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A week-long visit to Tunisia, in the course of which I covered some 2,000 miles by rental car, bus, SUV, and a powered hang glider, has confirmed that of faraway places we often assume to know more than we do. The first country affected by a wave of popular discontent known as the Arab Spring was full of surprises.
To start with, the country is safe for foreign visitors. There have been no attacks on tourists, either at the time of the “Jasmine Revolution” last year or during the periodic eruptions of street protests since then. The violence triggered off by that YouTube video was quickly contained. Last week, more than 50 people—most of them policemen—were injured in protests at the reopening of a rubbish dump on the resort island of Djerba, but the protesters stayed away from the hotels. Even in dusty provincial towns, where no foreigners venture, gas station attendants and cold drinks vendors invariably greeted me with a smile and a polite “bonjour, Monsieur, ça va?” This is in contrast to the barely concealed hostility I have encountered on my recent trips to the West Bank, or—over a decade ago—in Libya.
By the third day, I felt emboldened to venture on my own to the spectacular Roman city of Dougga, a three hour drive from Hammamet, where I had the ruins all to myself for over two hours. At Téboursouk, on the way to Dougga, and at Qa Afur on the way back, I stopped casually at coffee houses for refreshments—the only European for miles around. Mustached men observed the strange sight behind clouds of tobacco smoke. Before long, some bold youngsters initiated conversation. Speaking French (however rusty in my case) definitely helps: it is still compulsory in Tunisian schools, and English has not made many inroads outside the capital and the coastal resorts. (As it happens, it also helps not being an American, or at any rate not admitting to being one.) The conversation did not need to be steered to politics, as most Tunisians find it the only topic currently worth discussing. Such encounters have been invaluable in helping me form a broad picture—more comprehensive and reliable than the one visiting foreign journalists get from their Sorbonne-educated, barely-accented colleagues over cappuccinos on Avenue Habib Bourguiba.
The “Arab Spring” stereotype—a simmering volcano of fundamentalism suddenly erupting and sweeping away a secularist autocracy—does not apply to Tunisia. The causes of the revolt against Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali in January 2011 were social and economic, no less than political. The country had outgrown him. Tunisia is blessed not to have much oil or gas—unlike its two neighbors Libya and Algeria—so it was forced to develop tourism, agriculture, and light manufacturing from its own resources. In contrast to the Emirates or Saudi Arabia, the Tunisians do their own work. The results have been impressive: it is the most literate Arab country, with the highest percentage of women in the workforce. It has good roads, reliable phones, clean if sometimes erratic water supply, and working sewers. Its roadsides are littered with garbage, but its living standards and the quality of its public services are second to none on the African continent. (Libya topped the chart until a year ago.)
In the final years of his rule, Ben Ali made the mistake of pandering excessively to his big business cronies, including his second wife’s corrupt family. The anger of “the street” had more to do with an uneven distribution of the fruits of prosperity and the stubbornly high unemployment rate—especially among the young—than with the kind of endemic poverty rampant in Egypt. A year later the Tunisian economy appears to have avoided the nosedive that seemed imminent after Ben Ali’s fall. The country’s budget deficit will be contained at below 6 percent of GDP next year. This year’s growth is expected to exceed 3.5 percent, and next year’s target is an impressive 4.5 percent. Inflation, interest rates and exchange rates remain under control.
Far from having absolute supremacy comparable to that enjoyed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia’s Islamic party, Ennahdha, is sharing power in a coalition that includes secularists who opposed Ben Ali’s regime and were the first to hit the streets in January of last year. President Moncef Marzouki, a suave, fluent French speaker, is one of them. Ennahdha’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, is still the most powerful player in the country, but he is likely to fall short of an absolute parliamentary majority in the elections due next year. Many Tunisians are disappointed by the graft and corruption that remain endemic a year after his party became the majority stakeholder in the first democratically elected government in the country’s history. The political process is nevertheless well established, the press is free, and not even pro-Western secularists regret the demise of Ben Ali. A recent public opinion survey released by the International Republican Institute shows that most people prefer a democratic Tunisia, however unstable, over a non-democratic system which promised prosperity and security.
A year after gaining 89 of the 217 seats in parliament, Ennahdha has seen its support slip to 30 percent. It is now challenged, even by the veterans of the old establishment. Nidaa Tounes party, led by the former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, has come from nowhere to command the support of one-fifth of the electorate. Many Tunisians—including my young casual interlocutors—object to the continuing demand of some Ennahdha deputies for the inclusion of Islamic provisions in the new constitution, including a controversial amendment making women unequal to men. The secularists, including Ennahdha’s current coalition partners and the leftists Workers’ Party, are likely to obtain sufficient support to prevent the country’s drift into Islamism.
All this is light years away from Libya next door, or Egypt further east. It was only towards the end of my tour that it dawned on me why Tunisia’s destiny is by no means sealed: there was no American intervention, which would have secured an Islamist takeover. Ben Ali gave up too soon for the U.S. to get directly involved, and there was no violence to justify calls for intervention. The “revolution” was a Tunisian affair and it has produced an outcome illustrative of Tunisian realities. It is currently the only functioning democracy in the Arab world. It is to be hoped that the Obama Administration will refrain from trying to engineer a different outcome.
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