Tunisia’s new boss – same as the old boss?


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.)


From www.alvinet.com


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.


Welcome back to Tunisia


It’s just over two weeks since I returned to Tunisia and a lot has obviously been going on during that time.  Here is a round-up of some of the stories that have made the news headlines recently.




Sometimes it’s difficult enough drinking in the bars of downtown Tunis – thanks to the near-lethal miasma of cigarette smoke that fills them, and the shifty demeanour of some of the regulars, which encourages you to do your boozing with your back against the nearest wall, and the acrid taste of Tunisia’s national brew, the chemical-laden Celtia beer.  On top of those things, you don’t also want to contend with the possibility of an invasion by a hundred fat bearded blokes in smocks and sneakers smashing bottles and furniture and bellowing “Al-sharab haram!”, which means “Drinking is a sin!” in Arabic.  Though to be honest, I’ve been in a few Tunis pubs where this could happen and nobody would notice any difference.


Anyway, a day after I returned to Tunisia, the printed and online media were full of tales about how Salafists – oh, how I’d wanted to spend at least a few days back here without seeing that word in print again – had attacked an establishment called the Horchani Hotel in Sidi Bouzid, the town in central Tunisia that in late 2010 saw the first stirrings of the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring.  The Salafists burst into the hotel on September 3rd and ransacked its bedrooms and kitchens, as well as smashing up the hotel-bar and its contents.  This was the culmination of a four-month campaign whereby Sidi Bouzid’s bars had been forced to close down one by one because of Salafist violence or because of the threat of it.  The Horchani Hotel had been the last hold-out.  With it out of action, the town is now dry (http://observers.france24.com/content/20120906-tunisia-sidi-bouzid-runs-dry-after-salafists-destroy-last-remaining-bar-hotel-horchani).


Alcohol is something that Salafists don’t like drinking and naturally they think it isn’t right for anyone else to drink it, either.  So it’s awfully thoughtful and generous of them to take action on the public’s behalf like this, without even pausing to consult anyone first.


According to the September 5th edition of La Presse newspaper, which reported the incident with the headline SALAFISTS STRIKE AGAIN WITH IMPUNITY, the local forces of law and order didn’t bother to turn up until well after the damage was done – despite being informed that trouble was brewing a quarter-hour before the invasion took place.  The hotel’s owner, Jamil Horchani, also told La Presse that among the guests in his hotel at the time were a couple of Dutch holidaymakers who “through their interpreter, swore to never again set foot on the soil of this country, after the moments of terror that they experienced.”  Seeing that this story was also reported on the BBC news website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19481835) – it was the third most-read article there at one point – and it has since appeared on at least one holiday website too (http://news.cheapholidaydeals.co.uk/salafist-muslims-ransack-hotel-in-tunisia-because-it-serves-alcohol/), I suspect there will be plenty of potential tourists who, after reading about it, will decide not to set foot on the soil of this country at all, ever.




Two artists whose works were displayed this June at the Printemps des Art Fair in La Marsa are now facing prison sentences of up to five years for ‘disturbing the public peace’.  The exhibition led to riots by Salafists – yes, them again – who believed some of its contents to be ‘blasphemous’, and by criminals who’d opportunistically crawled out of the woodwork to do some looting and pillaging.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/09/03/campaign-to-defend-artists-accused-of-disturbing-public-order/)


The fact that the artists, Nadia Jelassie and Mohamed Ben Slama, are accused of being responsible for the disorder (which resulted in the imposition of a curfew for several days), rather than the Salafist / criminal mob who actually carried it out, is in itself mind-melting.  However, I fail to see what is so outrageous about their artworks anyway.


Jelassie contributed to Printemps des Arts a sculpture that dealt with the practice of putting people to death by stoning.  Though the fact may be uncomfortable for some Tunisians, stoning is still a feature of certain Islamic societies.  There have been recent reports of it happening in the northern Mali town of Anguelhok, which at the moment is controlled by militants acting under the jurisdiction of AQIM, al-Quaedi in the Islamic Maghreb (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/07/201273021254165201.html).  And here’s a link to a short film that Iranian-born comedian Shappi Khorsandi made last year for Amnesty International, highlighting the situation in her home country: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQGqerNE3MY.


