The Magazine

Before the Deluge

Reflections on the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt

Mar 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 25 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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My husband and I similarly found ourselves nearly the only Westerners on the streets of workaday downtown Cairo after we made the mistake—or so it seemed at the time—of advance-booking a room in a perfectly decent and clean pension run by two Frenchwomen atop a rickety office building, except that (as we discovered) Cairo, outside of its most upscale venues, does not have properly functioning plumbing and sewage systems. We were only a five-minute walk from Tahrir Square and the five-star hotels along the Nile that flank it, and we wondered why we hadn’t just checked into the Semiramis InterContinental, where we spent a great deal of time using the restrooms and eating lunch during Ramadan because hardly any freestanding restaurants were open. Later, we were grateful that we had chosen our penny-pinching accommodations, because we were forced to see, as I had come to see on my rambles in Tunis, exactly what the everyday Islamic world is like, the world pullulating just underneath the highly educated and highly secularized elite socioeconomic patina that forms the sole contact that most tourists, diplomats, NGO apparatchiks, journalists, and intellectuals have with the Islamic world.


It’s not surprising that there’s so much optimistic reporting that ordinary Muslims “yearn” for freedom, democracy, human rights, and to be just like the West. But outside the touristed enclaves of cosmopolitanism, I saw just the opposite: societies that were obstinately Islamic in the face of efforts by leaders with vast state-police apparatuses at their disposal to shove them into secular modernity. Indeed, the ordinary Muslims of Tunisia and Egypt seemed determined to be more Muslim than ever, some 50 or 60 years after policies of aggressive Westernization in both countries had been put into place. I could sort of understand why the Ben Ali-loyal airport cops had greeted my arrival in Tunis so heavy-handedly. They probably saw themselves as a thin Armani line between civilization as they knew it and a rolling low-key jihad that threatened to sweep it away and substitute in its place an ominous Muslim near-theocracy.

Cairo, outside of some gracefully ornamented medieval mosques, even older Coptic churches, and a handful of lovely parks, is an architectural and urban-planning disaster. The morning view from our hotel room consisted of an unrelieved vista of yellowed and decrepit office and apartment towers jutting into a furnace-like haze that passed for a sky. There were no trees to be seen, no birds to be heard singing. Generally speaking, Cairo, with its population of almost 7 million, ringed by fetid suburbs, some with unpaved streets that house another 10 million, looked like Mordor—or like the post-apocalyptic trash-skyscrapers in the movie Wall-E. 

Tunis, by contrast, was a beautiful city, or at least the tired remains of a once-beautiful city, because it had largely been laid out and constructed by the French, who occupied Tunisia as a protectorate from 1881 to 1956. Until the 19th century, Tunis was merely its cramped medina: a walled maze of narrow streets and overhanging buildings surrounding the enormous 9th-century Zitouna Mosque. The French constructed a nouvelle ville: broad boulevards, palm-studded parks, grand hotels, an opera house, block after block of exuberantly adorned civic and apartment buildings with fanciful façades, tall louvered windows, and wrought-iron balconies. Half a century after independence, nearly all are in an advanced state of decay, and Tunis itself has sprawled outward to grow into a metropolitan area of 2.3 million. As in Cairo, litter was everywhere, although not quite so much of it. Our NEH headquarters hotel, for example, was located in what passed for an upscale neighborhood adjacent to the huge and impressively neglected Parc du Belvedere (the Central Park of Tunis and another French creation), but only a block away from its porte-cochère, blocking the sidewalk in front of a once-lovely, now abandoned and overgrown colonial gingerbread mansion, was a permanent refuse midden composting odoriferously in July temperatures that usually approached or exceeded one hundred degrees. It was apparently the garbage dump for another hotel down the street.

Tunisia, like Egypt and other parts of the Arab world that became independent during the rapid decolonialization of the 1950s and 1960s, adopted what might be called a Kemalist mode of governance: a combination of the aggressive promotion of secularism and modernity, hypertrophied nationalism, and one-party rule enforced by a large and powerful military (or in Tunisia’s case, a state police apparatus) that characterized the regime of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose presence and party dominated Turkey throughout much of the 20th century. Atatürk, although technically a Muslim, despised the traditional Islam that most Turks practiced; he deemed it retrograde and potentially insurrectionary and strove to tamp down, if not outright ban, many of its religious, cultural, and institutional manifestations. So, with a socialist flair, did Habib Bourguiba, the Ho Chi Minh of Tunisia, a Sorbonne-educated revolutionary who became Tunisia’s first president (in fact Tunisia’s only president before Ben Ali) after independence. Bourguiba nationalized the mosques, got rid of the sharia courts, and instituted strict government monitoring of the content of imams’ sermons (a policy pioneered by Atatürk and also used by Mubarak and his Egyptian presidential predecessors, Anwar Sadat and Gamal Nasser). A self-proclaimed champion of women’s rights, Bourguiba abolished polygamy, banned the hijab in schools and tried to phase it out elsewhere, and opened higher education to females. Alarmed by Tunisia’s rising population, he also instituted quasi-mandatory birth control.

