On Oct. 23, 2011, I voted for the first time as a Tunisian citizen. It was the first election of the Arab Spring. Pictures of smiling, proud voters flooded the Internet. The world watched, surprised and hopeful. Moderate political Islam in the Arab world was touted as a possibility rather than an oxymoron.
A year later, we have no democracy, no trust in elected officials, no improved constitution. Human rights and women’s rights are threatened. The economy is tanking.
Tourism is dwindling. Who wants to vacation among bands of bearded savages raiding embassies, staking their black pirate flag over universities or burning trucks carrying beer? Meanwhile, our government and puppet president watch, without arresting these Salafist extremists.
We have one thing left from our revolution: free speech. That is why Facebook is filled with outrage and cell-phone videos of the madness; why we exchange skits and caricatures of our dictators, past and present. If something will save us, it will be our refusal to shut up again.
During those first elections, the Islamists were better organized, and supported by Gulf States afraid of democratic contagion. They won over many poor voters by financing communal weddings and lamb dinners for the Eid holiday. Islamists also volunteered in greater numbers at polling stations.
The Islamist Ennahda party won control over the country by winning only 41 percent of the electoral vote. This was possible because parties that portrayed themselves as democratic during the campaign later formed a coalition with the Islamists rather than with other secular parties.
Today, Tunisians are somber, anxious, rattled by daily tragedies. Recently, a secular party representative was assassinated by an extremist group. A woman gang-raped by the police was later prosecuted. Salafists attacked the U.S. Embassy and burned its school (attended by Tunisians) while the government failed to dispatch police, firemen or soldiers.
The Islamists placed their relatives and buddies in powerful positions. They tried to insert into the Constitution that women are “complementary to men,” which would have reversed 50 years of equality. We did not vote for fanatics to twist our Constitution into Shariah law.
The recent leaked video of Rachid al-Ghannouchi, Tunisia’s Islamist mastermind, clearly demonstrates that the Salafists he was reassuring are not just his supporters, but his own militia, intent on terrorizing citizens into tacit obedience and on turning Tunisia into Little Iran.
It takes time to infiltrate the ministries, he explained. There are still too many secular people in the administrations, in the police, the army. Don’t worry about Shariah law; it is not what is written but what is enforced, he assured them. You can do your part, he told them, by opening more Koranic schools and camps, bringing in preachers. This is the man who was hailed as a moderate by the West.
There is nothing moderate or democratic about the Islamists. They played the moderate and democratic game to gain power. Now, in office, they keep postponing elections to entrench themselves in the fabric of government and judiciary by brute force.
The year voters granted them is up. The time for manipulative political Islam is over. It has lost legitimacy. It has failed to improve lives, preserve the few rights we had, or uphold the rule of law.
We must say “no” again — until we get it right. Democracy is a process, an evolution.
Europe can help us develop a fair electoral process, with enough international observers to obviate reliance on local, less impartial observers. We also need ballots that can be tracked and verified. Washington should not give the Tunisian government a single cent, until it actually holds fair elections.
Tunisia’s secular parties are finally forming a democratic coalition to create a unified front and represent Tunisians of all creeds. If they had formed a secular coalition last year, they would have won nearly 60 percent of the vote. And Oct. 23, 2012, would have been Election Day, rather than a national day of mourning.
Souhir Stephenson is a Tunisian writer living in the United States.