Tunisians invoke Macbeth to warn against a return of toil and trouble

A Tunisian playwright has adapted the Shakespeare tragedy – in which Macbeth's drive for power brings moral decline and war – to warn that political infighting could bring back darker days.

By , Correspondent

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    Supporters of the Ennahda (Al Nahda) party, Tunisia's main Islamist political party, attend a meeting regarding International Women's Day in Tunis Sunday. Today Tunisia's constituent assembly approved a new cabinet lineup that the ruling Ennahda party hopes will resolve deadlock over its sway within the coalition government.
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In a Tunis theater last week, four actors representing four ordinary Tunisians not so long ago sat on stage clutching lifesize dolls of Tunisia’s former dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

“God protect him!” they sang. Their legs half-obscured four model jail cells, each containing a slumped prisoner.

“Macbeth: Leila and Ben – A Bloody History,” performed this month in Tunisia, adapts Shakespeare’s tragedy to cast new scrutiny on the Arab Spring cradle: How did oppression here endure so long, and could it return?

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Those are timely questions. Two years after protests toppled Mr. Ben Ali, democratic reform is mired in political squabbling and economic malaise. Institutions such as the police and courts still need reform, and a new constitution is due. While few fear another full-blown dictatorship, democracy is still fragile.

Today Tunisia's constituent assembly approved a new cabinet lineup that the ruling Ennahda (Al Nahda) party hopes will resolve deadlock over its sway within the coalition government. But while Ennahda says many new faces are independents, it still failed to convince opposition parties to join the coalition. 

Tunisians, meanwhile, are increasingly preoccupied with just getting by. Unemployment trumps politics among their concerns by nearly fourfold, according to a January poll by the International Republican Institute. Under Ben Ali, fear paralyzed most Tunisians. But now, the worry is that stagnation will plunge them into apathy. 

“If we become passive, it will be from factors like economic crisis and high living costs,” says Lotfi Achour, the play’s director. “We’re tired, and fatigue could make us lower our guard.”

Reminders of the past

Mr. Achour's play, co-written with actors Anissa Daoud and Jawhar Basti, recounts in colloquial Tunisian Arabic (with French subtitles) the last time that happened: in 1987, when then-Prime Minister Ben Ali removed his ailing predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, and took power with promises of democracy. 

Soon he was crushing dissidents instead. As the play tells it, his wife, Leila Trabelsi – portrayed as a real-life Lady Macbeth in heels and an eggplant-purple dress – bullied him along while Tunisian society often looked the other way. 

Then, in January 2011, Tunisians shocked the world, and perhaps themselves, by defying their oppressor. 

After a showing of "Macbeth: Leila and Ben – A Bloody History" last week, Achour joined the cast onstage for a discussion with the audience. 

"Seeing this reminds me that a revolution really did take place," said one young man in a suit and tie. "Although now I'm among those who don't see the end of the tunnel."

Debate ranged from the broad sweep of Arab history to the role religion played in contemporary politics. For Achour and others in Tunisia, the key question now is whether revolutionary energy is maturing into civic engagement.  

“It’s up to the people to monitor politicians and hold them to account,” says Amira Yahyaoui, the president of Al Bawsala, a nonprofit group that tracks the constituent assembly. 

Tunisia’s new leaders do need monitoring, Ms. Yahyaoui says. The assembly’s main task is drafting a new constitution. A report last week by Al Bawsala portrayed it as rife with delays and absenteeism.

Average attendance at 22 assembly sessions between Jan. 17, and Feb. 25, was just 41 percent, according to the report. When Yahyaoui presented the findings to the assembly last week, some members insisted angrily that they should be above such scrutiny, she says. 

"We're the highest authority in the land!” one man huffed.

“No, the highest authority is the people,” Yahyaoui replied.

Overcoming apathy

Al Bawsala and other civil society groups keep debate on key issues alive and pressure leaders to complete reforms. But it’s unclear how much ordinary Tunisians are still interested. Increasingly, many are focused on unemployment that hovers around 17 percent. A $1.78 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund is on hold until Tunisia’s political future looks clear.

The new cabinet may help things get moving. But the road ahead looks long. Yesterday Mustapha Ben Jaafar, who presides over the assembly, said fresh elections could be postponed yet again, to late this year. It's unclear when, or how, the Tunisian street might weigh in.

Yesterday a vendor named Adel Khadri set himself on fire in downtown Tunis, echoing the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi that triggered the revolt against Ben Ali. Mr. Khadri died this morning in the hospital. 

For Yahyaoui, the example of that revolt offers hope today that Tunisians will re-engage in politics – after all, the protests that ousted Ben Ali began over economic grievances.

"But in just four weeks, people made the link between the lack of a job and the lack of democracy," she says.

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