It’s late afternoon on my first day in Tunisia, and Zied and I are standing on the balcony of the first floor restaurant of the Carlton Hotel. We are looking out over Avenue Borguiba, the downtown avenue that is Tunis’s answer to the Champs-Elysees. It has a crowded central plaza and its one-way streets are lined with black lampposts and chestnut trees pruned into leafy boxes, a little touch of Paris in North Africa’s Maghreb.
The traffic is heavy, the open-air cafés on the broad sidewalks below us are busy, and the air is filled with a happy, unruly din. Zied has borrowed a light from two restaurant employees off in the corner watching a soccer match on television. Zied is 26, works for his family’s movie production company and as a fixer for Western journalists, and has a solemn face that breaks easily into a gentle smile. Now that he has lit up one of his Marlboros, he’s back to telling me about the revolution.
Suddenly, above the plaza’s cacophony, we hear a chorus of deep voices shouting in unison. I can just make out, between the avenue’s chestnut trees, on a side street across the plaza, a crowd of 50 men in Jellabiya, the traditional Islamic dress for men.
“Do you know what’s going on?” I ask. Zied listens for a second.
“Ah, they are Salafis,” he says, Tunisia’s right-wing religious fundamentalists.
“What are they chanting?”
“’There is no other God, only Allah.’”
“Strange,” Zied adds. “You know there is a theater over there?”
A few moments later we hear the sound of breaking glass.
“What?” Zied asks. “They are throwing rocks now?” He cranes his neck to see.
“Oh, no,” he says, “some guy just dropped a bottle.”
Zied turns to me and smiles.
“The Islamists!” he says. “You’ve only just arrived, and already they are here!”
He raises his cigarette, as if to toast the occasion. Twenty minutes later, the men have dispersed.
“Well,” Zied says, shrugging his shoulders, “it’s hot out. You really can’t keep protesting in this heat.”
Tunisia is a Muslim country, but the vast majority of its citizens take a moderate view of their religion or don’t practice it at all. Tunisian society is cohesive, and its predominantly Muslim population is well educated, modern, and enlightened. The Salafis may want to turn the clock back several hundred years, but they represent only a sliver of the population.
Tunisia’s umbrella Islamic party is called Al Nadha, Arabic for “The Renaissance.” The conventional wisdom is that Al Nadha might draw around 30% of the vote in October’s elections for a constituent assembly to draft a constitution, with the rest of the vote split between Tunisia’s moderate Progressive Democratic Party and its liberal Attajdid Party (the former Communist Party), and the remaining 89 parties sharing whatever small percentage is left. But there are no polls in Tunisia. None. No one knows how popular Al Nahda really is.
It’s a safe assumption, then, that even the moderate Islamists won’t end up running the country, never mind the radical Salafis. But the Salafis are visible and provocative. In my first week in Tunis, the incident in front of the theater comes to headline the local news, and even causes a judicial strike that threatens to delay the in-absentia trial of Tunisia’s fallen dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.
And yet when I ask my first few interview subjects if radical Islam is a threat to the success of the revolution, they dismiss the question out of hand.
“There is no possibility the revolution won’t succeed,” they say. “We’ve broken with the past. There is no going back.”
The real problems, everyone agrees, are the broken economy and the lack of security, not the possibility that another strong leader, religious or otherwise, might take power.
After the Salafis have dispersed, and the Tunisian Army band has marched up and down the plaza, playing the Tunisian national anthem and trailing a handful of followers, Zied and I get dinner in a Tunisian-Italian restaurant across the avenue. We sit just inside its first floor balcony, which offers us a view, as well as access to the air conditioning. The plaza has grown even more crowded. As we’re cleaning our plates, Zied tells me about the month of January, when Ben Ali’s government finally collapsed.
“Did you participate in the protests?” I ask.
“Of course!” he says. “Everybody did. Everyone in Tunisia was in the streets. Every person.”
The worst part, he says, were the five days after Ben Ali’s flight from the country on January 14. In those days the Presidential Guard, an elite military force of approximately a thousand men, roamed the city, shooting people from cars and rooftops in the hope of instigating a social collapse that would make the country welcome Ben Ali’s return.
“They shot people in the head,” Zied explains. “They shot them in the heart. You know, they killed them. I saw this.”
But the citizens of Tunisia stayed on the streets, bravely hauling Presidential Guard officers out of their rental cars and turning them over to the Army, which arrested them and carted them away. Five days later, the streets were safe.
“Were you afraid?” I ask.
“No,” Zied says quickly. “I was not afraid. Because I saw on the street, girls, nice girls. You know? Old women. Everyone was on the street, risking their lives for freedom. How could you be afraid?”
I stay silent for moment.
“And if anyone tries to take this away from us,” Zied adds, making a circle in the air with his fork, a gesture meant to take in everything around us, “then we will do it again.”