitted through the media, is complex and encompasses a wide range of individual and societal factors.
One key aspect of dignity is that it requires that people be recognized as human beings with an inherent right to individual and collective expression. It also means that such expression is taken seriously by others and has the potential of affecting one's conditions of life. Thusly understood, dignity could only be manifested within a civil society in which people can form political parties and labor unions, have access to media outlets not controlled by the state, and peacefully demonstrate in public.
None of these was possible under the regime of Ben Ali. He monopolized the public space with his party, the RCD, which had a similar status to that of the Communist Party in China. Media was strictly controlled by the state. The national labor union was subservient to Ben Ali until his regime the regime was weakened to the point of falling. At the regional levels, however, some of the unions were early supporters of the young people who protested the poverty and lack of jobs in the rural areas. Protests resulted in imprisonment, torture, injury and death for many; clear violations of dignity.
Dignity also has material requisites. While the political and economic elites in the coastal cites were living extremely well, poverty was a very serious problem, particularly in the interior. Unemployment was very high for people at all educational levels. Those who graduated from secondary schools or even universities often faced the choice of living off of their less educated parents or leaving the country to search for, usually very low-paying, menial jobs in Europe. Life was especially hard for the families of those who were killed or imprisoned after participating in protests over these very conditions.
It could be said that the Ben-Ali regime respected the dignity of women to a greater extent than it is respected in many other North African or Middle Eastern countries. According to an article on Aljazeera.net, women, "represent 26 per cent of the working population, half of students, 29 per cent of magistrates and 24% of the Tunisian diplomatic corps" ("Tunisian Gender-Parity 'Revolution' Hailed 4/21/11). Under the dictatorship, men could not legally take more than one wife, abortion was legal, and the dress of women was unrestricted by the state.
It is difficult to know to know what the attitudes of those in the economically depressed rural areas thought of this cosmopolitan attitude held by the former political and economic elite, but one story is revealing. While the protests and their violent repression go back as least as far as 2008, the incident that triggered the country-wide process that overthrew Ben Ali was the self-immolation of fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in the town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010. Through the world-wide media and web, we learned that this young, uneducated supporter of his family set himself afire after, for some reason, municipal officers confiscated his fruit and scale and his attempt to appeal this to a higher official level had been rejected.
One factor reported in the story was that his dignity had been affronted because in the interaction, an officer had slapped him. What most people did not read in the media was that the officer in question was a woman. I pondered whether the indignity he felt was largely in response to being stripped of his and his family's livelihood, being slapped in public by an officer, or being slapped in public by a woman. I raised the issue with a Tunisian friend in Paris. It turned out that he had attended a Parisian solidarity forum to which Bouazizi' sister had been brought. There she contended that her brother's dignity was affronted because the inspector who slapped him was a woman. My friend tried to convince her that the gender of the inspector should not have been the issue.
In general, positions in the repressive forces were open to both men and women. Indeed, Leila Trabelsi, the extremely powerful wife of dictator Ben Ali, was reported to play a central role in the recruitment of a special commando force of exceptionally loyal men and women whose job it was to violently put down protests. Their "equal opportunity" work was especially brutal and deadly in the rural towns of Kasserine, Mbarki, and Dachraoui. So it seems that the conditions for women in Tunisia were better than in many other countries, but not always representative of a strong endorsement of dignity.
Under Ben Ali, and his predecessors, Tunisia was a secular state. Unlike Egypt, which has an approximately 10% minority Christian Coptic population, almost the entire religious population of Tunisia is Moslem. Like Egypt under its dictator Mubarak, there was also a banned Islamist movement in Tunisia, Ennahdha. As was the case in Egypt, the ban was removed after the dictator was deposed.
Respect for human dignity must surely entail respect for the spiritual beliefs and practices of others. Sadly, some of the same Moslem people who were united with Copts in struggling for freedom from the Mubarak dictatorship have violently turned on the Copts and are risking the freedom and dignity of all of the people of Egypt. This civil disorder might be used by the Egyptian military as an excuse to set itself up as the new collective dictators in a country that they view as ill-prepared for democracy.
There is hope that religious differences will not be so detrimental to the future of Tunisia, though it is far from clear. Ennahdha is by far the largest organized political force in the country today. The group is allied with the politically aggressive Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but says publicly that it does not share the Brotherhood's position of imposing Islamic law on their country. Nevertheless, some fear that they will play upon the religious sentiments of those rural people who were the most economically and politically oppressed under the former secular dictatorship in order to impose a religious one. However, Ennahdha has supported an electoral rule that stipulates that all parties must have equal gender parity on their electoral lists for the coming national elections on July 24.