A hopelessly romantic vision of Tunisia

Just in time for Valentine’s day, this piece is a reflection of some of the dreams I have living in Tunisia, understanding that while it might now come true – it could. It is me at my most hopelessly romantic. It may be naive, but one of the things many Tunisians (and residents of Tunisia, like me) have come to realize since the revolution was the immense potential of the country. On my dark days, I don’t think like this, but on good days my mind wonders about the endless possibilities – like this one. Names are amalgamations of historical figures in Tunisia’s past.

Dateline: February 2016*
Place: Tunisia

Tunisia has been gripped by the excitement of yet another election, the third since the fall of Ben Ali. While the Islamist party Ennahdha held on to 36 percent, the real winners were the secular left coalition, which came in just ahead with 38 percent of the vote in their first elections since the uprising. Salafist party Tahrir, running for the first time since their legalization last year, garnered just 2 percent of the vote, which has shut them out of public financing for the next elections under Tunisia’s new campaign finance laws.

The secular left, having abandoned their opposition to working with Ennahdha, has set up a committee to organize the powersharing agreement with Ennahdha struck before the elections. Their victory, based on a comprehensive campaign throughout the whole country, was largely attributed to the dynamism of their new leader, Elyssa Hadad, the first female prime minister in the Arab world. Hailing from El Kef, she was able to bring together rural and urban voters into her coalition which focused on the environment, equality and integration of the regions.

Ennahdha had long been expected to lose the election, after disruptions in their internal politics caused the defection of the guard politicians to Tahrir. The party’s founders were replaced by a new generation of Ennahdha leaders, which focused the party’s message on economic growth and development, rather than cultural issues. Ennahdha’s new, young leaders can take heart that their campaign was judged to be the most straightforward of all of the parties contesting the elections and their new cadre of deputies from around the country are promising young politicians which will ensure that their support continues in the future.

Ennahdha’s loss surprised many outside observers after their many successes in the past four years they were in power. Education reforms, solid economic growth, and a campaign against corruption have made Tunisia the star of the Arab world. Many observers see these successes as leading to their eventual decline in the polls. The reality was that while Tunisians saw their country going in the right direction, they were anxious for a change, and four years was simply enough. While they suffered a disappointment at the polls, Tunisians continue to see Ennahdha as the party that led Tunisia out of the uncertainty of their post-revolutionary phase, and into the stability of an increasingly prosperous and free society.

Education was Ennahdha’s first success. Following the end of the 2011-12 school year, which was marked by sit-ins and conflicts between Salafists and administrators over mixed classes and the wearing of the niqab, a grand bargain was struck that paved the way for real educational reforms. After months of wrangling over the new constitution, secular leaders and Ennahdha began their first negotiations. It was agreed that freedom of dress was a fundamental right of Tunisians, and niqab wearing students were allowed to return to class. In exchange, secularists were able to include in Tunisia’s bill of rights an amendment which enshrined equality of the sexes in the new constitution, considered the strongest protection for equality in the Arab world. Secularist fears appear to have been misplaced, as in 2016,  most Tunisian women seem content with traditional Maghreb clothing  – the overwhelming majority rejecting Gulf style imports in their culture.

Ennahdha and secular party leadership was greeted with widespread popular support, as Tunisians cheered the ability, for what seemed like the first time, of the parties coming together and working together for the common good.  This breakthrough set the tone for the remainder of the constituent assembly’s work, which was concluded on October 23, 2012, exactly one year to the day after the elections. Tunisian lawmakers worked tirelessly through the summer to complete the document, including all night post-Iftar sessions during Ramadan. The constitution has been hailed as the most important piece of law in modern Arab history. It calls for a complete separation of powers, including of the independent electoral commission, and is the first Arab constitution to include a bill of rights, enshrining into law the fundamental freedoms of Tunisians.

After the ratification of the new constitution by Tunisians and the election of a new government (won again by Ennahdha, this time with 47 percent of the vote), real reforms got underway.

Following the success of the educational reforms, further work was done to strengthen Tunisia’s educational system. Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi, who held a behind the scenes role during the constitutional process, was, in a surprise move, appointed Minister of Higher Education.

Using his long-list of contacts built up during his exile overseas, Ghannouchi’s first victory was in attracting 6 foreign universities to form a multinational consortium of universities. Anchored by Stanford University, the consortium includes Freie Universitat Berlin, Science-Po, Princeton, Cambridge, and Bocconi.

The agreement, which by 2014 had brought the universities to a major campus in the Berges du Lac area of Tunis, has created the most important center of academic learning in the greater Middle East and caused many universities operating in the authoritarian Gulf region to reassess whether true academic work can be done under regimes that cannot be considered free.