Bourguiba’s brand of nationalism was also, Janus-like, militantly anti-Western and especially anti-French. Nearly all of the 150,000 or so French who had lived in Tunisia before independence quickly left the country when it became clear they were no longer wanted. So did nearly all of the 100,000 Italians, mostly Sicilians, whose ancestors had emigrated to Tunisia during the 19th century to farm for the French, and most of the 100,000 resident Jews, some of whose families had lived in Tunisia since the Middle Ages. Their lives were made uncomfortable by Tunisia’s Islamic-world alignment against Israel (the Palestine Liberation Organization headquartered itself in Tunis during the 1980s). The imposing synagogue on the Avenue de la Liberté, once the center of a thriving urban Jewish community, had its doors open for worship on -Saturday mornings (guarded by Ben Ali’s police), but I never saw anyone enter or leave.

Christianity enjoyed official tolerance as an obsolete foreign relic useful to tourists and Christian sub-Saharan Africans working for banks and diplomatic entities. During the 1960s Bourguiba had entered into an agreement with the Vatican that allowed his government to seize the vast majority of the properties—churches, schools, monasteries, convents—that the Catholic church had built in Tunisia during the French years. The alternative, as a Catholic priest there informed me, had been for Bourguiba’s government to seize 100 percent. Catholicism had flourished in Tunisia under French occupation because of its association with Augustine, other church fathers, and the martyrs. Indeed, French missionary priests were the first archaeological excavators of Roman Carthage. Now, everywhere you looked were testimonials to determined de-Christianization: the massive cathedral of St. Louis (the 13th-century French king who died near Tunis while on crusade) standing atop Byrsa Hill in Carthage shorn of its crosses and turned into a concert hall, a chapel built by the French under the excavated amphitheater to commemorate the deaths of Felicitas and Perpetua that is missing its religious furnishings. One of the few surviving Catholic churches in Tunis houses a school that is now completely Islamic, its curriculum set by the government. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” the Carthaginian theologian Tertullian wrote during the early 3rd century. I had to wonder about that.

Bourguiba tried to create a new national myth for Tunisia that skipped over the Romans, the Christians, and the French with their evocations of colonialism: that Tunisians were the cultural descendants of the Phoenicians, who had settled Carthage during the 9th century b.c. and fought a losing battle against the Romans for supremacy over the Western Mediterranean. Tunisia’s beautiful currency and coinage bear images of Hannibal, who crossed the Alps with his elephants, his father, and Dido (under her Greek name, Elissa), the Carthaginian queen and tragic heroine of Virgil’s Aeneid. It is likely that most Tunisians knew little and cared less about this glorious Phoenician past, much as the Cairenes who beheaded mummies and made off with antiquities during the mayhem at Tahrir Square were uninterested in the pharaohs, except insofar as they generated tourist revenue. (There is something deliciously ironic about the plight of the flamboyant Zawi Hawass, antiquities minister under Mubarak, who has made a career out of trying to guilt-trip supposedly imperialist Western governments into repatriating the head of Nefertiti and other pharaonic treasures and is now under pressure to resign from his post as a Western stooge.) 

What Bourguiba paradoxically created was a Muslim monoculture (Tunisia is now 98 percent Muslim) that his police could barely control. There were a series of radical-Islamic uprisings in Tunisia during the 1970s and 1980s fueled by widespread resentment of his efforts to water down and Westernize the faith. After the last one, in 1987, when Bourguiba planned to execute several rebels convicted of plotting to overthrow his government, Ben Ali, then serving as prime minister, seized power, declared his aged predecessor senile, and put him out to pasture in the coastal city of Monastir. Bourguiba died in 2000 at age 96 and was rewarded with a handsome tomb. 

His secularization campaign had parallels in Egypt. Nasser, deeming the residence of such “foreigners” as Greeks and Jews (not to mention Western European expats) in his newly created nation inconsistent with the Arab identity he bestowed upon it, drove out populations that had resided in Egypt for more than two millennia. Those who visit Alexandria these days and expect to find any but the faintest traces of the cosmopolitan seaport that fueled the poems of Constantine Cavafy and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet are in for a surprise. There are almost no Jews left in Egypt. The centuries-old and—at least until the recent uprising—meticulously maintained Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo’s Coptic quarter cannot draw the minyan of ten men required for holding Jewish services. It’s a de facto museum.

