Autumn in Tunisia, Part I
Volume 21 Issue 22 2013-06-14
“All of us who are concerned for peace and triumph of reason and justice must be keenly aware how small an influence reason and honest good will exert upon events in the political field.”
“Universal peace is declared, and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry."
Before and After in Tunisia
Yes, it was a huge surprise at the time, but in retrospect we should have seen it coming: On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight to protest police brutality and governmental apathy (he later died of his burns). Thus was launched the Jasmine Revolution, whose domino soon toppled noisily against that of several other Middle Eastern nations. The result is what’s now known as the Arab Spring.
A look at underlying conditions shows the inevitability of this string of events and might also suggest a way out.
Before the revolution, the former Tunisian president Ben Ali’s pathological obsession with appearances was exemplified by a photo that came out shortly after the famous immolation, a picture of Ben Ali himself and his ministers visiting—and allegedly offering aid to—a heavily bandaged man in the hospital. The injured man was alleged to be Mohamed Bouazizi. It was a valiant but too-little-too-late stab at public relations; there was no way to tell if this really was Bouazizi, and besides, the bandage job looked a little, well, impromptu. No one was fooled.
To further illustrate the former regime’s obsession with putting on a good front for the media at the expense of the public good, in an interview just a few weeks into the revolution Tunisian blogger and assistant linguistics professor Leena Ben Mhenni shared this story she’d heard from a friend’s gardener:
“It had snowed there [in his northwestern village]; the people needed aid from the government and the authorities had promised to provide the aid. On the day that the aid was provided, the TV was there to record and preserve this historic moment. But according to my witness, people were just handed some old wool blankets and some food, and as soon as the TV journalists left, the authorities took the items back.”
But how can one argue with these kinds of propaganda tactics when they worked so darn well? Prior to the revolution Tunisia enjoyed a reputation as one of the most progressive of Arab nations; it had the best policies on women’s rights and a high literacy rate, and was relatively affluent. But a deeper look beneath the surface uncovered a large number of jailed journalists, a widening gap between rich and poor, and a sense of entitlement to luxurious excess among the very rich, comparable to pre-revolutionary France or Russia.
The time had been ripe; Tunisians had thrown in the towel at the very instant that many other Arab countries were also ready to do so. We now know, for example, that the Egyptian Revolution was being planned and organized at least three years prior to the Jasmine Revolution, but that the Jasmine Revolution had provided a welcome catalyst.
What was the impact of the revolution on Tunisia itself? Since then the Tunisian tourist industry has dipped and then risen again in response to the loss and subsequent restoration of political stability in the country. Democratic elections were held and the majority voted for moderate Islamic party Ennahda, apparently as different from the Ben Ali government as night and day (there’s a famous photo of the party members entering the parliament building after having travelled there together by bus and not in the conventional separate limousines). The long process of reform was begun, and the activists have since remained engaged, active, and conscientious.
But rarely are conditions so poised in a revolution as to create long-term peace and stability right out of the starting gate. Unemployment has risen since even before the revolution. Members of the old boys’ network remain in key positions in both business and government. Both Marxists and religious extremists vie for their own brand of change in this brave new world.
Under Ben Ali, books that spoke ill of him or his regime were prevented from entering the country. Now, books are confiscated from bookstores because of suspicions that they might distort orthodox Islamic teachings.
This new censoring is often presented in the international media as a sign of worsening of conditions, but it’s hard to argue that this new religious censoring is more backward than Ben Ali’s secular justifications for jailing his critics.
Democracy can have a cleansing affect on corruption, but the downside is that it takes the patience of Job to achieve justice and equality in both law and practice. The ruling Ennahda party promotes the idea of a pure parliamentary system, but this is at odds with the other parties who are demanding that more power be vested in the president. Plagued by this kind of deadlock, the democratic process and reforms are so slow as to appear nonexistent. Coupled with lingering corruption and high unemployment, the snaillike pace of change contributes to a kind of hopelessness among the youth—the same feeling that fueled the revolution in the first place.
International interests point out the need to promote economic prosperity within the Tunisian private sector. The US Congress has introduced a bill to fortify business interests in Egypt and Tunisia. Senator Joe Lieberman recently visited the Tunisian capital to announce that the US was offering $30 million in loan guarantees to Tunisian businesses. There are also US plans to stimulate the creation of new businesses by providing the country with a $20 million Tunisia Enterprise Fund.
But at what cost does this aid come to Tunisians? Can we even know the answer to this question within this generation?
(Next week: hearing from Tunisians.)
Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.
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