Nosferatu in North Africa


When I first moved to Tunisia in 2010, the country was under the heel of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  However, just three months after my arrival, the Arab Spring was triggered in a truly unforeseen manner, by the self-immolation of a poor street trader called Mohamed Bouazizi, outraged at the brutal and off-hand way he’d been treated by Ben Ali’s police.  There ensued a month of chain-reaction protests that climaxed with Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and a squad of her family members fleeing the country for Saudi Arabia.


Ben Ali seemed to be everywhere during my first few months in Tunisia – his last few months in Tunisia, as it turned out.  From roadside and street-side billboards and from framed portraits on the walls of public offices and private businesses, his visage beamed down at me.  He was supposedly long in the tooth by then and many Tunisians whispered that, physically, he was ailing badly and was kept near-comatose on medication administered by his wife.  (This situation suited the Lady Macbeth-like Leila Trabelsi nicely.  She was reckoned to be the one calling the shots anyway – and most of those shots seemed to involve money being siphoned out of the Tunisian economy and into the pockets of her mafia-like relatives.)  What made those ubiquitous portraits of Ben Ali grotesque were the efforts that’d obviously been made to keep the old fellow young-looking.  His hair seemed to have been pickled in Grecian 2000 and his features were caked in make-up.


He put me in mind of a certain movie-star, though probably not the movie-star that his hair stylists and make-up artists had been hoping for.  I took one look at him and thought of Bela Lugosi, playing the title role in the 1930 Universal Studios production of Dracula.  Which I suppose for the long-suffering Tunisians was appropriate, considering what a bunch of bloodsuckers he and his in-laws were.



(c) Universal 


Anyway, I’ve just spent a month in Algeria, where I felt a strange sense of déjà-vu harking back to those early days in Tunisia.  An election was coming up (and was held two days ago, on Thursday, April 17th), and the current incumbent in the presidency, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was running for an unprecedented fourth term – he was only supposed to stay in office for two terms but in 2008 he changed the constitutional rules to prolong his presidential tenure.  I heard familiar-sounding mutterings about corruption, ruling cliques and rigged election-results.  The fact that the 77-year-old Bouteflika was wheelchair-bound following a recent stroke did not inspire faith in the country’s political future, either.


That said, I’d be surprised if the Arab Spring, which claimed Ben Ali as its original victim, made a belated appearance in Algeria.  During the 1990s the country witnessed a civil war between Islamist militants and the army that left 100,000 people dead.  Seeing the potential arise for a similar, devastating militants-versus-military conflict in Egypt, the biggest and powerful country to have experienced the Arab Spring, must seem to Algerians like a reminder of a hideous nightmare.


And yes, it felt like Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s face was everywhere in Algiers too.  And again, whenever I saw his ravaged features on billboards and in framed pictures, I found myself thinking of another actor in a well-known drama about vampires.  This time, this particular North African Arab leader made me think of the elderly James Mason, playing the villainous Mr Straker in the 1979 TV-miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling vampire novel, Salem’s Lot.  Here are pictures of the two old fellows – can you tell which one is Abdelaziz and which one is James, aka Mr Straker?



(c) CBS


However, at this point, experts on Stephen King’s fiction will no doubt interject and point out that in Salem’s Lot Mr Straker was not actually a vampire.  He was the evil human familiar of the even-more-evil vampire mastermind Mr Barlow, who eventually vampirised the whole population of the town of the title.  In the TV miniseries, Mr Barlow was depicted as a sinister, skeletal-faced, bald-headed creature and was played by the strikingly-featured character actor Reggie Nalder.


Actually, Mr Barlow in Salem’s-Lot-the-TV-show reminded me of a politician too, though not a North African Arab one.  I always thought he was a dead ringer for the sinister, skeletal-faced and bald-headed Norman Tebbit, who was Margaret Thatcher’s take-no-prisoners Secretary of State for Employment and who once, notoriously, instructed the United Kingdom’s unemployed to get on their bicycles and to keep pedalling until they found work.





Tunisia’s revolution two years later


Are you a glass-is-half-full or a glass-is-half-empty person?  Due to my dour, rainy Calvinistic upbringing, when I look at a half-drunk pint of beer, I tend to see a chasm of depressing emptiness in the upper half of the glass.  I envy those optimistic souls who revel in the sight of the half-pint of beer still occupying the lower part of the receptacle.


I suppose being of a glass-half-full or half-empty disposition affects how you view the condition of Tunisia two years after the revolution on January 14th, 2011, when the population rose up against the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, against his hateful Lady Macbeth-type spouse Leila Trabelsi, and against her Mafia-esque family, and chased them out of the country.


