Tunis … where it all began

A cafe in Tunisia

Amy Hughes

This is where it all began.  I remember nearly ten months ago watching the news footage of rioters protesting a corrupt and repressive regime in Tunisia, wondering if it was the same exotic paradise I’d visited five years earlier.

I recall having to break my Crackberry addiction cold turkey, thanks to President Ben Ali’s internet censorship, but I must have been too busy playing tourist to notice much else… like the high unemployment rates visible in the cafes which dot each town like wild mushrooms growing in a forest.

They are everywhere. And when I saw one practically deserted today, I thought someone must have pulled the fire alarm.  Cafes in Tunisia are never empty.

Sadok Ayari, a 26-year old new media journalist told me, “If you want to see how unemployment’s going, check the cafes. I would love to see some cafes go out of business because there are no customers. It would mean people are too busy working.”

But, Tunisia’s cafes are overflowing with crowds of highly educated unemployed members of the workforce, who occupy the wicker chairs from early in the morning, til late at night.  A cup of coffee can cost as little as 50c; a small price for a place to sit, and commiserate with friends all day, while burning through what little’s left of the silver, on cigarettes.

Most of Tunisia’s economic problems can be blamed on a president, whose former citizens say allowed his wife and family to create a mafia-state, helping themselves to most businesses, large and small, an instant deterrent to entrepreneurs.

The recession hasn’t helped either, as much of Tunisia’s trade is tied with Continental Europe.

But there’s a big difference between Tunisia and its neighbours.  There’s a reason the Arab Spring started here, and it goes beyond a university-educated fruit seller immolating himself after being denied a permit to trade.

Despite decades of a corrupt government, Tunisians have enjoyed the most progressive society in the Arab world.  Women have equal rights, Jews live peacefully among Muslims, with synagogues protected, and observers practicing, and there’s a big emphasis on education.

Democratic experiment … a woman votes in Tunis

In fact, one Tunisian told me, “Sometimes students here lack the discipline to stop studying and look for a job.”  The French may no longer control Tunisia, but their attitudes towards academics and intelligentsia remain, so much so that every time I mentioned to someone I was interviewing Hamadi Redissi, longtime professor of law and political science at the University of Tunis, and author, they “ooh-ed” and “aah-ed” as if I was talking about George Clooney.

OK, he’s not bad looking, but this definitely wasn’t about looks. So, I finally met Obi-Wan Redissi at his office in the popular coastal suburb of La Marsa.

This is where the posh folk live. And with sweeping views of the Med, it’s not hard to see why.

Against a backdrop of mosaic-tiled walls, we spoke about Tunisians and their role in the revolution of the Arab world.

Many have proclaimed this the Facebook revolution … the success of social media, taken the nth degree.

Redissi doesn’t take anything away from the internet’s role, but he doesn’t believe it’s what really made things happen.  The basic foundation of human rights, and a high level of education, Redissi says, is what gave Tunisians the knowledge, and power to know what they were missing out on, and the confidence to know it was attainable.

Al Chebani, the blogger, claims Ben Ali only allowed Facebook to be accessed as a concession to his children, who were keen to take part in the trendy digital sphere.  This was a classic case of the Pandora’s Box.

Al Chebani says other rulers, like Bashar al Assad in Syria, have been wise enough to clamp down on Facebook and other sites. In Redissi’s view, Facebook and the internet were the propellers, not the drivers; an important tool nonetheless.

And it’s doubtful one could have worked without the other.

There is a strong pride here about being the first to try democracy.  Tunisians wonder out loud, why no other Arab nation has seen them as a role model for a secular society and hope now that they are on the cusp of true democracy, others will finally take notice, rather than dismiss their country as a tiny, insignificant state situated closer to Sicily than the Middle East.

Amid the hope and optimism, though, there remains scepticism about politics, both simple and sophisticated.

I visited Sidi Bouzid, the depressed town in the middle of nowhere, home to Mohammed Bouazizi, the fruit-seller who made history.

There, people feel nothing has changed.

The fruit-seller who took over Bouazizi’s corner spot said, “We are still poor.”  For the residents of Sidi Bouzid, economics are the only campaign message that matters.

The middle class worry about the Nada, the conservative, Islamic party with the best organisation skills, and a following. The elected parliamentary assembly will have two tasks: write a constitution, and create an interim government.

Tunisians are worried most about the former.  This intellectual constituency wants more rights, not less. They want to ensure their rights are restored, and expanded. Redissi explained Tunisians dream of a Turkish-style, secular government which could inspire other Arab countries to follow suit.

Sadok Ayari, the young new media journalist, envisions a Tunisia thriving with entrepreneurs, a free and fair press, and an interior developed into 5-star golf resorts to pump sun-seeking, upmarket tourists, and their bulging back pockets into the country.

It’s too soon to know which way Tunisia will go.  Even my hotelier said, “This is the first time it happened in Tunisia.  We try. I hope it will succeed. I hope.”

They are a rare breed, these cautious optimists, but Tunisians know how much is at stake. As Mohammed al Chebani said, “We are like a lab experiment.”

Indeed. Except the combustion came first, let’s hope it’s now time for the logical equation.

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