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Losing ground to Islamists, Tunisia’s liberal parties get in the charity game

Islamist parties have long provided social services and charity to gain public support. Now Tunisia’s struggling liberal parties are taking a cue from them for political survival.

Evening descended on the farm, and the recital finished. The dancers and their parents went out to the garden for cake. Away from the refreshments table, men from the village interrogated a recital organizer named Jabrane Jlidi.

“What’s your party?” demanded one. “Who funds you?” said another. Then a tall youth named Mongi leaned in and said softly, “I want to give you a message: Democracy is not the standard to judge by.”

At issue was a dance and public speaking workshop for rural children that Mr. Jlidi’s charity group, Kolna Tounes, organized. But for both him and men like Mongi – one a secularist democrat, the other a strict Islamist – the stakes are far larger.

Kolna Tounes – “We are all Tunisia” – is among many liberal civil society groups trying to counter Islamist activism that has flourished since the ouster last year of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Opening in a new front in Tunisia’s culture wars, liberals are increasingly taking their campaigns beyond politics to the realm of charity and social work – turf long dominated in Arab countries by religiously-inspired groups whose efforts have earned them public trust.

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Politics by other means

While some Tunisians give organizations such as Kolna Tounes a warm welcome, others say their liberal values are out of step with Tunisian society.

Kolna Tounes was founded in January by former members of Afek Tounes, one of many liberal political parties clobbered in elections last October by the moderate Islamists of the Ennahda (resistance) party. 

Mr. Ben Ali’s fall has also allowed more hardline currents to emerge, including the ultra-conservative and sometimes violent Salafi movement and the Hizb-ut-Tahrir party. Both want a strictly Islamic state.

For Jlidi, a doctor in Tunis, those developments spurred to conduct politics by other means.

“When you work with people on the ground you can communicate your ideas on society,” says Jlidi. “Islamists occupied the mosques; we’re going to occupy the public space.” 

Today Kolna Tounes has around 500 members and offices or representatives in 17 cities, Jlidi says. It has offered charity for the poor and small noninterest loans for business start-ups and backs cultural programs it says embody modern values.

Are liberalism and Islam mutually exclusive?

Last month that brought Jlidi and other Kolna Tounes members to a farm near the village of Boukrim, northeast of Tunis, and into partnership with dance teacher Nawel Skandrani.

Mrs. Skandrani, a ballet dancer, crafted the workshop to teach children poise and self-discipline, and thus “some idea of what it means to be a citizen,” she says. “And to give them the possibility to dream.” 

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Most mornings last week, 34 school-aged children crowded into the farm’s barn, a one-story brick building fitted with a springy wooden dance floor, for lessons in dance and public speaking.

For some locals in Boukrim, such activities smack of a certain decadence.

“Teaching kids to dance is not the priority when some homes here don’t even have running water,” says Chihab Belhaj, a window framer and member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. “And naturally, Islam and liberalism contradict one another.” 

Hizb-ut-Tahrir members help offer Quranic memorization classes each Friday in Boukrim’s mosque for around 120 local children, he says. 

That sits well with the worldview of Abdullah Ben Younes, an affable wheat farmer and acquaintance of Mr. Belhaj. He reveres Islam and distrusts the motives of groups like Kolna Tounes. 

“They talk about freedom of speech, for example,” he says. “But all they really want is the freedom to insult Islam.” 

That notion is rejected by Jlidi, himself a Muslim. He says Kolna Tounes avoids debating religion and wants to help Tunisians regardless of their religious leanings.

Skandrani says her local critics “should come understand what these kids are dreaming of. I’m not talking to them about religion, either for it or against. I’m not trying to brainwash them. Rather, to open their minds.”

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Raising the next generation of citizens

At the final workshop, Skandrani prepped the children for the evening recital. There would be dancing, preceded by a display of public speaking. Some children would describe a place or thing; others would recount imagined trips abroad.

“Who hasn’t told us something yet? Ah, Mohamed,” Skandrani said, and small boy in an orange T-shirt looked up. “Do you still want to tell us about Brazil?”

Mohamed was silent. 

“Mohamed, imagine you have a plane ticket,” Skandrani said. “What’s your dream?”

In the end Mohamed elected to talk about Boukrim – the result, says Skandrani, of a deficit of information about the world beyond the village.

As dusk approached, the families arrived and were ushered into the barn. Oud music played from a stereo as the children, prostrate on the floor, rose one by one and spoke.

“I went to visit the Eskimos,” said a slender young girl named Nora Bensaoud. “To see how they break up the ice. At the hotel they put salt in my coffee because they said there was no sugar there.”

Nora’s father, a chicken seller named Choukri Bensaoud, beamed at her from the second row as he cradled her little brother Ghassan. Her other brother, Ghaith, was with her in the recital.

The show shifted into a dance routine, then ended with bows, applause, and the gift of a fully stocked school backpack for each child. Everyone filed into the garden, where Jlidi ended up debating locals.

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One, a young Hizb-ut-Tahrir member named Mongi, warned against democracy and lax morals.

“Most people are focused on the here and now,” Mongi said afterward. “But if they knew where these kinds of activities will bring society, they would never come.”

Nearby, Mr. Bensaoud was assembling his family and preparing to go home. He was still beaming. Religious questions matter little, he says.

“Anyone who can take Nora and Ghaith, shape them, help them to be part of society, I’m for it.”