Monday, January 17, 2011

Tunisia: Après Le Déluge

The news from Tunisia has been good so far - despot Zine el Abidine Ben Ali has fled to Saudi Arabia due to pressure from the ongoing street protests. Events are moving fast - what happens next is crucial and daunting if reforms are to succeed. As of today, a so-called unity government has been coming under attack. The country's main trade union, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), has refused to recognize it and Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi resigned from the ruling party after only 24 hours. According to Moncef Marzouki, one of the country's best known opposition figures:
"Tunisia deserved much more. Ninety dead, four weeks of real revolution, only for it to come to this? A unity government in name only because, in reality, it is made up of members of the party of dictatorship, the RCD."
The RCD is the Constitutional Democratic Rally which was led by Ben Ali. Something far more legitimate will have to be implemented.

When Yuko and I were in Tunisia in the summer of 2002, we rented a car in Tunis and drove around the country stopping at Dougga, Sousse, Djerba, Kairouan, Matmata and El Jem. I'd already been to Morocco so Tunisia seemed like a practical next destination, open and more stable than other Arab states.

But in April 2002, a bomb blast at the El Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba killed 19. This shocking news was made even more so by the alleged involvement of al-Qaeda. After some serious hesitation we continued on with our plans, convinced that this attack was an aberration for normally moderate Tunisia. We had no regrets. Wherever we went we were warmly welcomed and greeted with generous hospitality.

Tunisia is a beautiful country with an austere landscape that borders the Sahara. The Roman ruins of Dougga exist alongside French cafes and Arabic tilework reflecting the country's rich history. My most memorable experience occurred while visiting the same Ghriba Synagogue with a new friend, Hamza, an economics student and a Muslim from southern Tunisia. He was genuinely proud of his country's diversity and showed us all around Djerba. I've recently been in touch and he's fine, but wary of what might happen next.

Ben Ali has said he plans to return and the pressure on the government will have to be maintained to avoid keeping the old guard at the helm. The uprising was sparked by the release of a Wikileaks' cable at the beginning of December documenting the corruption of Ben Ali and his family. The government tried to block all internet references to it, but failed. This was followed a few weeks later by a 26-year-old university graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, setting himself on fire to protest the country's harsh economic injustices. The opposition is too widespread for any compromises. Once the security forces defy orders and refuse to shoot their fellow citizens, as has been happening, change can be unforgiving.

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