In Tunisia the signs were similar. Bourguiba, toward the last years of his presidency, seemed to realize that socialism was not the economic answer in a small, oil-free country of 10 million that is mostly Sahara desert, with an attractive coastline and a narrow fertile littoral that supports wheat fields (not enough to feed the country), olive groves, and wine-grapes (thanks to the French). He and Ben Ali began to try to lure a few Western capitalist enterprises into Tunisia, and the road to the Tunis-Carthage airport is now flanked by outposts of high-tech firms. Ben Ali turned over swaths of coastal land to developers for five-star beach resorts, infuriating leftists who complained that ordinary Tunisians could not afford to stay there (and at least in the case of Ben Ali, probably enriching himself in the process). As for Bourguiba’s best-laid birth-control plans—well, the median age in Tunisia is 29. That’s a bit older than Egypt’s median age of 24 (in a country of 80 million), where there are no official constraints on large families, but it skews low compared with the West (a median age of 37 in America and 39 in Britain). The unemployment crisis in Tunisia is a youth-unemployment crisis. Even last summer, when a brutally enforced civic peace clamped together a populace that was either fatalistically resigned or primed to resume the religio-political battles of the 1980s, I worried about young Houssein and the master’s degree he was pursuing with the hope of securing a teaching job that might pay around $1,400 a month. The main post office in Tunis (another piece of fine French civic architecture) was always jammed with Tunisians mailing food packages to their relatives who had to leave the country to find work in France.

I also wondered on my walks where all those emancipated women were that Bourguiba’s modernization blitz had promised would materialize. After more than 50 years of official campaigning against the hijab if not forbidding it outright (Bourguiba called it an “odious rag”), at least half of Tunisian women were covering their hair. That was in downtown Tunis; in the countryside the percentage was close to 100, many of the women wrapped in a Berber veil that folded around the entire body. In Egypt, even in Cairo and Alexandria, almost the only local women who went veil-less on the streets were Coptic Christians. Many married Egyptian women went all the way and curtained themselves from head to toe in black, their shrouded faces an almost comical contrast to their Western-attired husbands and their small children in kidwear that could have been bought at an American shopping mall.

Those hijab-wearers weren’t grannies, but, rather, young and pretty girls, many of them university students, who had turned Islamic dress into something chic and figure-flattering: a long-sleeved, close-fitting, high-necked jersey topped by an overblouse or tunic and worn with skinny jeans or a long slim skirt. The hijabs themselves were Scheherazade headdresses: gossamer-light and ornamented with sequins, bling, and glittery little crowns. The hijab and its male equivalent, the lightly stubbled chin that satisfies Muhammad’s injunction in the Koran that good Muslim men wear beards, were ubiquitous among young people in both countries. In that self-presentation they were finding and expressing identity, distinguishing themselves from a West that they deemed decadent and unholy: the tourists in their shorts and miniskirts and tiny tops. They have resacralized an existence that they believe was forcibly taken away from them by their own Westernizing, secularizing dictators. I’m certain that in some elite and very wealthy sectors of North African society a different ethos prevails. I would occasionally catch a glimpse of this parallel Islamic universe that seemed to exist in exclusive suburbs far from city centers: dark-haired, bikini-clad girls on the upscale beach at Gammarth in Tunisia riding camels for hire and flirting with sheesha-smoking young men with plenty of leisure, a nail salon that I frequented whose bareheaded female customers wore elegant slacks and high heels, a billboard depicting a female newscaster who looked like a ringer for Katie Couric. But that was not the world in which the overwhelming majority of the people lived, even in the most sophisticated of their capital cities.

No one can predict what’s going to happen next in Tunisia, Egypt, or anywhere else in the Islamic world. The sudden reappearance of the Muslim Brotherhood on Egypt’s political scene is troubling, and one of the byproducts of an Islamic monoculture is persecution of Christians. Christianity may have been nearly eradicated in Tunisia, but Copts account for 10 percent of Egypt’s population. No one talks much about them right now, and the New Year’s Eve bombing that left 23 of them dead in an Alexandria church seems to have been already forgotten. It is not that many ordinary Muslims aren’t admirable, likable people making do and living sociably with very little. I enjoyed the small and courteous commercial encounters I had with Tunisians: adding dinars to my cell-phone card, for example, or visiting the bedraggled zoo animals at the Parc du Belvedere. During Ramadan in Egypt, every night was a festival of families picnicking outdoors with their children overjoyed at the gluttonous breaking of the fast. It was just that they were different from us. They were living in their own world, and it is a world that is not necessarily friendly to ours.

Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s Minding the Campus website. She wrote about teaching capitalism to college students in our November 29 issue.

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