Republic day in Tunisia, waiting for a pardon

Tunisia’s Mornaguia jail

Today, July 25, Tunisia celebrates its birth as a republic. On this day in 1957, Tunisia, having already announced its independence 15 months earlier, officially became a republican regime. While most Tunisians spend today as one would any holiday, relaxing with friends and family, some Tunisian families are waiting for word from the president on pardons for their imprisoned family members.

While both inside and outside of Tunisia the emphasis has usually been on political prisoners from the Ben Ali era, conditions of Tunisian prisons have not improved since the revolution, except for those who were pardoned in one of the general amnesties since January 14, 2011.

Nevertheless, Tunisia’s jails remain notoriously harsh. Conditions are spartan, with many prisoners sleeping 50 to a room. The lucky ones may get a “private” room, containing only 7 other men. And with draconian sentencing, Tunisians, convicted of what might be considered petty crimes in other countries, may languish for years in prison in Tunisia. Recall that only recently, two young men in Mahdia were sentenced to seven years in jail for blasphemy. While the “affaire Mahdia” has become somewhat of a cause celebre, many Tunisians guilty of possession of small amounts of drugs or petty vandalism can spend years in Tunisia’s jails.

On this, the 55th Republic Day in Tunisia, it is the families of these prisoners that are praying for a miracle. Praying that their sons or brothers, or fathers will receive a presidential pardon and a new lease on life. Today can act as a subtle reminder for those who thankfully do not have to experience the tragedy of having a family member in jail, that even those who have erred deserve respect and human dignity.

Update on Salafi attacks in upscale Tunis suburb of La Marsa

[Update: The ruling party has released a statement on these events, condemning and calling for the prosecution of both the artists and the vandals, my English translation of the statement can be found here.]

It was only moments after I posted this article that the Tweets started rolling in. Something big was happening in La Marsa related to the art exhibit that had been attacked yesterday. I left the house at around 11:30 p.m. to see what was going on in. By the time I arrived at Tunisie Telecom, in the heart of La Marsa, just steps away from the French Ambassador’s residence, the evidence was already there – broken bottles, tear gas canisters and rock piles. And then all of a sudden I found myself surrounded by military and police vehicles telling me to get the heck away as they moved in to arrest a handful of young rioters.

The rioting continued for the next several hours (it’s still going on as I write). Curious and concerned onlookers would give each other reports from friends and family, mostly about the expected arrival of reinforcements from nearby cities, especially La Goulette and le Kram, to coastal towns known for Salafi activity.

Much like during the revolution, the riots ebbed and flowed, with protesters surging against the police only to be driven away by speeding paddy wagons and lobs of tear gas. It was unclear how many of the rioters were truly “salafists” – the catch all word for religious extremists in Tunisia. In fact, from what I say, there were a fair number of run of the mill young hoodlums having a lot of fun throwing rocks at the police, with thoughts of the apostates far from their minds. Nevertheless, the religious overtones were there, with each surge came chants of God is great.

Tonight’s protests were based as much on the images displayed in the art exhibit as they were on contempt for the country’s elite, who live largely in La Marsa. The elite are perceived as out of touch and disrespectful of religion. And the reality is that when it comes to puritanical forms of Islam, the protesters are largely correct. The story will play big in tomorrow’s papers and risks spreading rapidly through a society that is more polarized than ever before.

The pity of tonight’s protests, on top of spreading intolerance and polarization, is that it is exactly what the country does not need at this point. Tourism is only just recovering and foreign investors have held on tenuously to their ventures in the country, waiting for a return to stability. Rioting in the hometown of most of Tunisia’s business community as well as a symbol of its summer beach culture will do no favors to either industry.

Culture wars: Salafi attacks in La Marsa target heart of Tunisian secularism

Divine creatures from the La Marsa art exhibition

[Update 2: The ruling party has released a statement condemning both the artists and the vandals, calling for both of their prosecutions. See the press statement in English here]

[Update: Only moments after I posted this article more riots broke out in La Marsa. See my take on the most recent events here.]