Those who see the glass as being half-full will point to how the anniversary of the revolution two days ago was marked by the gathering in central Tunis of various groups who don’t necessarily like one another – supporters of Ennahdha, the supposedly-moderate Islamist party that dominates the current ruling coalition, supporters of the main opposition party Nida Tounes, members of the trade union movement the UGTT, and some Islamic extremists who were protesting outside the French Embassy on Habib Bourguiba Avenue about French military intervention against their adulterer-stoning, limb-amputating, shrine-demolishing, music-banning brethren in northern Mali – and yet, despite the potential for trouble, the day passed off relatively peacefully.  Surely, optimists will say, this indicates that Tunisian politics, post-revolution, have acquired a certain maturity and people are able now to voice conflicting views without coming to serious blows.  (;


And although I’d spent most of January 14th out of Tunis, it was pleasant to arrive back there at about 5.00 PM and find the streets quiet and relaxed – folk making their leisurely way around the shops that were open, coffee-drinkers and shisha-smokers sitting outside the cafes and enjoying the last part of the day, which had been a national holiday.  And incidentally, I liked how the clock tower at the bottom of Habib Bourguiba Avenue had had its column swathed in the red of the Tunisian flag, whilst the flag’s white circle, containing the crescent and star, had been positioned over the clock faces.


Meanwhile, Ennahdha’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi is definitely in the glass-half-full camp, if the following article, published in The Guardian on January 14th, is anything to go by:  Supposedly penned by Ghannouchi himself (though I suspect his daughter Intissar, who’s contributed to the Guardian in the past, had a hand in it), the article claims that “Tunisians are for the first time the true protagonists of their history, and are engaged in an experience that will be a model for democracy in the region.”  “The governing coalition of secularist and Islamist parties,” writes Ghannouchi, “…(d)espite their differences…  have clearly demonstrated the possibility of reconciliation, co-operation and partnership between moderate Islamists and moderate secularists, an important model for the Arab world.”  He concedes that Tunisia faces severe problems of economic underdevelopment and unemployment and insists that the solutions “to many pressing demands can only be found in long-term structural change”.  Embarrassingly, Ghannouchi’s article put the Tunisian revolution as happening in January 2010, rather than January 2011, although in a later Guardian edition this error was amended.


I’m afraid I don’t find myself gushing with the same enthusiasm that Ghannouchi apparently is, and it’s not wholly down to my pessimistic nature either.  One concrete reason is the continuing harassment, intimidation and disruption caused by the Salafist extremists whom Ennahdha has not done enough to curtail, either because of incompetence, or naiveté, or – if you’re a conspiracy theorist – silent complicity in what the Salafists want to achieve, which is a Tunisia run under Sharia law.


By an unhappy coincidence, the night before the revolution’s anniversary, Sunday 13th, I joined some colleagues for a meal in a restaurant at the top of the hill in Sidi Bou Said, which is a village a little way up the coast from Tunis.  Sidi Bou Said is probably the most picturesque tourist spot in the vicinity of Tunis and it has two main claims to fame.  Firstly, the gorgeous lights and colours of the locality have attracted many famous artists over the years, both Tunisian (Yahia Turki, Brahim Dhahak) and European (Paul Klee, Louis Moillet, August Macke).  Secondly, it is the site of an important Sufi mausoleum – indeed, Sidi Bou Said takes its name from a Sufi saint who settled there in the late 12th or early 13th century – and is a place of Sufi pilgrimage.


When I arrived at the restaurant on Sunday evening, everyone was talking about a fire that’d done severe damage to the mausoleum the night before.  The staff in the restaurant speculated that the fire could have broken out accidentally, though as Salafists have been targeting Sufi shrines, both in Tunisia and across northern Africa – they consider the veneration of saints in Islam to be blasphemy – it seemed more likely to be an act of vandalism.  Indeed, the authorities have since confirmed that what happened at Sidi Bou Said was arson. (


Before entering the restaurant I’d suspected that something was up, because the street outside seemed to contain a lot of people – too many, at that particular point in the evening, for them to be tourists – and they seemed to be hanging about rather than heading anywhere.  It transpired that a government minister was dining in a restaurant across the street and these people had gathered to protest – presumably about the destruction of the mausoleum and about Ennahdha’s seeming inability to prevent such carnage happening.  When I left the restaurant I was in a couple of hours later, the crowd in the street had become even denser and it took some careful manoeuvring to get through it.  I have to say, though, that it was probably the most genteel, most middle-class-looking crowd of protestors I’ve ever had to worm my way through and they gave off no vibes of impending violence.  One man had even come along to protest in a wheelchair.


However, after emerging from the far side of the crowd, I saw coming up the hill a squad of policemen.  They weren’t in riot gear, but they were armed with batons and one guy at the back was furtively carrying a gun for firing tear-gas canisters.  So it didn’t seem like a good idea to loiter in the vicinity.  (The crowd gave an ironic cheer when the cops came within sight of them.)


