Revisiting Tunisia eight years after the ‘Jasmine Revolution’

Despite Ennahda’s efforts to depict itself as pluralist and committed to democracy, there is deep distrust.
Sunday 21/04/2019
Fading hopes. Tunisians walk at an alley in the old city of Tunis, last March. (AP)
Fading hopes. Tunisians walk at an alley in the old city of Tunis, last March. (AP)

As the plane began its descent to Tunis-Carthage International Airport, the sites below looked familiar, yet I felt a degree of apprehension because this was my first visit since the “Jasmine Revolution,” the name of the 2011 uprising in Tunisia that toppled the Ben Ali regime.

Due to my father’s career, I was enrolled in the French school in La Marsa, Tunisia, from 1970-74, a period that remains among the happiest of my life. From 2003-08, I visited Tunisia nearly every year, leading different groups on behalf of the World Affairs Council.

While I would have never predicted how the revolution occurred, it was evident during my last visit in 2008 that there was an unusual and different environment that portended a significant change.

With this backdrop, I arrived March 28, 2019, leading members of the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth. The atmosphere at our arrival was more festive and colourful than expected because our visit coincided with Tunisia’s hosting of the Arab League Summit.

As I explained to our travellers, a refrain they would often hear, Tunisia, because of its relative neutrality, has often been called upon to host such conferences, especially when there is acrimony among the members. That only 13 heads of state of the 22 member countries attended is sad evidence of the continued discord.

At the outset, I was struck by the non-existence of the ubiquitous propaganda pictures of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and previously President Habib Bourguiba that were essentially required in every store and street corner. This was my first indication that, however subtle, an important transition to a democratic form of government was in progress.

There were, however, several large billboards and banners featuring Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (reportedly accompanied by a delegation of 1,300) and current Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.

My first morning, I took the train from La Marsa to the central business district of Tunis. While I had been told to expect a greater degree of conservative dress, that was not to be the case. In fact, diversity was clearly evident and it was also interesting to see young women walking together where one would be wearing a hijab while her companion would not.

In the cafes that run along Avenue Habib Bourguiba, there was little change from previous visits, except for pockets of well-armed security personnel, especially around the Interior Ministry and other government buildings.

While I was walking into the souk towards Al-Zaytuna Mosque came the point when I realised that Tunisia’s road forward was tenuous. Where in the past on a Saturday morning there would have been flocks of European tourists, on this day there were none. Sellers, who previously would be encouraging passers-by to enter their shops, were solemn and quiet.

Sadly, this was what we experienced in most areas, other than Houmt Souk on Djerba, which was bustling with activity and tourists.

While official government statistics may show an uptick in the number of tourists, a major reason for this is the influx of people entering either for short or longer stays from Libya and Algeria.

Concerning tourism, Tunisia will be faced with tough decisions that will necessarily involve an accommodation between the government, investors and banks — private and state-owned — because throughout the country there are hotels, condos and other vacation properties in various stages of decay that should probably be condemned.

The Sousse Movenpick where we stayed deserved TripAdvisor’s four stars; however, adjacent to it were several large hotels that were shuttered. Further south, the Camp Yadis Ksar Guilane’s description on its website is sadly misleading or, as a lawyer in our group said, “fraudulent” because the “luxurious” tents were filthy. I doubt if “traditional bedding typical of southern Tunisia” means sheets that covered half the mattress!

The level of service in restaurants and hotels had declined from what I recall ten years ago. Regrettably, whatever the reason, these are issues that must be addressed if Tunisia is to regain its once justified reputation as a leading tourist destination.

Following meetings and conversations with friends of many decades as well as current and former government officials and bright and engaging graduate students, I came away with several impressions.

The 2011 revolution is perceived as a positive step but there is deep disappointment that the anticipated and promised changes, particularly economic, have not taken place.

The younger generation is acutely aware that their employment prospects appear to be bleak and, while they would like to remain in the country, there is a recognition that because of the scarcity of jobs they need to look abroad.

While in many formerly developing countries students once sought to stay abroad, they are now eager to return home. Regrettably, such opportunities do not exist for many highly educated Tunisians. Many, especially in medicine and other technical fields, are exiting, despite, ironically, that medical tourism is on the rise.

Corruption and petty crime are viewed to be on the increase and several people cautioned us to be careful, especially when out at night. Community policing is not common, leaving some neighbourhoods lightly protected.

In a sharp departure from prior visits, there was wide recognition that there was freedom of the press and that diverse views of opinion were readily accessible.

Conversations with our interlocutors quickly turned to the presidential and parliamentary elections to take place late this year. At least among most with whom we spoke there was a worry that the Islamist Ennahda Movement party could either come out on top or at least exit with a sizeable number of seats to have significant influence on the country’s future.

Despite Ennahda’s efforts to depict itself as pluralist and committed to democracy, there is deep distrust. Several people said the large number of parties — 217 — needs to be reduced dramatically to allow for distinct party platforms to be debated.

Not surprisingly, my fellow travellers and I were on the receiving end of questions about US President Donald Trump and the controversial actions taken by him to redirect US policy in the Middle East.

The consensus expressed is that both Tunisia and the United States are experiencing — as is Europe — a wave of populism due in large measure to the lack of employment opportunities and increasing inequality between rural and urban areas.

How Tunisia addresses these issues will undoubtedly be the deciding factor in whether the “Jasmine Revolution” provides the economic opportunities needed to ensure the country’s stability. Implications loom large for the rest of the region. Tunisians’ hopes and frustrations are likely to be similar to those of the Algerians and Sudanese as they embark upon their own democratic transitions.