Last Sunday, a friend and I walked from Tunis’s historical suburb of Carthage up to the pretty, white-and-blue-painted and jasmine-festooned village of Sid Bou Said. On the way we stopped at the Basilique de Damous El Karita, which was the first Christian monument to be discovered in the area (http://www.robertjewett.com/damous-el-karita-basilica/). These days, the basilica exists as a pillar-studded field at the side of the Boulevard de l’Environnement — a big, busy road with a concrete drain running along its verge that, despite its name, isn’t particularly environmental-looking. A little closer to Sidi Bou Said, we visited another early Christian site just off the Rue du Maroc, the Basilique de Saint Cyprien, which offers a fine view of the beach and sea at Amilcar (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tunisie_Basilique_St_Cyprien_2.jpg). The day was bright and warm and the sky was flawlessly blue. There were even a few tourist-coaches on the prowl, packed with northern Europeans. I suspect they were from Germany – a country whose holidaymakers have always seemed pretty imperturbable in the face of potential political unrest.
You wouldn’t have thought there was much wrong with Tunisia on Sunday, then. But in fact, on the political, economic and social fronts at the moment, things here seem far from rosy. Admittedly, a calm has descended since early February, when the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid spawned demonstrations, strikes and allegations of murderous government conspiracies. But the calm reminds me of how the Northern Irish thriller writer Colin Bateman, in his 1996 novel Of Wee Sweetie Mice and Men, described Belfast shortly after the mid-1990s peace deal. The metaphor Bateman used for the newly-negotiated peace that suddenly pervaded the long-suffering city of Belfast was of a ‘skin’ resting on a ‘rancid custard’. Tunisia’s current calm does feel about as fragile as a custard skin, and the mass of political, economic and social worries it sits upon is pretty unappetising too.
So – what has happened here since the dust settled following Chokri Belaid’s funeral?
Firstly, Tunisia has got a new government, although it’s composed of the same three parties as the previous government: Ennahdha (the main player), Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic (the junior partners). Negotiations to widen the government’s appeal by bringing more opposition parties on board failed. What is different now is that three ministries that had been in Ennahdha’s control have been handed over to politically ‘neutral’ ministers. These three ministries include the Ministry of the Interior, which had previously been the responsibility of Ali Larayedh, who is now Tunisia’s new prime minister. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-21711345; http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/03/08/prime-minister-designate-names-members-of-new-cabinet/.) It’s fair to say that during his stint as Minister of the Interior Larayedh did not cover himself in glory, so many people here aren’t holding their breath for the success of his premiership. Indeed, most Tunisian people no longer seem to be holding their breath about any improvement in their national politics, a state of disillusionment described in the following article: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/03/08/survey-finds-low-levels-of-trust-for-political-leaders/. (A Tunisian journalist I spoke to recently said flatly that if he’d known how things were going to pan out, he’d never have participated in the revolution two years ago.)
I’m no expert on Tunisian politics but, as an outsider looking in at this new government, I can’t see how Ennahdha has benefited at all. If they really did wish to encourage more political parties into the coalition, they’ve failed. At the same time, they can’t claim to have consolidated or garnered any more power for themselves, since they’ve given away control of three ministries. And only a few weeks ago, when former prime minister Hamadi Jebali proposed a non-political government of ‘technocrats’, Ennahdha said a firm ‘no’ to him, causing Jebali to pack his bags. Yet now, a good-sized chunk of the government is in the hands of political neutrals, which makes you wonder why they bothered to argue with Jebali at all.
Meanwhile, three days ago, a 27-year-old man called Adel Khadri set himself on fire on the steps of the National Theatre on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis. By the time the flames had been put out, Khadri had suffered burns to 90% of his body. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-21767594; http://mg.co.za/article/2013-03-13-man-dies-in-tunisia-after-setting-himself-alight/; http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/03/13/tunisian-street-vendor-dies-morning-after-self-immolation/.) Depending on which newspaper account of the incident you read, he did this in despair about unemployment in Tunisia or as a protest against the harassment he’d suffered from police officers whist trying to eke a living on the Tunis streets as a cigarette vendor. Khadri’s actions echoed those of Mohamed Bouazizi in late 2010, whose self-immolation is credited with triggering the Tunisian revolution and by extension the whole Arab Spring.
Although instances of self-immolation have not been uncommon among unemployed, poverty-stricken and at-the-end-of-their-tether Tunisian men over the last two years – the BBC news website ran a feature about the phenomenon a while ago: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-16526462 — these have generally happened in less-well known towns in the country’s interior. But this most recent case happened in the middle of the most public and most photographed street in the capital. Within hours, pictures of Khadri during the incident’s aftermath, badly burned and clearly in a state of severe shock, were appearing on press websites around the world.
Despite being rushed to hospital – the same hospital, ironically, where Bouazizi had died two years earlier – Khadri passed away the next day. By a grim coincidence, he died just hours before Larayedh’s new government was approved by the National Constituent Assembly.
If Khadri’s self-immolation reminded Tunisians of what’d happened just before the revolution (and made them wonder if things had actually improved since then), another recent incident also suggested that Tunisia hadn’t changed much for the better. A video for a song called Cops are Dogs by a rapper called Weld El 15 came to the attention of the song’s targets, the Tunisian police force, who last Sunday arrested the video’s director and an actress who appeared in it. Both were accused of breaking Act 125 of the Tunisian penal code, which forbids the population from insulting ‘civil servants’. The last I heard, Weld El 15 was still at large and had no intention of handing himself in, for the understandable reason that he reckoned the police would beat the stuffing out of him when they got their hands on him. (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/03/12/tunisian-artists-arrested-over-cops-are-dogs-rap-video/; http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130312/tunisia-detains-two-over-anti-police-rap-video-0.)
Reading about Weld El 15 gave me a feeling of deja-vu, since his story echoed what’d happened to the Sfax-based rapper Hamada Ben-Amor just before the revolution. Back at the beginning of 2011, Ben-Amour’s song President, Your People Are Dying led to him being hauled off by policemen loyal to Tunisia’s then ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2011/01/20111718360234492.html). The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?
Still, I don’t want this entry to be wholly depressing, so I’ll finish by mentioning one Tunisian news story that cheered me up recently. It was about students at the Bourguiba Language Institute in Tunis, who late last month tried to film themselves dancing to the Harlem Shake – something that about 90% of the world’s population seems to have done in recent weeks. Some local Salafists, evidently not fans of the Harlem Shake nor, I would guess, of anything involving music, dancing, fun, laughter or general human spontaneity, invaded the campus in order to stop the filming – and the students, deciding to fight for their right to party, promptly chased those Salafists away again. (http://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2013/02/80247/salafists-fail-to-stop-harlem-shake-in-tunisia/; http://www.juancole.com/2013/02.) Yes, there’s hope for the young generation of Tunisia yet.