It wasn’t until the next day that I discovered that the crowd wasn’t on the street to make a protest about the burning of the mausoleum at all.  The government minister in the restaurant was actually Tunisia’s foreign minister, Rafik Abdessalem, who was entertaining some visiting dignitaries from the Gulf.  Abdessalem has been embroiled in controversy recently.  He’s been accused of using public money to fund some expensive (and possibly scandalous) stays in Tunis’s Sheraton Hotel.  (  The folk outside the restaurant were indignant taxpayers, determined to make Abdessalem aware of their discontent.  I heard that eventually Abdessalem and his guests had to be escorted to safety via the restaurant’s kitchen.


Incidentally, Rafik Abdessalem happens to be Rachid Ghannouchi’s son-in-law.  If I were a Tunisian, I might be starting to wonder if there’s an unwritten rule demanding that all my country’s leaders, pre-revolution and post-revolution, bestow nice favours on their in-laws.


A glass-half-full person would no doubt point to those protestors the other night in Sidi Bou Said and say it’s wonderful that citizens in the modern Tunisia aren’t afraid to let their politicians know what they think of them.  No longer are they willing to tolerate any crap from their ruling classes.  As a glass-half-empty person, though, I have to say that when I see such reminders of mindless Salafist vandalism on one hand, and of old-style corruption-nepotism on the other, my heart sinks.  Either because of incompetence the main ruling party here seems unable to stamp out the two spectres of religious extremism and corruption, or because of self-interest it seems unwilling to stamp them out.


However, to end this entry on a cheerier note…  Here are a few photographs of the achingly lovely Sidi Bou Said on a less turbulent day.



Rachid against the machine


In the past fortnight I have noticed two opinion pieces in the British media concerning the Arab Uprising.  Incidentally, the ‘Arab Uprising’ seems to have become the BBC’s new term for describing what had formerly been called the ‘Arab Spring’.  Presumably this is because the political and economic sunshine in North Africa and the Middle East has not been summery, or even particularly spring-like, since events in Tunisia kick-started the thing nearly two years ago.


One was by Gerald Warner, who is described in his now-defunct Daily Telegraph blog as ‘an author, broadcaster, columnist and polemical commentator’.  Some, especially those who have to grit their teeth whilst wading through his columns in the Scotland on Sunday every week, would translate ‘polemical commentator’ as ‘right-wing tosser’.  In his December 2nd column in the SoS, he used recent events in Egypt to pour scorn on liberals who’d dared to believe that the Arab Spring / Uprising would produce anything other than chaos, bloodshed and hardline Islamic oppression: “Old Middle Eastern hands could have told the starry-eyed Guardianistas that democracy on the Nile does not produce the same outcome as on the banks of the Thames.”




The other piece was authored by Mehdi Hasan, a journalist involved with the Guardian, New Statesman, Al-Jazeera Television and the UK edition of the Huffington Post.  One of Warner’s despised Guardianistas, Hasan is something of a punch-bag these days for Britain’s right-wing commentators – only rarely, it seems, does the Spectator columnist Rod Liddle write the name ‘Mehdi Hasan’ without preceding it with the words ‘the idiotic’.  A Hasan-penned article appeared in the New Statesman on November 29th, wherein he conceded that “recent events in Egypt don’t help those of us who desperately want to be optimistic about the future of the region”.  Nonetheless, he declared defiantly: “But do you know who I trust? The Egyptians. And the Bahrainis. And the Jordanians. And the Syrians. Whatever the season, spring or winter, they will have their freedom.”




Now in my entire life I have never agreed with a single word that Gerald Warner has written, and if I ever did I would probably rush to the nearest clinic to check if I was suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.  I find it particularly ironic that Warner should mouth off about the horrors of Sharia law, considering that in the past he’s excused the murderous regimes of Franco and Pinochet on the grounds that because both fascist dictators were devout Roman Catholics (as he is) they couldn’t have been that bad.  The moral code Warner would like us all to live under might not go as far as advocating the death penalty for the sin of apostasy, but it certainly wouldn’t be a barrel of laughs either – I imagine it would be as much fun as living in Eamon de Valera’s Irish Free State circa 1935.  Still, the recent antics of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi have made my heart sink.  Morsi seems to have split his country down the middle with a giant political chisel in his haste to approve an ambiguously-worded constitution that would allow Islamists to make life miserable for Coptics, Sufis, pesky liberals and uppity women.




