Isn’t it time that the Tunisians got some credit for what they’ve achieved in the past year?
Just over a year ago, on January 14th, 2011, they concluded a month of protests by assembling in front of the Ministry of the Interior building on Tunis’s main avenue and demanding the departure of the country’s corrupt and long-reigning president, Bela Lugosi-lookalike Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Considering how Ben Ali and his legions of secret-police troglodytes had kept an iron grip on Tunisia for two decades, this seemed it a bit much to hope for. Nonetheless, the people’s will prevailed and the tyrant packed his bags (with, among other things, half of the country’s gold reserves) and fled. In the process, the Arab Spring – still reverberating today in Syria– was born.
I was on the avenue that morning on January 14th, incidentally. If you were familiar with pre-revolutionary Tunisia, the sight of so many people crammed into the avenue in front of the hulking Ministry building, waving protest-placards handwritten in Arabic or English – “Give back our money!” ranted one – was mind-blowing. Even 24 hours earlier, in Ben Ali’s police state, the thought of a public protest in front of this Orwellian symbol of his rule seemed inconceivable.
And yet here they were – not just young men, but women, children and old folk. For many, this was surely the first ever protest they’d been involved in and they looked understandably fazed. At the back of the immense crowd, pressed against the windows of the Benetton store on the avenue’s far side, were many ordinary-looking citizens who obviously agreed with the sentiment but were nonetheless fearful about joining in with the anti-Ben Ali chanting. Meanwhile, kids who’d managed to shin their way up the avenue’s lampposts seemed more interested in posing for photos taken by the Western tourists who were wandering about in bewilderment.
In short, it was something of a shambles, but it was a beautiful shambles — people power in action.
On October 23rd last year, in post-Ben Ali Tunisia, constituent assembly elections were held. These passed with relatively little trouble and were judged to be fair by international observers. Indeed, although many commentators had predicted that disaster and chaos would fill left the void left by Ben Ali – these pessimistic commentators included Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and most of the columnists writing for the right-wing press in Britain – such disaster and chaos did not materialise. Tunisian people, as a whole, have behaved reasonably and sensibly.
Yet little of this has been reported in the Western media, which seems fixated on the demonstrations, violence and multiple deaths that continue to occur, with depressing regularity, in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Of course, things here could still go pear-shaped. The unemployment rate, most recently reported at 18.9%, shows how Tunisia’s new politicians have their work cut out economically. (The return of the five billion dollars that Ben Ali and his family are supposed to have harvested from the country while running it as a kleptocracy would obviously help to get the economy moving again.) Strikes are commonplace – I only have to look out of my window and see the winter rain beating against the rubbish heaped on the pavements, the result of industrial action by the rubbish-collectors, to know that.
The press, having enjoyed a brief freedom after Ben Ali’s departure, has found itself under pressure again — most worryingly with the arrests of three staff-members at the Attounisia newspaper and the trial of the owner of the Nessma TV station.
And despite some fine words recently about building a secular democracy by Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the popular moderate-Islamic Ennahdha party, something needs to be done on the ground to curb the antics of the Salafist extremists, who have been hassling citizens and businesses deemed not to be God-fearing enough.
But despite these many issues, all things considered, the Tunisians have done well to get this far without any major disasters. So why hasn’t this positive fact received more coverage in the Western media? Part of it must be due to the perception in journalistic circles that good news just isn’t interesting. Who wants to report relative tranquillity in post-revolutionary Tunisia when there’s mass bloodshed to report in post-revolutionary Egypt?
But I can’t help feeling too that there’s an element of racism at work. The Tunisians so far have made a reasonable fist of this democracy thing – and you know, Arabs just aren’t supposed to do that.