It only happened yesterday, but already a lot of ink has and will be spilled on the confrontations at a local art fair yesterday in La Marsa, a coastal suburb of Tunis. The situation took place, according to several eyewitness accounts, at the Abdallia Palace, a former Ottoman palace turned gallery in the center of the town. The art fair, on its final day, was the scene of first verbal confrontations, and in the end, the destruction of numerous works of art by what appear to be religious groups who objected to what they deemed to be offensive works. Here are some quick thoughts on the incident and how its been reported in what will surely remain, along with Persepolis, a key event in the Tunisian culture wars.

A number of journals have already provided descriptions of the incident. In English, have a look at Tunisia Live’s accounts here and here. French accounts can be found here and here.

Firstly, what remains unclear is exactly what was found offensive by the protesters. The La Marsa art fair was held over 10 days throughout the northern Tunis suburbs of La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said. Reports on social networks have been inconclusive. Many have reacted against a work which appears to show a pair of women’s panties, although other sources claim that these photos were taken elsewhere in Tunis and were not part of the exhibitition. The La Marsa bookstore Mille Feuilles reported on its Facebook page that one of the offending pictures was entitled Divine Creatures, in what appears to be an abstract image of different animals. Another image on Tunisia Live’s website shows a punching bag with a woman wearing a veil with a caption reading “I am a Christian woman.” Reports have not mentioned what exactly was deemed offensive by these images or if other images were exhibited that were more outwardly provocative.

Which leads to point number 2, provocation is once again the key word for those who have defended the protesters, including Tunisia’s Islamist-led government. The Ministry of Cultural Affairs released a statement condemning “all attacks against that which is holy, which is the case for some of the works on exhibition.” This follows repeated calls on social networks against violence, but also against the art fair for provoking religious discord in the country. Many of these accounts cited the precarious position Tunisia is in at the present moment as cause for self-censorship of these kinds of works. My readers will recall that the same logic has been used frequently in Tunisia under similar circumstances, such as the release of the film Neither God nor Master last year or the broadcast of Persepolis by Nessma TV last October. In the case of the latter, as in the current case, the call of provocation was also made by the ruling party itself.

Thirdly, the reports are entirely unclear whether protesters and destroyers of art are the same people. Articles have stated that there were at least three different incidences last night. According to Tunisia Live and Nawaat blogger Lilia Weslaty, first a group of people at the exhibit protested directly to the curator of the exhibit. They then said they would return with other protesters and lawyers. When this happened a confrontation took place with exhibit-goers and protesters which was resolved peacefully with police involvement. Finally, later in the evening a group of people returned to the gallery, vandalized works of art, spray painted the buildings, and left. It is unclear whether these were the same groups. This is important because it was only the vandals who clearly crossed red lines.

One other observation is that almost all of the accounts I have seen talk about the behavior of the art fair organizers. It appears that after the initial confrontation, the organizers made it difficult for pious critics of the exhibit to properly view the exhibit. Weslaty reports that these critics were followed closely to “protect the artwork.” Tunisia Live reports that these people felt that those who were following them were trying to “provoke” them. Whatever the reality, the news reports point to what was clearly a class divide between the organizers and the religious activists. It is hardly uncommon to hear among Tunisia’s educated elite how ignorant they think Salafis to be. Likewise, among Salafis, a common refrain is that the elite are completely out of touch with ordinary Tunisians because of their French educations and haughty ways of acting. The reports on these incidents seem to confirm this class of cultures.

So what can we take away from this ugly incident?