Where does that leave the other country at the forefront of the Arab Spring (sorry, Uprising), Tunisia?  By a coincidence, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahdha, Tunisia’s supposedly moderate Islamist party and the biggest player in its post-revolution government, also turned up in the British media lately.  He was interviewed in the Guardian last week by the firebrand (though on this occasion noticeably deferential) left-wing journalist Seumas Milne.  Interestingly, Ghannouchi identified the ‘Scandinavian’ model as the one he was most eager for Tunisia to follow.  But don’t worry, all you devout Salafists out there, he wasn’t talking about Swedish permissiveness or Danish pornography (‘hot love and cold people’, as the saying used to go), but the Scandinavian economic and social model, where more than a little of capitalist society’s profits goes to a creating a decent safety net for the less well-off.  Folk in hard-pressed parts of Tunisia like Siliana and Sidi Bouzid would tell Ghannouchi that there’s a hell of a long way to go before the economic and social climate there is anywhere near as comfortable as it is in Scandinavia.




Meanwhile, it’s disappointing that Seumas Milne, whose past articles in the Guardian have included The Problem with Unions is they’re not Strong Enough, Five Reasons Public Service Workers are Right to Strike, The Return of Anti-Union Propaganda, The Right to Strike is being Threatened by the Courts, An Assault on Unions is an Attack on Democracy Itself, and A Generation on, the Miners’ Strike can Speak to our Time, didn’t ask Ghannouchi about why his government has fallen out so badly with his country’s trade union organisation, the Union Géneralé Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT).


The UGTT has been vitriolic about the Tunisian government and Ennahdha in particular.  It blames the country’s political leaders for the violent police handling of protestors, including trade unionists, who were demonstrating about the lack of jobs in the town of Siliana in late November and early December.  It also blames them for a recent assault on trade unionists in Tunis while they commemorated the assassination of UGTT founder Farhat Hached (killed in 1952 by La Main Rouge, a French paramilitary group seeking to prevent Tunisian independence).  The attackers were allegedly members of the League for the Protection of the Revolution, a faction supporting Ennahdha that had already been accused of responsibility for the death of opposition party Nida Tounes activist Lofti Naqdh back in October.


In fact, so incensed was the UGTT that it had planned a general strike in Tunisia today, December 13th, though the strike was called off yesterday after last-minute negotiations between it and the government.  As yet, I haven’t seen any details of what was agreed.  (Knowing the keen sense of rivalry that Tunisians have with the Egyptians, I can’t help suspecting that the UGTT and the government agreed to compromise only because they didn’t want Tunisia to look as hopeless as Egypt looks at the moment.)


Ghannouchi, and Ennahdha generally, must be feeling lonely at the top these days.  Not only have they earned the ire of the UGTT, but the ultra-religious Salafists – a group they’d spent the last year trying to be civil towards – have been saying beastly things about them too, most notably Nasreddine Aloui, the Salafist imam of Ennour Mosque. This followed trouble in late October in Tunis’s Manouba district, which resulted in two Salafists being shot dead during a confrontation at a local police station.  Interviewed on a live TV show, Aloui called for a jihad against Ennahdha, whom he denounced as puppets of the US government.  He even waved a kafin (a burial shroud) in the air while he called on young Salafists to sacrifice themselves in the upcoming war on Ennahdha.  Predictably, his call-to-arms didn’t impress government minister Samir Dilou, who happened to be appearing on the show at the same time.




Hindsight is both a wonderful and a worthless thing.  However, Ennahdha could have done things better in the year or so since it became the main party of power.  It could have paid less attention to political wrangling and bickering and focused more on the economy, which many would argue was the real driver for the revolution.  Poor folk – including many unemployed young men – living in the country’s interior rebelled against the old Ben Ali regime because they faced shockingly grim economic prospects.  Richer folk living along the Mediterranean coast rebelled because the Mafia-like way in which the country was run – if you had a business, Ben Ali’s gruesome in-laws, the Trabelsi clan, invariably came calling looking for a cut of your profits – whittled away the money you already had and deterred entrepreneurs from setting up new operations and generating new money.


At the same time, Ennahdha was over-lenient with the Salafists, whose behaviour gave outsiders the impression that the country was unstable, discouraging tourists from visiting and making potential foreign investors think twice about putting money in it.  Some viewed the appeasement of the Salafists as being part of a secret, sinister plot by Ennahdha to gradually move Tunisia towards being a hardline, Sharia-controlled state, and I’m sure Ennahdha politicians, as Islamists, would like to see Tunisians being a bit more Islamic than many of them are at the moment.  But I’m inclined to think this was more down to political naiveté and inexperience.  They tried to be reasonable towards the Salafists, assuming that they’d be reasonable back.  This didn’t happen.  The Salafists seemed to believe that having the right to express their opinions and to protest peacefully also give them the right to attack TV stations, galleries, bars and embassies.  And as Nasreddine Aloui’s TV outburst showed, they didn’t take it well when, finally, the authorities ran out of patience and began to meet force with force.


