I taxied to the Ennahda conference in Al Kram, a neighbourhood of Tunis known, among other things, for its Islamist pockets. Despite this, the dress (of men, at least) told of a more secular-oriented crowd. I entered “officially” as a not-for-profit worker interested in the conference’s impact on Tunisian democracy, and though suspicious looks abounded from the guards, when I pulled out my Canadian passport I was ushered in right away.
I walked through the conference halls, perusing the booths. There were people selling their wares, and members of Ennahda roaming around to offer their scarves and flags for purchase. A few civil-society and other organizations advertised their causes. I found a few bookstores to peruse, and I bought some research material on democracy in Tunisia and Islamist conceptions of democratic governance.
The largest booth of all, conspicuously situated in the middle of the conference centre, was a campaign for Palestine. The booth was blasting music with Islamic overtones that could be heard from every corner of the hall. Pictures of the tunnels linking Egypt and Gaza were prominently displayed, as were pictures of Israeli graves draped in Israeli flags, and of children holding and hurling stones. Images of Ahmed Yassin and Khaled Mashaal, Hamas flags, and other banners framed the centre booth, where young men and women solicited for donations. I asked where the donation money was going. “Gaza,” one woman replied. “You can take pictures,” she reassured me. “Where in Gaza?” I asked. “To NGOs, Hamas …?” “I don’t know,” she told me. She turned around and asked her colleagues, and none of them knew where exactly the money was supposed to be delivered.
I was particularly interested in this phenomenon as I had lived and worked in Israel/Palestine off and on for three and a half years, first studying Middle Eastern history as a graduate student at Tel Aviv University, then interning as a political consultant with the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a brief stint, and finally serving as a Fellow with the Dorot Foundation. It was curious to me that a people so bent on championing its non-violent revolution amid a conference by an Islamist group that renounced violence and terrorism years ago would think it copacetic to support the Palestinian cause quite like this.
Khaled Mashaal was indeed the guest of honour for at least one panel, and I was later told that the Canadian contingent, among other embassies, stepped out of the room when he was introduced to speak (western governments consider Hamas a terrorist organization).
Interestingly, there is a debate waging in Tunisia over whether to insert support for Palestinian resistance in Tunisia’s constitution. If it passes, it will be the first time a country mentions explicitly another people in the framing document of its state. Many Palestinians are against this idea as it approaches the Palestinian plight as if it will go on in perpetuity, and many feel as though this is yet another opportunity for an Arab state to use the Palestinian cause to promote a cause separate from Palestinian statehood itself. I wondered if this were a point of contention within Tunisia, and whether it had any ramifications for the political process.
I talked my way into the press booth, where I chatted up a few journalists who told me that there would be an open session at 3 p.m. I waited patiently for a few hours until I learned, alongside the journalists with whom I had spoken, that Ennahda had closed the session. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to make it in. I wouldn’t learn of the subjects and outcomes of this last day of the conference until I got a chance to speak to various members of international NGOs a couple days later.