Ultimately, what’s important is that this attack was a direct attack on Tunisian multi-cultural, largely secular, and French speaking community. La Marsa, a town built by the French 100 years ago, is one of the few towns in Tunisia where you’ll hear as much French as Tunisian – not only do many foreigners live in La Marsa, but the Tunisian residents have often been educated in one of the French schools in the city. To give an idea, the town of La Marsa has its own polling place for French residents. While previous incidents of this nature have taken place in downtown Tunis or in towns in Tunisia’s interior, Sunday’s incident struck at a pocket of Tunisian progressivism at an event that celebrated free expression. It is unlikely that this event will soon be forgotten and many in La Marsa will no doubt be expecting yet more confrontations of this kind.

For more on Tunisia’s culture wars see here, here, here, here and here.

Education: Tunisian women continue to outpace men and the demographic challenge that creates

Almost 130,000 Tunisian students will attempt to pass the Baccalaureat exam this year. Based on the French system, le Bac is a cumulative exam that allows those who pass to enter the university system.

Suffice it to say – in a country that has emphasized education since its independence – it’s a big deal. Daily news reports update the public on how the exams will be conducted and the mobile phone companies have ensured that every student will receive a text message when the results are announced on June 22.

Recent articles in the Tunisian press have discussed whether with an Islamist government philosophy should still be part of the Bac, the interdiction of the full face veil for women taking the exam, and how the ruling party, Ennahdha, is giving candy to students taking the Bac.

One recent article on the Bac caught my eye – it stated that of the 130,000 students taking the exam, 57 percent will be women. Perhaps not surprising, in a country known since independence for its treatment of women, the results correspond to another trend – it is not just women who are becoming more educated  - according to World Bank data – it’s men who are becoming less educated. While women’s enrollment in primary school has been increasing, overall enrollments have been declining – meaning that fewer and fewer men are enrolling or completing school.

The trend starts early, 92 percent of girls complete a primary education in Tunisia, while only 90 percent of boys do the same – and their numbers are in steep decline, down 17 percent from the high. Of those who complete primary school, 87 percent of girls go on to secondary school, while only 80 percent of boys do. Again this year, more women will complete their secondary education and move on to college.

Yet despite the fact that women’s educational levels are increasing in absolute and relative terms (compared to men), their participation in the labor force remains limited. The World Bank estimates that only 25 percent of women are active workers, virtually unchanged from 10 years ago.

This corresponds to another sad fact of Tunisian employment – the more educated you are, the worse your prospects are. In an inverse to trends in the U.S., unemployment rates are actually higher in Tunisia for those with college degrees.

As Lahcen Achy noted in his study of Tunisia’s economy for the Carnegie Endowment, “Education turned out to be a double-edged sword by raising the expectations of educated youths and fueling their frustrations…On average, each university graduate remains unemployed for two years and four months, which is nine months longer than for of nongraduates.”

The problem is even worse for women – who often have difficulty getting jobs in the private sector, and yet have found public sector employment harder and harder to come by. As a recent African Development Bank report put it: “out of an equal number of male and female active engineers, the industry and private services sector hires 79 women for every 100 men. On the contrary, the public services sector hires 108 female engineers for every 100 men.”

Now more than ever, the need for education and labor market reforms is apparant. The government is expected to release a report on changes to the secondary educational system. Let’s hope they go beyond the recent announcement that they will once again, in a post-Ottoman empire irony, to teach Turkish in their high schools – and start looking at how to improve the system so that it corresponds to the needs of the Tunisian labor market.

What does it mean to attack Tunisian bar culture?

A series of stories has grabbed the attention of the international press about religious attacks on Tunisian bars and liquor stores. Attacks have occurred across the country over the past year, intensifying in the past 10 days with major incidences in Jendouba and Sidi Bouzid. These attacks raise the question, what is the prevalence of Tunisian bars and liquor stores? how easy is it to buy alcohol in this Muslim country? and who is being attacked?

From Agence France Presse:

On Saturday, after police arrested a Salafi suspect in the northern town of Jendouba, a group of 200 bearded men attacked the police station with firebombs and stones. They were repulsed with tear gas but went on a rampage through downtown, attacking bars and liquor stores. Fifteen suspects have been arrested. Earlier in the month, another group of conservatives attacked bars in the central town of Sidi Bouzid.