Wiser heads will say that a revolution is never an event and always a process.  One Tunisian acquaintance of mine, who’d been schooled in France and therefore knew all about the French Revolution (which is credited as lasting a decade, and led to Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration, the July Monarchy and two more revolutions in 1830 and 1848), told me: “We will set up a new government…  And if they are no good, we will throw them out and set up another government…  And if they are no good, we will throw them out too…”  Unfortunately, this fact has not been appreciated by some other Tunisians, who expected their living standards to rise the morning after Ben Ali and the Trabelsis had fled.


It certainly wasn’t appreciated in the West, where the modern news media is obsessed with catering for short TV-conditioned attention spans.  Every news item becomes a narrative, invested with a quick, easy-to-digest structure that has a beginning, middle and end, and receives a title as catchy and glib as a politician’s sound-bite.  Thus, what happened in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 became the ‘Arab Spring’ – an event, not the first stage of what was likely to be a long, gruelling and torturous process.  Liberal Western commentators were only too happy to hail it as the day that Arab societies shook off their oppressors and turned into democracy-loving, equal-rights-for-everybody Shangri-Las.  And when this didn’t happen, right-wing Western commentators were only too happy to pronounce the whole thing a catastrophic failure that would usher in a new Dark Ages to North Africa and the Middle East.  A lot of people would be advised to hunker down, study their history books and exhibit a little patience.


What happens next in Tunisia?  Elections are supposedly due next year and it’s conceivable that Ennahdha could lose power.  If they do, will they – and their fans in the League for the Protection of the Revolution – accept defeat gracefully?  Or will there be a massive schism and a potentially destructive stand-off like what’s happening in Egypt just now?  I think there are grounds for optimism, because Tunisia isn’t Egypt (and despite what the narrative-obsessed Western media has told people, the Tunisian Revolution is a very different beast from the Egyptian one).  Tunisians are better educated, their country (thanks to the myriad outside influences that have figured in its history) has always seemed more outward-looking and the Tunisian army – which would have a major role to play in solving a constitutional crisis – has, until now at least, behaved with integrity.


One thing is for sure.  The West should get over the idea that it’s sensible to support the likes of Ben Ali, Mubarak or even (the rehabilitated) Colonel Gaddafi on the grounds that “Okay, he’s a bastard, but at least he’s our bastard.”  Gerald Warner, for example, sings the praises of Mubarak, who “was the best friend the West had in one of the most tinderbox areas on Earth; he made uneasy peace with Israel, kept the lid on smouldering fanaticism and was a reliable ally.”  Maybe so, but he was still a bastard, a corrupt bastard who robbed his people blind.  As did Ben Ali, his wife and her kin.  And sooner or later, with such bastards running (and robbing) the show, the general population will rise up and get rid of them.  I often think that if, back in the days of the Blair government, Cheri Blair had been following Leila Trabelsi’s example, siphoning off Britain’s wealth and dishing it out to her relatives like the actor Tony Booth and the journalist Lauren Booth, incensed Daily Telegraph readers and Spectator readers would have been the first to storm the barricades.


Of course, if Western powers have been backing this or that dictator until their moment of departure, they needn’t expect any love from the population afterwards.  It might seem realpolitik to support a bastard, but surely it’s even more realpolitik not to support an eventual loser?


If anyone qualifies as an ‘old Middle Eastern hand’ that Warner mentioned in his quote at the start of this entry, it’s Robert Fisk, the Independent’s correspondent for the region.  He made a pertinent remark about the Arab Spring / Uprising phenomenon in an article a month-and-a-half ago: “It is a slow business: every reader of this article will be dead of old age before the Arab ‘revolution’ is complete.”  Mehdi Hasan may be optimistic about it, but I’m afraid he’ll have more than a few grey hairs before he finds out if his optimism was justified.




Fight for your right to (annoy the ruling) party


A couple of entries ago, I said that the Tunisian government’s recent decision to ban protests from the main street in Tunis, Habib Bourguiba Avenue, was bad news for people’s right to protest.  Since then, it has become clear that more than a few citizens share my opinion.  Firstly, last Saturday, April 7th, 400 graduates demonstrating about the high unemployment rate attempted to enter the avenue and were clubbed and teargassed by riot police enforcing the ban:


Then an attempted march on Habib Bourguiba Avenue last Monday, April 9th – which is a holiday known as Martyr’s Day and commemorates those Tunisians who lost their lives during the struggle against French colonial rule – led to more trouble still, with parts of the thoroughfare disappearing under a smog of teargas.  Here is a vivid (though de-contextualised) account of the event by a Western eyewitness, who managed to get his report published in the Guardian:


The Guardian story received some Internet comments from Islamophobes, who jeered things along the lines of: “Oh, one ruthless dictatorship gets replaced by Islamic politicians who form another ruthless dictatorship!  What a surprise!”  However, I think the recent shenanigans on Habib Bourguiba Avenue had less to do with dictatorial tendencies in the new government (though I assume that some or most of the riot cops involved had learned their teargas-first-ask-questions-later tactics under the Ben Ali regime) than with inexperience and incompetence.


