Magharebia (Washington DC)

Tunisia: Politics Divide Tunisian Families

Tunis — As Tunisian politicians squabble over the country's future, partisan rifts are playing out from the street to the living room, leaving families divided and opening the door to external influences.

Politics are the latest sport in Tunisia, but with the country now torn between secularism and Islamism, divergent views are straining both national and familial unity.

While elected leaders struggle to form a new government in the wake of the murder of opposition party chief Chokri Belaid, political debates have moved from government chambers to the dinner table.

All the political divisions are putting Tunisia at risk, with radical groups ready to exploit the situation for the own agenda.

The acrimonious situation is similar to the way Tunisians usually behave in football, not in politics, "with everyone encouraging his favourite team", explains Rami Salhi, the regional manager for the Euromed Foundation of Support to Human Rights.

"What is happening now in society is reflected at the household level," Salhi says.

"There is an explosion of opinions within the family. The daughter has hers, the son has his, and so do the mother and the father," he adds.

Ideological polarisation between members of society was unknown before the Tunisian revolution, but the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ushered in a wave of political pluralism.

The one-party scene that prevailed under the Ben Ali regime has been replaced by a choice of more than 100.

"It is a new culture that emerged as a result of a lack of political experience for more than fifty years. Of course this has implications," Salhi adds.

Hbib ben Hmida, a technician in his thirties, told Magharebia that "during the October 23rd elections, I persuaded my wife to vote for Ettakatol, but now we disagree and exchange accusations over the performance of the party, and discussing politics is causing real problems within the family."

"My wife even threatened to divorce me if I ever tried again to convince her about any political party," ben Hmida says. "So we have decided not to engage in political discussion and accepted each person's freedom of choice."

Lamia Mogdi, a housewife, tells Magharebia that while she voted for President Moncef Marzouki's Congress for the Republic (CPR), she now supports opposition party Nidaa Tounes.

"His party did not deliver what he promised," she says.

"I agreed with my husband, who works as a waiter in a cafe, to vote for Ennahda," Mogdi adds. "I received 10 dinars to do so. Yet when alone in the booth I voted for the CPR," she says. For Mourad Amdouni, an employee, political differences are tearing the family apart.

"My son is twenty years old and he has leftist leanings. My wife is conservative and defends Ennahda, and I don't have a definite political orientation. Imagine our life in these conditions. Daily debates turn sometimes into arguments," Amdouni says.

"I really hate politics and politicians, and the peaceful atmosphere at home has been turned upside down," Amdouni says.

The same arguments are happening across all segments of society. Adel ben Issa, a 50 year old executive at a petroleum institution, described a recent evening.

"We were watching a game on TV when the discussion turned to politics," he begins.

"I really support Ennahda and made my point of view on the subject clear, but my wife and in-laws are leftist or with Nidaa Tounes," he continues. "The debate heated up about the general situation in the country. The house became like a clash between rival football teams, so I decided to leave the house so the crisis wouldn't deepen between me and my wife, and my in-laws."

Kamel Sakri, a shopkeeper, is a supporter of the Popular Front. "I drink wine and have a small bar at home, but I avoid talking politics at home," he tells Magharebia. "I believe that everyone is free to have his own opinion."

"My children, a boy and a girl, are from the salafist movement," he adds.

But this surge in political awareness among young people brings other risks. Radical groups are eager to recruit young Tunisians for foreign jihad.

"The country needs a political consensus and it is not in the interest of Tunisia, to give up the culture of coalition," Ennahda's Shura Council chief Fethi Ayedi said following the assassination of Chokri Belaid.

The radical Islamists can take advantage of the present security void and undermine the state's civil character, Social Democratic Party spokesman Samir Bettaib told Magharebia.

"This is something we cannot accept and it really angers us," Bettaib said.

So can Tunisians keep political enthusiasm from turning into extremism or dividing families?

Vibrant political debate is "a healthy phenomenon, because it shows that Tunisian society is not a sectarian society", political analyst Khaled Chaoukat tells Magharebia.

"The most important thing is that family relationships don't get affected by partisan loyalties, so that relations remain based on mutual respect," he says.

"If it turns to violence, then it becomes dangerous and creates a schism," Chaoukat adds.

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