To read the reports, it sounds as if Tunisia’s reputation as the most secular of Arab countries is really true – women and men sip wine together and mingle in a southern version of a Parisian bar. “Pass me the vermouth, honey.” The reality, of course is a little different.

Let’s step away from the 4 star hotel on the coast most tourists find in Tunisia and look at where a typical Tunisian goes to have a drink.

First of all, you’re going to have to get there early. Bars are forbidden to serve after 8 p.m. Secondly, check your pants – if you’re a man, come on in, if not – no booze will be served – these are men only affairs. Finally, do you like dank? If so, you’re in the right place. Tunisian bars have generally not been cleaned since the 1960s.  While I don’t have the precise data, it corresponds roughly to the last time someone was able to open a new bar in Tunisia. Since Bourguiba’s era, alcohol licences have only been available to “Restaurant touristique” meaning that all the bars in Tunisia are roughly from the colonial era. And they smell like it too.

Dive bar does not describe the typical squalor of a Tunisian bar. If you like drinking inside of a roadside gas station men’s restroom, you’ll be right at home. The further you get from the tourist areas, the truer this is.

What, this doesn’t appeal to you? Perhaps you’d like to drink with your mates at home. No problem. Tunisian liquor stores have all you need – both beer and wine. But you’re going to need sharp elbows – and you’ll have to be punctual. Buying beer at a Tunisian liquor store involves queuing (fighting) with about 50 guys in a cage, usually in a basement, or in an alleyway – most likely both. These stores are typically open for about 2 hours a day. But armed with your loot – at least you can go have your beer in tranquility – just make sure it’s in a black plastic bag – no way can you brandish your beer on the street. Also, be sure it’s not Friday, when no booze is for sale and no bars are open.

Of course, if you’re a little more well to do Jendoubian or Sidi Bouzidois, you might be able to head to the local hotel. Ostensibly for foreign customers, most Tunisian hotels are armed with the “Restaurant touristique” license that allows them the opportunity to sell booze. And of course, if you’re in Jendouba or Sidi Bouzid, there are no tourists, so you’re likely to have the place to yourself, your buds, and be able to enjoy a plate of Ojja to boot. And, of course, you’ll still have the dank, womanless environment we all enjoy when having a glass of pinot gris.

What could possible upset this wonderful bar culture in Tunisia? Well, it seems that the debauchery of a typical Tunisian bar is just a bit too much for some of the country’s more conservative elements. Trashing a bar or liquor store and harassing its customers is what the 2011 uprising was all about, after all – at least for our facial-hair endowed neighbors.

Meanwhile, many question whether these attacks will drive away tourists. Well, the headlines might, but the attacks themselves won’t. The reality is that the vast majority of these attacks are aimed at Tunisians by Tunisians. Is it that surprising that we’ve started to see some push back? Bar owners in Sfax and Jendouba are reportedly coming together to defend their establishments. Now if they could only clean them…..

Memorial Day in Tunisia: Bittersweet patriotism

2,481 gravestones mark American soldiers enterred in the U.S. War Cemetery at Carthage. See also the slideshow of the 2012 Memorial Day commemoration below.

Americans around the world celebrate Memorial Day today, a holiday to honor the dead, especially those who have fallen in battle. Nowhere are the commemorations more heartfelt, and personal, than in U.S. war cemeteries. Tunisia is home to one of 24 American war cemeteries around the world, and the only one in North Africa, where 2,841 American soldiersare enterred, their lives lost during the North African campaign against the Nazis in 1942-1943. Today the cemetery hosted a memorial service to honor these soldiers.