This is a society where ministers are still trying to master the art of decision-making – as opposed to taking orders and not questioning them, as they did in the bad old days.  (Back then, the orders came from the top – either from Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or from his ridiculous and repulsive ex-hairdresser wife Leila Trabelsi, who appears to have worn the trousers in their relationship.  She may even, some Tunisians have told me, have kept the poor old Grecian 2000-ed dictator doped up on drugs for most of the time.)


This inevitably means they will make some bad decisions.  With hindsight, the Habib Bourguiba Avenue ban was stupidly short-sighted, coming as it did just a few days before Martyr’s Day.  This day is now more emotionally charged than ever, as the Revolution a year ago gave it a new crop of martyrs to celebrate.  And as I said in the very first entry on this blog, the section of Habib Bourguiba Avenue around the Ministry of the Interior building is now of great symbolic importance for the Revolution and those who gave their lives during it.  Obviously, people will want to gather there on April 9th.


Anyway, at the risk of looking weak-willed, the government has now back-tracked.  The ban on protests on Habib Bourguiba Avenue has been lifted again, though certain rules and conditions have been placed on would-be protestors.  It’s a pity they didn’t decide to do this in the first place:


Incidentally, I live about 15 minutes’ walk from Habib Bourguiba Avenue.  Even a year ago, any trouble on the main drag would have been instantly detectable in my neighbourhood.  First of all, my local Monoprix would have yanked the shutters down over its alcohol section, presumably because its staff-members believed that people who drank alcohol were also people who caused trouble and started riots.  I don’t know how they squared this logic with the fact that a good amount of the trouble in post-revolutionary Tunisia has been caused by the Salafists.


Then it and the other big supermarket would yank down their shutters altogether.  Several supermarkets got thrashed during the Revolution, so they were quite sensitive to any disturbances that happened afterwards.  (I suppose getting thrashed was the price you paid for allowing Leila Trabelsi and her family to own most of your shares.)  A helicopter would be heard prowling low above the rooftops.  And people would gather on the pavements, and housewives would emerge onto the upper-floor balconies, and everyone would gaze apprehensively towards the centre of town.


Yet this Monday, while riot-police were rampaging about Habib Bourguiba Avenue, my neighbourhood was weirdly calm.  There were no helicopters in the sky or apprehensive-looking people on the streets.  Even the two supermarkets – which I’d regarded as the canaries-in-the-coal-mine for alerting people about ruckuses downtown – remained open for business.  Folk here seem to have grown immune to such disturbances and an odd (if you’re an outsider) sense of normalcy prevails.


Another example.  A few months ago, one Sunday afternoon, I was drinking in a pub called L’Ambassadeur on the far side of Habib Bourguiba Avenue, a block or two up from the rear of the Ministry of the Interior building.  An incident seemed to be in progress there and, while I was in the pub, some riot cops and even a few soldiers ran past its windows and vanished down the side-street opposite its front door.  The guys in the pub didn’t bat an eyelid at what was happening outside.  They were too busy watching some football on TV.


No Salafing matter

Last week, on Tunis’s Mohamed V Avenue, I saw a procession of student demonstrators who were carrying several Tunisian flags at their head.  The national flag here, incidentally, features a white crescent and star (representing peace, Arab unity and the five pillars of Islam) on a red background (representing the blood of past Tunisian martyrs).


What, I wondered, were the students protesting against?


It transpired that they were up in arms, metaphorically speaking, about an incident at the Arts and Humanities faculty of the city’s Manouba University the previous day.  Since the Tunisian Revolution, the campus has been the scene of protests by Salafist activists about the university’s policy of not allowing female students to cover their faces with the niqab, the Islamic veil.


In this latest incident, a Salafist protestor pulled down the Tunisian flag at the faculty and replaced it with a black flag bearing the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith.  A non-Salafist student called Khaoula Rachidi, who tried to stop him removing the national flag, got shoved off a wall for her efforts.


This was filmed, however, and the footage was widely shown in the media, causing an outcry among nationalist, secular and left-leaning Tunisians – politicians, journalists and trade unionists as well as students.  Here is an item I found on Youtube that pays tribute to the gutsy Khaoula Rachidi.  You can see her doing her flag-protecting stuff 30 seconds in.