Also displayed was a painting by Ben Slama, which was condemned for showing God’s name spelt out by configurations of tiny ants – allegedly, this reduced Allah to the level of puny insects that scurry around in the dirt.  But in fact the Koran depicts ants as being an intelligent species that even possess their own language.  (See http://www.quransource.com/miracles/en/hy/content.asp?f=scientific_80 and http://quran.tanyt.info/index.php?lang=en&sura=141)  And as I’ve said before on this blog, it seems only logical that artists should glorify God, if they want to glorify Him, by pointing out the wonders of His handiwork in nature, both big and small.  (As a little kid in Northern Ireland, I was made, Sunday after Sunday at my local church, to sing the children’s hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, which concluded with the lines: He gave us eyes to see them / And lips that we might tell / How great is God almighty / Who has made all things well.)


But what both works are guilty of is the fact that they encourage people to think a little.  And thinking, of course, is anathema to the Salafists, or at least to their most extreme, vocal and violent elements.  Unfortunately, it seems increasingly to be anathema to the Tunisian government too.




Meanwhile, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the supposedly moderate-Islamic Ennahdha Party that is the main component of the Tunisian government, has threatened to sue Britain’s Independent newspaper.  This isn’t because of anything the newspaper itself said.  Rather, it’s in response to an interview that the newspaper’s veteran Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, conducted with Walid Muallem, who is foreign minister to Bashir al-Assad, the mass-murdering and weasel-like president of Syria.  During the interview, Muallem claimed that in the run-up to last year’s Tunisian elections, Ennahdha was generously funded by the Emir of Qatar.  The reporting of this claim has clearly upset Ghannouchi.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/08/31/head-of-islamist-ennahdha-party-to-file-suit-against-the-independent/)


Now, as a trained journalist, I know that under British law (well, under English law at least – I did my training in London) you have to be extremely careful in repeating contentious comments made by your interviewees.  Printing such comments can leave your publication open to being sued for libel as much as the individuals who made them.  However, it seems mean-spirited of Ghannouchi to go after the Independent, one of the few British newspapers that doesn’t view the world through a belligerent right-wing prism, and in particular to go after Fisk, who is one of the very few British journalists who gives the Arab cause a sympathetic hearing.  Even Ghannouchi had to admit that he regarded Fisk as “a respectable man.”  So why not simply sue Muallem, a leading figure in a far from respectable regime?


Actually, I suspect that Ghannouchi is still sore at the Independent for an extremely prickly article that Fisk wrote about Tunisia back in February this year.  In it, he portrayed the post-revolutionary Tunisia as a hellhole of unemployment, censorship and rising religious extremism, something that’d been achieved with the connivance of the government.  At the time, I thought the article was overheated – for his research, Fisk seemed to have spent too much time hanging out with his Tunisian journalist mates, who were being unnecessarily paranoid and exaggerating their case.  Now, however, I’m not so sure.  Here is what he wrote: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/poisoned-spring-revolution-brings-tunisia-more-fear-than-freedom-7237464.html.




However, one piece of good news – slightly good news – has appeared on the economic front here in Tunisia.  The unemployment rate seems to have plateaued and even gone down a little.  According to the country’s National Statistics Institute, in the second quarter of 2012, unemployment dropped from a hefty 18.1% to a still-hefty but slightly better 17.6%.  Evidence, perhaps, that following the revolution the economy is finally chugging into life again?  (http://www.silobreaker.com/unemployment-rate-down-05-in-second-quarter-of-2012-5_2265973905841717291)


Unfortunately, shortly after that figure was announced, this happened: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/09/14/at-least-3-dead-28-wounded-after-clashes-at-us-embassy-in-tunisia/.


And still it isn’t over.  Coming soon, to a French embassy near you…  http://world.time.com/2012/09/19/french-satirical-cartoons-spark-ire-in-the-arab-springs-birthplace/.  Oh, bollocks.