The setting was beautiful; a crisp clear summer morning in Carthage, a brass band from the U.S. Navy Europe band; and the always well-maintained grounds hosted the 100 or so visitors, mostly embassy personnel and their families. U.S. Ambassador Gordon Gray paid respect to not only those soldiers who fought against the Nazis, but also to those who died in Tunisia’s uprising in 2011. He noted the coincidence that Tunisia’s uprising began in the same places that are so familiar to U.S. students of World War II, Kasserine, Sbeitla, Gafsa, and Sidi Bouzid. Their cause was, as the Ambassador noted, universal – freedom. The commander of the U.S. Navy’s 6th fleet noted that, much like in Tunisia, so many of the fallen U.S. soldiers came from towns in the hinterlands, such as Iowa and Wisconsin.

Foreign war cemeteries serve a dual purpose, the commemoration of the fallen, and the remembrance of battles that liberated foreign lands. In France, Belgium and England, home to 16 U.S. cemeteries, these dual roles coincide gracefully. The historical memory of the U.S. role in these countries during WWI and WWII, as well as afterwards in the reconstruction of Europe after WWII remains a positive sign of transatlantic relations.

In Tunisia, however, the memory of U.S. intervention, though honorable, is bittersweet. Foreign soldiers invaded and vanquished colonial power, France, only to be later defeated by different foreign soldiers who promptly reinstalled the colonial powers. While the U.S. publicly advocated for self-determination of colonial territories as part of the Atlantic Charter of 1941, by the end of the war, the U.S. had backtracked, leaving independence leaders in Tunisia frustrated. Tunisia’s first President, Habib Bourguiba, in a speech given to commemorate the inauguration of the cemetery noted:

Like other peoples, the Tunisian people lived through the poignant tragedy of war and through the dark hours under the occupation of the Axis troops. The victory of the Allied troops did not bring to Tunisia immediate realization of her national aspirations.  It was indeed a great frustration for a people who fought on the side of freedom and made many a sacrifice during the last two wars for the cause of peace with human justice among men, for human dignity, and recognition of the peoples’ right of self-determination. [Read the complete letter here]

In interviews conducted among Tunisian visitors to the cemetery, one gets the impression that the cemetery is a historical oddity – beautiful, but strange. The memorial, unlike those in Europe, does not commemorate a shared history, a shared sacrifice. Nevertheless, these cemeteries, with their grace and tranquility, do represent something universal. To walk among the gravestones of soldiers who died so young and in foreign lands one cannot help but be moved.

Jewish pilgrimage begins in Tunisia

File:El Ghriba.jpg

The Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today marks the beginning of the Jewish pilgrimage to the Ghriba on the Tunisian island of Djerba. While Judaism is the oldest religion continuously practiced in the country, Tunisia’s Jewish community has dwindled over the past 50 years from a population of over 100,000 in the 1950s to about 2,000 today.

Nonetheless, the pilgrimage to Djerba has remained an important symbol of Tunisian openness – this year especially as Tunisia’s democratically-elected, Islamist-led government tries to demonstrate Tunisia’s openness to both minorities and tourists alike. Some highlights from the web on this weekend’s events:

Tunisia Live reports that so far the event has attracted few pilgrims:

According to our reporter in El Ghriba, police and journalists outnumbered the pilgrims, mainly Jewish Tunisians, who attended the event.

The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has previously issued a travel warning advising Israelis to avoid Tunisia. But Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali declared that “Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past.”

, writing in the Guardian, describes the Tunisian governments efforts:

The current Tunisian government, elected last October, has made promotion of the event a critical priority for reviving tourism in the southern part of the country. At the recent International Congress of World Tourism, the Ennahda party leader and prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, declared: “Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past.”

President Moncef Marzouki visited El Ghriba synagogue at Passover – which this year also marked the tenth anniversary of an al-Qaida-related attack that killed 21 European tourists. Wearing a traditional Tunisian hat known as a kabbus, often used by Jewish men in Tunisia as a religious head covering, Marzouki emphasised that Tunisian Jews are an integral part of Tunisian society and “any vandalism or violence against the Tunisian Jewish people, their property or their holy sites is totally unacceptable”.