The Salafists – who, when I see them on the streets of Tunis, are usually comprised of fat, scowling blokes with beards, robes and sneakers – complain that on university campuses in Western countries, like the USA and Britain, female students are allowed to wear whatever they want, including the all-concealing niqab.  So why shouldn’t the same rights be given to students at Manouba?
Well, that’s a fair point.  But I assume that, for the sake of consistency in their arguments, the Salafists have now embraced all Western notions of freedom.  For example, the notion that, in the daytime during Ramadan, you’re free to serve food to non-believers without the threat of getting your restaurant burned down by fat, scowling blokes with beards, robes and sneakers.  Or that you’re free, as a woman, to walk around a provincial town with your hair uncovered without the threat of being harassed by fat, scowling blokes with beards, robes and sneakers.  Or that you’re free to broadcast the French-Iranian movie Persepolis without the threat of having your TV station attacked by fat, scowling blokes with beards, robes and sneakers.  Etcetera.


Part of me finds it a little sad that it took the removal of a flag to trigger this backlash against the Salafists, when pretty much all their bullying and intolerance have merited a backlash – a long overdue one.  But perhaps my thinking here is influenced by my background.  I’m a citizen of the United Kingdom, where, apart from the Protest community in Northern Ireland and the supporters of Glasgow Rangers Football Club in Scotland, I suspect to most people the national flag does not mean a great deal emotionally.


Indeed, these days, the Union Jack seems more of a corporate logo than anything else.  Sometimes an effective logo – adorning the tail-fins of British Airways planes, or Noel Gallagher’s guitar, or Roger Moore’s parachute in The Spy Who Loved Me.  Sometimes less effective – think of that mini-dress-cum-tea-towel worn by the Spice Girls’ Geri Halliwell at the 1997 Brit Awards, or basically anything on sale at a London tourist stall.


But unlike the brand that is the Union Jack, the Tunisian flag seems to mean something important to people here.  In the opening paragraph I said its red background symbolised the blood of Tunisia’s martyrs.  Those martyrs include the people who died fourteen months ago, in the uprising against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s corrupt and cruel regime.  I imagine the removal of the flag at Manouba University last week wasn’t just seen as a desecration of a national emblem, but as a desecration of their memory.


These musings put me in mind of something I saw on a Tunis street on January 14th last year, the day that Tunisia’s revolutionaries forced Ben Ali to flee the country.  (Though at the time, it wasn’t obvious that the uprising would succeed and the ordinary people who’d taken to the streets in protest faced brutal retaliatory action if the regime stood its ground.)  In my notebook I wrote:


“Coming back along Avenue de la Liberte (near to the mosque, where the tramlines cross the road), I encountered a long and frankly ragged procession of chanting men and teenagers, heading towards Habib Bourguiba Avenue.  A young guy was walking a few yards ahead of the rest, holding aloft a Tunisian flag, then there was the main mass of marchers, and then there were stragglers.  The pedestrians who’d been heading in the opposite direction politely herded themselves to the side, into Avenue de Lyon and alongside the Costa Nostra Salon de The, to allow them to pass…


“Hobbling along at the back of the procession was a figure I don’t think I’ll ever forget.  He was a little old man, little more than five feet tall…  He was chanting as he limped along with one hand raised in a clenched fist, and a Tunisian flag hanging down his back, one corner of it tucked in behind his shirt collar.


“I hope he didn’t get hurt later on.”




The Antonine Baths at Carthage

Carthage is a remarkable neighbourhood a few miles up the coast from Tunis.  It’s dotted with ruins, excavated sites and museums pertaining to the Phoenician, Punic and Roman civilisations, which were the main players in this region’s early history.

In the year-and-a-half that I’ve lived in Tunis, I’ve managed to visit most of the historical and archaeological attractions of Carthage – the Musee de Carthage on top of Byrsa Hill, the amphitheatre, the Roman villas, the Basilica of Dermech and the Sanctuary of Tophet.  It wasn’t until five days ago, however, that I made it to the Antonine Baths in the district’s north-eastern corner.

In their day, the Antonine Baths were a leisure complex of saunas, pools and gymnasiums, which ranked as one of the largest such establishments in the Roman Empire.  Their ruins stand on a site that slopes down from the TGM railway line and Avenue Habib Bourguiba to the Mediterranean coast.  A garden covers the site’s upper half while what remains of the baths themselves occupies its bottom part.  The site’s southern side is bordered by a street called Avenue des Thermes d’Antonin, while overlooking its northern side are the grounds and buildings of the Presidential Palace.

(Until last January, presumably, this palace was where ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and his numerous Trabelsi-family in-laws spent their evenings, unwinding after their hectic and stressful day jobs, which consisted of plundering the country’s resources and pocketing its wealth.)

The upper-level gardens are pleasant enough.  Criss-crossed with paths and shaded by palms, eucalyptus trees and tangled cacti, they contain underground vaults, a kiln and the ruins of a necropolis and an early Christian chapel.  Here are a few pictures of carvings and sculptures that I discovered in the subterranean chambers.


