In Tunis

Ursula Lindsey

On Avenue Bourguiba, a young man with a swollen mouth and a bandaged arm had been lying all morning almost unconscious on the ground, a dirty Tunisian flag across his chest. A few men in the circle of onlookers finally decided to pick him up and walk him away. 'He’s been there ten days,' a middle-aged waiter from a nearby cafe explained. He was on a hunger strike. I asked why. The waiter shrugged. 'He’s from outside the capital. He hasn’t got his rights yet.' The waiter segued into his own grievances: he works 15 hours a day, has four children, makes 400 dinars a month. They never eat meat.

I was in Tunis last month for a conference entitled Intellectuals and the Historic Transformations in the Arab World. The first speaker was the historian Hichem Djait. He gave a brief history of Arab intellectuals and their persecution by authoritarian regimes, before concluding that they have lost influence across the region. 'The Arab world took a step towards democracy, but one has the painful impression that it is not ready,' he said. Instead, the uprisings have 'exacerbated very strong and very violent tensions'. In countries that are tearing themselves apart, what role is there for intellectuals?

Hamit Bozarslan, the director of the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, was even more pessimistic. Of all the countries in the region, he said, only Tunisia, Jordan and Morocco currently hold out any hope. Elsewhere, as in Egypt, we are seeing the 'reintroduction of cruelty'. Soon 'there will be no Syrian society.' The next day, a military coup got underway in Libya. The following week, Mubarak's former head of military intelligence won the Egyptian presidency with 96 per cent of the vote.

The Arabic word muthaqaf – formed from thaqafa, 'culture' – probably appeared in the 20th century, replacing aalim, 'religious scholar'. Panellists discussed intellectuals’ dependence on or defiance of the state, their adherence to strict ideologies, their fascination with power. There was much debate over whether bloggers and activists qualified as today’s intellectuals.

Last summer, when the Egyptian army deposed the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, Tunisian secularists began agitating against the governing Islamist party Ennahda. After months of demonstrations and negotiations (as the Egyptian police meanwhile killed several thousand of Morsi’s supporters, and a low-level terrorist insurgency took off), Ennahda stepped down in January and a technocratic government was appointed. The constituent assembly finally passed the new constitution, without much controversy. Parliamentary and presidential elections should take place by the end of the year.

But now people are worried about the return of the police state, the Tunisian scholar Mohamed Kerrou told me. A well-known blogger, Aziz Amami, was arrested and charged with drug use. The Ben Ali regime always brought sordid criminal charges against its political opponents. The police have been settling scores with protesters and activists, arresting them for violence during Ben Ali’s overthrow. Amami had launched a solidarity campaign called 'I Burned Down a Police Station Too'. After uproar from activists and human rights groups, a judge dismissed the charges against him.

At the end of the conference we heard from Aziz Krichen, a leftist dissident who spent most of his life in exile but came back after the revolution to serve as a presidential adviser in the transitional troika government, made up of Ennahda and two secular partners. He has just resigned from his post. There are two main intellectual derivations in the Arab world, he says: modernist (with its Marxist, liberal, nationalist offshoots) and Islamist. Since the beginning of colonialism, Arab thought has been 'mimetic, a response to foreign domination'. The uprisings of three years ago have buried these ideologies, but politicians – who have been around for half a century – cling to them, and 'have no solutions', Krichen said. It’s time to come up with something new.

'The revolution doesn’t sell any more,' according to a leading figure in a secular, leftist party. In the coastal suburbs north of Tunis, where the rich live, talk is already turning to the elections. Everyone expects a national unity government, split between Ennahda and the Nidaa Tounes party, which the country’s entrenched interests have regrouped around. It is headed by Beji Caid Essebsi, who served as interim prime minister after Ben Ali’s ouster. He is 87 years old, and reportedly determined to crown his long political career with a stint as president.

Things in Tunisia are 'bad, but that’s normal', Djait said. The small country – less than a tenth the area of Libya, its population two-thirds that of Cairo – is the only one to have seen its revolution through. That doesn’t mean that things are much better yet, for dissidents or waiters. The next government will be a balancing act between Islamists and the ancien regime; activists will continue to be targeted by the security services; but at least the country has so far escaped the strife and resurgent authoritarianism in Libya and Egypt.