Tunisia’s election is finally over and we have the first post-uprising victory of a Brotherhood calque. But the events in Sidi Bouzid certainly marred the process. I turned up there mid-Friday afternoon when the town courthouse and National Guard building were still burning furiously. Teenagers were talking around with burning plastic bags to spread the fires further. Documents were lying all over the road, with some desks and chairs. Some two dozen cars were burned out, while their tyres had been removed. The destruction inside the buildings was total. Shelves of archive inside the justice building were smouldering away, electricity wires dangled around dangerously, a few soldiers wandered in and out in an attempt, I suppose, to declare the state’s desire for the vandalism and looting to end. Townspeople came in to gawp at the ruin of the justice building and they appeared as bemused by the scene as the few journalists who had driven for hours along the unkempt country roads.
Talking to people to try and establish a picture of what happened did not clear matters up. The main point that everyone agreed on was that Sidi Bouzid felt insulted by the electoral commission scrubbing the votes of Hachmi Hamdi’s Popular Petition only and on one else’s. They also disliked the way journalists in the room whooped in delight when the commission made its announcement on Thursday night. Both points seemed to confirm to them the marginalisation and disdain they feel from the rest of the country, specifically the affluent elites of the coastal cities. Some had not voted for Hamdi’s party but felt anger just the same. But many people felt embarrassed by the vandalism, which after all just feeds the narrative that those who live in the Styx of the interior are rough and uncivilised. Some people said those who did it had come in vehicles from outside town and bore the accents of Sfax. There was a lot of anger over comments they believed Ennahda’s secretary-general (and likely prime minister) Hamdi Jbeli made on Hannibal TV describing them as ignorant countryfolk.
There is however no indication he made them at all. What did happen was Jbeli was asked on a radio station on Tuesday if Ennahda was prepared to bring Hamdi’s party into its coalition, to which he replied that Ennahda was only interested in joining with “those who fought against Ben Ali”. Hamdi himself spoke out against these comments in indignation on his London-based channel al-Mustaqilla on Tuesday night, addressing the people of Sidi Bouzid, where he is from, and Qairawan specifically. On Friday leaflets appeared among the crowds in Sidi Bouzid calling for a general strike, and denouncing a “campaign of denigration led by the political elites and national media some of which described us as ignorant”. There was no signature.
It seems pretty clear there was manipulation behind the violence in Sidi Bouzid. If Hamdi wasn’t behind it, he at least allowed himself to be used to fan the flames. This was the defunct Ben Ali RCD party’s coda to the election, its only successful attempt at spoiling the show. The comments of people of Sidi Bouzid continually came back to one point: al-jihawiyya, or “regionalism”; disdain of the centre for those on the social, economic and political margins. I don’t think it quite rises to the level of the hogra that Algerians feel from the state, but it’s close. “Our demands are firstly no to regionalism and I say it again and again: no to regionalism!” one man who gave his name as Lamine said. “Secondly, we suffer from huge unemployment here, although we have a lot of people with higher education qualifications. To the political parties I say, we are proud of Hamdi. If you didn’t like his election campaign, you should have ejected him from the beginning. He has his votes and he has his supporters.” Ennahda also has its supporters there: of the eight seats people voted for, Ennahda got two of them and had the highest votes of any party.
The Islamists in the metropolitan centre want to reorientate Tunisia towards the Arab-Islamic world. They do not want to cut links with Europe and the Americans, or least that is one of the talking points they have been very careful to push over the past two weeks (though I think one should also note other things being said: on Hannibal Jbeli spoke out forcefully against French comments on being “vigilant” about “red lines” on democracy and human rights that Ennahda must not cross – “enough overlording and giving lessons” – and Ghanouchi himself talked on radio about French language pollution in Tunisian Arabic). For better or worse, they are saying they will stay open to Western investment (though I think they and their leftist coalition partners will be careful to protect certain sectors of the economy). But they will have to be careful about Tunisia’s “soft underbelly” – the interior where 3G networks don’t work, where resentment is strong and easily exploitable, and where there’s nothing to stop Ben Ali people motoring into town to start a riot.