Last night I saw, on the BBC World News (which I almost never watch), a show called "Hardtalk" with Stephen Sakur. The name, a parody of a parody of an American tough-guy interviewer's talkshow ("Hardball" with Chris Matthews), apparently sets the tone for the host, but sometimes the "hard" and "tough" business is inappropriate, and betrays a misunderstanding of the guest, and the matter at hand. If the guest is a sly prevaricator -- tipo Tariq Ramadan -- then all that "tough" stuff is welcome.
But here it was off-putting, for the guest was Najib Chebbi, a Tunisian political figure who had opposed Ben Ali's corruption, and remained in Tunisia -- even going on a hunger strike -- while doing so, for many years. He was continually asked by "Hardtalking" Stephen Sakur to defend the new regime in Tunisia, and patiently, Mr. Chebbi explained that those whom Sakur insisted on calling -- no doubt because some staff member had prepared a list of "tough" talking points for him, culled from the Western press accounts of Tunisia - "ministers in Ben Ali's government." Patiently did Chebbi explain that this one had only been a minister for all of two days, before Ben Ali fell, or that one was the purest of technocrats, or that one had never had taken part in any corruption. Sackur kept insisting, becuase the whole point of the show is to put people on the spot, to be "tough" with them even when untoughness is called for, in order to arrive at something just a little bit more important than proving what a probing, and rough, and tough, interrogator one can be, just as tough and rough and probing as, apparently, those American interviewers who, in their ignorant and therefore hollow probing, give the audience the illusion that something important is being disclosed, that their understanding is being furthered.
Chebbi had the dignified look of those who -- Shahpur Bakhtiar and Mehdi Bazargan come to mind -- in the waning days of the hapless Shah, and the first confused days after the Shah's fall -- know things they cannot discuss with theoutside world, and among those things that cannot be discussed are how, and why, Tunisia became more advanced than other Muslim Arab states, and how, and why, it was iimportant not to allow Rashid al-Gannushi (or Gannouchi), the "Islamist" leader so praised by the likes of Aziz Al-Tamimi, full freedom to operate.
The original protests were of the more advanced middle class, not the underclass that is grist for Islamic mills, and the current government is composed largely of those who understand that the protest was originally against Ben Ali and his family for their corruption and extravagance -- not different in kind from that of the rulers of Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, or many other Muslim Arab states -- and not a desire to bring back Islam as a political and social force.
But those who do are always waiting, and are intently fixed on their goal, and it is important, Mr. Chebbi understood, to give as little scope for those who are called "Islamists" to operate, because the primitive masses in Tunisia would in the end be taken in by the siren-song of Islam, if that siren-song is allowed to be played on the national airwaves.
In Iran, the left, and the middle classes, thought they could contain Khomeini and what they took to be his clownish supporters in the villages. They now see that they were wrong. And surely, in Tunisia, the most sensible people, people who have been partly fashioned by their knowledge of French and the access to a non-Arab and non-Muslim world that that knowledge of French, and use of French, has given them, must be keenly aware of what happened, and who fooled whom, in Iran.
Ideally, from the viewpoint of enlighteend Tunisians, that country may be kept on the same path -- curtailing Islam as a political and social force -- but without the corruption, and the daily injustices, that stuck in everyone's craw. The corruption and the injustices were not different from those in other Muslim Arab countries. But in Tunisia, it was the French language that was the secret ally of those who had another model, one that comes from the West rather than being homegrown, and that was what made them indignant enough to protest, and what held the army back, and the government too, from suppressing that protest. On the civilisational scale, Tunisia -- because of that French formation of members of its elite, and the back-and-forthing with France -- stands higher than any other Arab country, and can be compared with Lebanon as it used to be, when Charles Malik was helping to write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Those who claim that the protesters all want the imposition of Sharia are revealing that they have not been looking closely at the nature of the Tunisian elite and middle classes, and their assumption that all those people who benefitted from the constraints on Islam will simply fold has no basis. Perhaps they should hold back, just a bit, before making pronouncements and predictions as to the imminent imposition of Sharia' when Tunisia has not been in the control of those who took Islam fully to heart for more than a century.