Maghreb Voices – Autumn in Tunisia, Part III

A Seam of Gold at the Horizon

?I know, and all the world knows, that revolutions never go backward.?
William Henry Seward

In Part II of this series, I asked whether Tunisians have what it takes to battle uphill against the economic adversity, corruption, and religious extremism that have lingered in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution. For now the question remains unanswered, but there are a number of indicators suggesting that this country might harbour just the right combination of elements to render its revolution the harbinger of a stable, prosperous, and harmonious state.

I asked several young Tunisians whether they thought a just society was possible in their country. None believed it would come about within this generation, and others even insisted it could never happen, due to, as one put it, too many long-entrenched instances of injustice and inequality. It may not be a crime to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family, but it can be hard to stop stealing bread once stealing has become a habit, even after your family’s situation improves.

A technician from Sfax notes that the country’s progress is limited by the mentality of its citizens; he feels that the current morass is simply a symptom of a populace not adequately committed to the health of the nation, a people lacking the will to get their shoulders squarely behind positive change.

This makes it hard to withstand the waves of ideology that keep washing ashore. The activist leaders, he insists, are so busy playing the hero and imposing their own ideas on the populace that they fail to consider what’s good for the country.

It’s also hard to find the strength to create change in a shaky economy. Tourism has rebounded, imports and exports have risen, and foreign investment is on the rise, but Tunisia’s post-revolution economy is still fragile because of the financial crises afflicting Tunisia’s European trading partners. The country has yet to establish economic reforms that would enable the economy to prosper and stabilize.

The problems are myriad, but a Tunisian journalist now living in Canada maintains a positive perspective. He notes that strides are already being made to bring Tunisians closer to the ideals most of the people espouse, and although he doesn’t think that total transformation is likely to be completed in his lifetime, he does see it as a possibility one day.

Why? I ask him. What is it about Tunisians that makes a just society possible?

Many things, he insists. When you were there, you probably saw lots of satellite dishes on the rooftops, right? Indeed I had. Well, because of television and the Internet Tunisians got a glimpse of other ways of living. There’s a high literacy rate in Tunisia and many of the people have university degrees. When they saw examples of well-ordered democratic countries they started asking themselves, ?Why not us??

Well, why not? What if, instead of continuing to scrutinize the problems confronting Tunisia, we were to compile a list of all the things about the country and its people that place a just society within reach? Here’s a start:

1. A large proportion of Tunisians know what they want and understand the prerequisites for an egalitarian society. A high literacy rate and a taste for political engagement can immunize this nation against a descent into ignorance and apathy.

2. In spite of conflicts among Salafists, secularists, Marxists, and feminists, there aren’t many ethnic and political groups vying for control (at least not in comparison with other Arab Spring countries, most notably Syria).

3. Reconstruction is centered on developing the constitution; It’s a singular mission in a country torn between religious and secular agendas, but a task integral to guaranteeing democratic freedoms. The fact that differences are being negotiated (albeit too slowly for some) in a relatively calm and reasonable manner is a plus.

4. The aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution has attracted a network of international investors, which has delivered the country from its former precarious dependence on only a few trading partners.

5. The economic potential of this little country has only begun to be tapped. Tunisia possesses abundant natural and cultural resources, including the crafting of gorgeous ceramics and textiles, some of the finest virgin olive oil you’ll ever taste, enchanting scenery (four of the Star Wars movies were filmed here, and when you see the desert and mountains you’ll know why), a network of world-class music festivals, and a ready, hardworking labour pool.

6. Tunisians are a loving people who care deeply for each other and are open, welcoming, and kind to foreigners. Tunisians in general demonstrate devotion to family and community life but without a sense of moral condemnation toward those who don’t share their mores.

7. Except for the Punic Wars, Tunisia doesn’t have a history of intense violent conflict. It has a history of tolerance and a commitment to peace comparable to Canada, with similar shades of self-righteousness (which may explain why Tunisians seeking to emigrate often choose Canada as a destination).

8. During multiple conquests, Tunisians have demonstrated a steel-nerved courage, perseverance, and grace under fire.

9. Even pessimistic Tunisians exhibit national pride, and despite deep-seated rancour against oppression are quick to defend Tunisia itself.

10. The door has opened. Because of the Jasmine Revolution, people are freer to discuss politics without fear of reprisals. There’s now a lot more joy, which is a great motivator.

Though nothing can justify the torture, assault, and murder that were committed during the Tunisian and other revolutions, it would be a marvellous thing if the horrific crimes against men, women, and children in the Arab Spring countries could be followed by years of peace and stability. And if even half of the above elements could be found in other Arab Spring countries, the forecast for the future of the Middle East might just be a sunny one.

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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