Activists worked for years in exile in France to keep the dream of Tunisian freedom alive. Now that dream is being realised as Tunisia’s expatriate community votes in the country’s first free elections.
Tarek Ben Hiba, Fatma Ksila and Mouhieddine Cherbib — all now in their fifties — are veterans of a long struggle against ousted autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and they are not yet ready to let their guard down.
But on Thursday, they and tens of thousands more Tunisians living in France and around the world will be the first of their countrymen and women to vote as expatriates cast their ballots before the weekend election.
Afterwards will be a new, hopefully more representative government in Tunis, but activists in Paris feel they still have a role to play.
“Part of the struggle in France was to be an echo chamber, to allow the voices of those resisting Ben Ali to be heard,” said Ben Hiba, 57, who was jailed in the 1970s in Tunisia for his work on the radical left.
When Ben Ali came to power he came to France to escape the regime’s thugs and censors, and has used Paris as a base to promote his cause.
“Our role is not finished. We have credibility and experience, we are the ones keeping an eye on the new regime,” Ben Hiba said.
Some of the several hundred thousand Tunisians living in France came simply for economic opportunity and a better life, but many did not turn their backs on their homeland and organised human rights groups and political parties.
They staged demonstrations to demand freedom for jailed opposition figures, published pamphlets, monitored abuses and lobbied foreign leaders.
Ksila, now 54, fled Tunisia when her husband Khemais, director of the Tunisian Human Rights League, was facing his third jail term.
Mouhieddine Cherbib, 58, has been in France for 35 years and co-founded the Committee for the Respect of Freedom and Human Rights in Tunisia, ending up convicted in absentia for encouraging a 2008 strike.
All three militants were forced to watch this year’s surprising events from across the Mediterranean, scarcely daring to believe their proud compatriots would be able to overthrow the regime and begin to build a new state.
Now, with the start of the legislative elections they dreamed of for so long, they are taking stock.
“It has generated immense hope. The people took control of the political space, chased off the clans in power, dissolved the institutions of the former regime, organised free elections,” said Cherbib.
Nevertheless, the veterans are concerned. Having been more free to speak than those back home, they feel they are less likely to get carried away by the promise of freedom, and so better placed to spot dangers.
In particular, they have been concerned by the failure of the fragmented secular opposition to organise itself, leaving the door open for the more disciplined Islamists to dominate the new political scene.
“The progressive camp is divided. There is a terrifying lack of unity. The parties are not addressing concrete issues, just competing for attention,” warned Ben Hiba.
“The generation leading them has been exhausted by the struggle against Ben Ali, and the underground struggle did not allow democratic debate.”
They worry Tunisia’s main Islamist party, Ennahda, which is expected to come top in the vote, is falling under the control of extreme Salafists.
And they warn that if the young people who bravely led the leaderless uprising against Ben Ali do not quickly see new economic opportunity, they might in their turn be tempted by extremism.
“With the forces of progress in confusion, Ennahda is gathering everyone around that, and that scares us,” said Ksila. “There’s a gulf between the leadership and the base of the party.
“We know the senior figures who were persecuted and exiled, but the structures that remained on the ground have become radicalised to an extraordinary degree,” she warned.
Cherbib said that the people had thrown off one dictatorship of the elite, but risked imposing a dictatorship of the mob, not having internalised the ideals of democracy, but instead seeking revenge.
So will they go home? Ksila will. Her husband is standing for office on the list of the Ettakatol centre-left party in Tunis. Ben Hiba will work in France to try to become a spokesman for the community in exile.
Cherbib will stay as well, pursuing his campaign for migrant rights.