TUNIS — Upstairs, Ibrahim Amara and his friends gather around the computer to watch YouTube preachers offering a vision of Islam that rejects democracy and elections. “Democracy’s freedom is absolute,” Ibrahim says, “and we don’t accept that. In our religion, freedom is limited to the freedom God gives you.”
Downstairs, Ibrahim’s father, Saleh Amara, explodes in frustration over his son’s new, post-revolutionary passion. Saleh and his wife have gone along with some of their 27-year-old’s new restrictions — okay, they’d stop watching soap operas and “Oprah” on TV, because there was too much sexual content — but Saleh says his son goes too far. Growing the long beard of the pious is fine, though it will probably limit his job opportunities. And if Ibrahim insists that his secular-raised, college-educated wife cover her hair and wear gloves, well, that’s his business. But how can he spurn free elections, the sweetest fruit of Tunisia’s revolution?
One year after the uprising that sent autocratic leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali packing to exile in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia stands divided between two visions of its future. Last year’s street clashes in this sun-spangled city by the sea have morphed into a different kind of battle — more intimate confrontations in which many families struggle with essential questions of identity.
Secular parents, surprised to find their daughter covering her hair in public, worry they are losing their child to extremism. Moderately religious families argue over a son’s decision to grow a beard and demonstrate against aspects of Tunisian life they have always taken for granted: beer and wine, bikinis on the beach, Hollywood movies on TV. In workplaces, kitchens and sidewalk tearooms, one question dominates: Can and should Tunisia’s blend of Western and Islamic values and practices be maintained under the North African country’s new freedom, or has that freedom unleashed a religious extremism that threatens to push this land of 10 million people toward a new kind of dictatorship?
Sixteen months after a humiliated Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi poured paint thinner on himself, lit a match, and sparked a wave of revolutions across the Arab world, the birthplace of the Arab Spring is in many ways better off than the other countries where rulers were toppled. Tourists are starting to return to Tunisia’s Mediterranean beaches, there is relative peace on the streets, and fair elections were held, bringing to power a coalition of Islamist and secular parties led by Ennahda, an Islamist movement that asserts its moderation at every turn — even as many secular families don’t believe a word of it.
But Tunisians are anything but flourishing. Jobs remain scarce, and the sense of hopelessness that led to the uprising is little abated. Hardly a day goes by without some new confrontation between Islamists and secular Tunisians.
In a country that is nearly 100 percent Muslim, a growing rift over religion threatens — in the view of the secular president of the new parliament — to throw Tunisia into “chaos.”