All politics is local; Tunisia is no exception

Friday 30/10/2015
Domestic agenda first

An American friend who recently visited Tunisia asked me what Tunisians think of the recent flare-ups between Israelis and Palestinians. My response surprised him.
During the last few years I have thought the Palestinian-Israeli issue and other regional issues — be it the fate of hundreds of thousands of Middle East refugees flowing into Europe or that of the many Syrians and Iraqis dying every day — have ceased to be of great interest to Tunisians, with the exception of political elites who still make a point of follow­ing regional and international news closely. Media surveys show Tunisians get most of their news from local TV channels and not from pan-Arab or foreign channels as they used to.
Tunisians, like many in the Arab world, have definitely turned inward. It is what is happening at home that counts, with most deep­ly worried about the economy, terrorism and security. Polls about the attitudes of Tunisians and their reactions to recent events bear this out.
Tunisians learned that the Quartet, the group that facilitated negotiations that led to Tunisia’s elections at the end of 2014, would be given the Nobel Peace Prize. Truly a great honour for Tu­nisians, many felt. But for the aver­age Tunisian, a Nobel prize is only as good as the tangible dividends it can bring to the country and its people.
The same applies to democracy. Even in Tunisia, which is consid­ered to have achieved the most peaceful political transition among “Arab spring” countries, questions remain.
The results of an International Republican Institute (IRI) survey published in August found that for 58% of Tunisians democracy is sec­ondary to stability and prosperity.
Badreddine Badreddine, an exec­utive with a French company with stores throughout Tunisia, said he does feel life is better for him since the revolution. He has moved up in the professional ranks of his company but he has one major con­cern — terrorism. He is not alone in that concern. The IRI survey found that 21% of those polled said they felt Tunisia was going in the “right direction” while 72% said it was go­ing in the “wrong direction”.
Several days ago, I met Rafiq, a working-class Tunisian who upon hearing my non-native Arabic was surprised to learn I was Ameri­can. “What do you think of our revolution?” he asked. I turned the question around and asked him if life is better for him now? “No, life was better before the revolu­tion,” he said. “What has it brought me? I work more than ever. I am not earning any more money than years ago.” He raised his fist and said: “Before, there was authority. We are missing this now!”
Again, the IRI poll underscores Rafiq’s thoughts. Of those polled 60% described the economic situa­tion as “very bad”, with 17% saying it was “somewhat bad”. When asked if one had to choose between a stable and prosperous Tunisia that was ruled by an authoritar­ian government or a democratic government that led to an unstable and insecure country, 50% said they would choose the authoritar­ian government.
People in Tunisia treasure their democracy and their finally earned freedoms; it is just that they think bread and security come first. They also are sceptical about the ability of the political class to deliver.
This may also bear out why the recent elections in Egypt resulted in a turnout of only about 17% of voters. As some Egyptians noted, they are tired of the revolution. “We want bread” was a chant heard in Egypt.
Despite the turn from demo­cratic policies that the Egyptian revolution of January 2011 was meant to bring, a majority of Egyp­tians are seeing that with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, there is more stability and not the chaos of daily demonstrations that were taking place under the short-lived rule of deposed president Muhammad Morsi.
This also explains the popularity of Russian President Vladimir Pu­tin in many parts of the Arab world where he has impressed quite a few with his well-cultivated image of a strong leader. This is high­lighted by one of the most popular Facebook posts among Iraqi Shias: a Photoshopped image of “Sheikh Putin” dressed as an Arab tribal leader. Many Tunisians feel he might be able to rid them of their fellow citizens who have joined jihad in the Levant.
The late US speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said that “all politics is local”. This certainly seems to be the case in many parts of the world, with Tunisia being no exception.
Returning to the unpleasant im­ages that we all see on television of the hundreds of thousands of refu­gees walking in the rain to board trains to a better life in Europe or the nearly 4 million refugees in camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, one has to wonder if they could turn back the clock to the times before January 2011 in Syria, Libya or Iraq, would they prefer the stability, albeit strong author­ity and lack of democracy, to the present situation?
They probably would like to have it all: Democratic freedoms but also bread and security.