Impromptu rubbish collection helps explain why the moderate Islamist Ennahda party swept the Tunisia elections in October.
Ennahda cleans up Tunis with a little civic action
SIDI BOU SAID, TUNISIA // One frigid night last month I went for a walk in my neighbourhood near Tunis and came upon half a dozen men pitching sacks of rubbish into the back of a pick-up van.
The sacks, bulging grotesquely, landed with a sickening squish. One wrong move, one loose knot, and a stream of decaying horrors would spill on to shoes and cobblestones.
The men were volunteers, it turned out, and Islamists. "From Ennahda," one of them told me when I asked.
He was between handling sacks, and thrust his hands into his pockets for warmth.
The impromptu rubbish collection team was a minor vignette on a small street. But it helped explain why the moderate Islamist Ennahda party - known for a common touch and seen by supporters to stand for a spirit of charity - swept elections in October.
"After all, somebody has to collect the rubbish," said another of the men. He was short and middle-aged with a trim silvery beard.
"It is the strike, isn't it?" I said.
"Yes," said the first man. "Look, we agree with the union's demands. But this isn't the way to go about making them."
Tunisia was then on day three of a four-day strike by municipality workers backed by the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, or UGTT, the country's largest labour union. Union leaders said the government was remiss on pledges of higher pay. But the strike also pitted the UGTT against Ennahda in a battle about politics as well as workers' rights.
The union showed itself to be a political force last year by backing the protests that helped drive Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power.
I was in Tunisia then. The moment I was sure that protests had become revolt was the morning of January 13, when I watched thousands of angry Tunisians march through the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, directed by UGTT activists.
"Tunis, Tunis, Horra, Horra. Aala Barra Ben Ali," they chanted. "Tunis, Tunis, Free, Free, Out Ben Ali."
I had never known or expected anyone to dare utter such words. But there they were, ringing in the crisp winter air.
The next day Ben Ali fled Tunisia. An interim government included UGTT officials, albeit briefly, and the union's approval was sought for a cabinet reshuffle.
In time, politics moved on. Dozens of new political parties - and a few older ones - took part in Tunisia's first free elections in October.
Ennahda, with a grassroots campaign machine and a pledge to respect Tunisia's Islamic heritage, came first, forming a coalition government with two secularist parties.
The UGTT has excoriated that government for what it describes as a high-handed attitude. After somebody piled rubbish outside the UGTT's headquarters during last month's strike, union leaders blamed Ennahda activists. Ennahda denied the accusation.
Meanwhile, the rubbish piled up in Tunisian streets. In my neighbourhood, that prompted local Ennahda members - acting independently - to step into the breach.
"Four days is just too much," said the man with the silvery beard. "And think how unclean it is. Before long, you'll have people getting sick."
Food rotting in public is never a good thing, and is even worse in places with as many stray cats as in my neighbourhood. A sniff or two, claws out, and last night's chicken bones are strewn across the pavement.
The van was idling in a small street near several restaurants. The men moved to and fro, silhouetted in lamplight that fell on a mountain of glossy, swollen sacks.
"What will tourists think when they see something like that?" one of the men said.
Two weeks ago, thousands of UGTT supporters marched through Tunis demanding that the government step down before being dispersed by police with tear gas after a while.
Who knows what the tourists will think? Tunisians in my neighbourhood, at least, may simply think this: that the union dirtied their doorsteps and Ennahda cleaned them.
Tunisia's next elections are expected later this year.