But the baths themselves, ranged along the shore, are the main attraction.  Even though the most intact parts of them now are their foundations – an impressively labyrinthine network of vaults, archways and corridors extends below ground-level – there are enough ruins standing above to give you a sense of the complex’s original dimensions.  Indeed, one column has been re-erected to its original height of 15 metres, which suggests how its roof must have loomed over the sea.


Construction of the baths started during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, the man responsible for the great wall that ran across the far north of England and protected Roman-held territory from unruly Scots and Picts.  Did any legionary, during his military career, have the experience of being posted to both these testimonies to Hadrian’s ambition?  Imagine the contrast.  One year you’re guarding the Antonine Baths, beside the sparkling Mediterranean, in the sultry heat of Carthage.  The next, you’re stuck on the top of Hadrian’s Wall in windswept, rain-lashed Northumbria, fearfully on the lookout for marauding hordes of woad-covered, mud-splattered Scots.  I know which posting I’d have preferred.

The complex was razed by the Vandals in 439 AD (with the Arabs using much of the stone later in the building of Tunis).  Unfortunately, you don’t have to wander far before you notice traces of modern graffiti on the ruins and artefacts here – evidence that not all the Vandals died out in the fifth century.

The item in this last picture might look like a pre-revolutionary relic that was taken from the Presidential Palace – a Michael Jackson-style suspended animation capsule, in which the Trabelsi family kept the moribund and barely-sentient Ben Ali like a cling-film-wrapped pork chop in a freezer.  It’s not, however.  It’s actually a plastic dome that houses a model of the baths when they were in their post-Hadrian, pre-Vandals, intact and glorious prime.

Kleptocrats of the world unite


Now that I’m putting pieces of writing on the Internet, I’ve become a bit paranoid about the grammatical and lexical accuracy of my prose.  This is a medium accessed by hundreds of millions of folk around the globe, after all.  You don’t want to appear illiterate in front of that many people.   (Though admittedly, this blog appears to have attracted a readership of one so far – myself.)


One word I used in a recent entry was ‘kleptocracy’.  As soon as I posted the entry, I began to wonder if I really knew what the word meant and if I’d used it appropriately.  Thankfully, when I checked the Wikipedia article on kleptocracies, I discovered that I’d been right.  Wikipedia defines it as “a form of political and government corruption where the government exists to increase the personal wealth and political power of its officials and the ruling class at the expense of the wider population”.


Put a big tick in the ‘kleptocrat’ column next to Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s name, then.


Helpfully, the Wikipedia article also listed the world’s worst kleptocrats, based on research done in 2004 by the NGO Transparency International.  Here are the five most brazen offenders.


Suharto Indonesia 15 – 35 billion dollars
Ferdinand Marcos The Philippines 5 – 10 billion dollars
Mobutu Sese Seko Zaire 5 billion dollars
Sani Abacha Nigeria 2 – 5 billion dollars
Slobodan Milosevic Yugoslavia and Serbia 1 billion dollars


Only slightly further down this league table of avarice and infamy are Haiti’s Baby Doc Duvalier, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, Ukraine’s Pavlo Lazarenko, Nicaragua’s Arnoldo Aleman and the Philippines’ Joseph Estrada.  Those poor Philippines really got lumbered with them.


Bear in mind that this list was compiled in 2004.  The victims of the Arab Spring – Hosni Mubarak, Mr and Mrs Ben Ali and the ghastly Gaddafi clan – would surely have a good chance of qualifying for an updated one.  And there are plenty of people still in power whose kleptocratic excesses haven’t been calculated yet.  God knows how much of Zimbabwe’s wealth has disappeared into Robert Mugabe’s trousers during the last three decades.  And one shudders to imagine the revenue generated by the hard-pressed workers of North Korea’s factories and farms that’s ended up in the Kim family bank account in Macao.


Returning to Transparency International’s research in 2004, I did once share a building with one of the names listed.  In the mid-1990s, Alberto Fujimori – the son of Japanese immigrants to Peru and not yet regarded as the colossal embezzler and human-rights violator that he’s known as today – was on a tour of Japan.  He stopped off at the university where I was working then, Hokkai-Gakuen University in Sapporo, and gave a speech in the swanky conference centre a few floors above the floor containing my office in the main campus building.  I didn’t go to see Fujimori and his entourage when they arrived, but I remember getting a note slipped under my office door early that morning.  The note politely informed me that if I opened my window that day, I ran the risk of being shot by a police sniper.


Fujimori is currently four years into a 25-year prison sentence in Peru.  Meanwhile, I suspect his visit doesn’t get much of a mention in Hokkai-Gakuen University’s promotional literature these days.


Respect for the Tunisians


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.