It also revived an otherwise moribund area of greater Tunis, known mostly by its similarities to the blandness of the aforementioned authoritarian countries in the Gulf. Berges du Lac is now a thriving community attracting students from around Tunisia and the world.

Ghannouchi’s real popularity though, stemmed from the inclusion of 10,000 scholarships per year for Tunisians to attend these prestigious institutions, which also work closely with Tunisian universities. This arrangement is what brought previously unknown Tunisian hacker Hanibal Ben Yusuf, to worldwide attention. His software, which revolutionized social networking, has made him today the richest man in the Arab world, outside the Saudi royal family. Affectionately called the Arab Zuckerberg, after Facebook’s founder, his company now employs 13,000 Tunisians and 8,000 foreigners. His decision to base his company in Ben Arous, a working class suburb of Tunis, has had a mushroom affect, with dozens of start-ups popping up around the headquarters. Tunisia’s silicon valley now employs thousands of recent graduates every year.

Ghannouchi didn’t rest on this accomplishment. He also took the courageous step of shutting down Tunisian diploma mills and, in their place, establishing vocational poles throughout the country. These schools have had the effect of bringing tens of thousands of Tunisian youth, especially young men, into the workforce. The decision last year to move 60 percent of Volkswagen’s European production last year to Kesserine was based largely on the workforce, which rivaled the Czech Republic’s for mechanical skills, thanks largely to the influx of highly trained young graduates. Volkswagen’s plant in Kesserine now employs 22,000 workers, and with the parts plants that have sprung up in neighboring Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid, the region has reduced unemployment from over 30 percent in 2011, to under 10 percent in 2016.

These accomplishments seem easy in retrospect, but Ennahdha faced pressure from within and outside their party to achieve them. Throughout 2012 and 2013, conservative forces within Ennahdha urged party leaders to engage with the opposition in the culture wars, which they had mistakenly believed had brought them victory in the elections.  The purging of corrupt officials throughout the government, and in particular in the interior ministry, had further weakened the leadership.

It was only through a combination of support by Ennahdha’s younger members, and the backing of Tunisia’s major trade union, the UGTT, that Ghannouchi and Jebali were able to hold onto their positions. In the subsequent two years, Jebali reaped the rewards of this cleansing of the government, with foreign direct investment surging 50 percent year over year from 2013-2015 and annual GDP growth of 8 percent.

It was the increase in tax revenue, however, that ensured that the government was rewarded – anti-money laundering initiatives, as well as increased tax collection from businesses allowed record growth in government revenues. This allowed the government to reinvest in its health care system to the point that every Tunisian has access to a hospital or clinic.

In 2016, many Tunisians remain needy. Years of growth have made Tunisians optimistic about their futures. Recent polling by the four reputable new polling firms in Tunisia confirm that 82 percent of the country think that the country is going in the right direction. But serious problems remain. Environmental issues have emerged as a top priority and unemployment, while dramatically reduced, remains high.

Prime Minister Hadad has an ambitious agenda to tackle both issues through sustainable tourism and agriculture. She aims to reduce soil erosion and diversify Tunisian agricultural production with a goal of increasing Tunisian production of high-quality goods and to dramatically increase Tunisian exports to Europe of organically produced food. She campaigned on the promise of using her experience as a civil society leader in Kef, where she spearheaded efforts that led to a dramatic increase in ecotourism in the region. Her efforts in the region have made Kef the fastest growing tourist region in the country. In the region, there has been a boom in small scale, high value agriculture, coupled with a rise in independent hotels.

The previous government’s decision to allow foreign ownership of hotels was not without controversy, but the compromised that was reached, which featured lower taxes in exchange for more employment, has led to a mini-boom for small scale hotels across the country. The knock-on effect has been an increase in artisanal production around the country and international recognition of Tunisia’s previously isolated inner regions.

The new government will have their work cut out for them. But the hard work and tough compromises of the last few years has left Tunisia ready. It all changed in 2012 when all the parties (political and civil society) began to accept the fact that Tunisia was more pluralistic and diverse than anyone had previously thought. Secularist slowly began to realize that the ability to practice one’s religion was a fundamental right and Islamists began to realize that secularists were not a priori against Islam or Islamic values, just for a different way of governing. These realizations created the space for public debates that engendered mutual respect, rather than mutual distrust. It also allowed them both to focus on what Tunisian’s cared about most – providing for their families and creating a better Tunisia.


Writing about elections without bias – and a thank you to Tounness

It has been a joy to write about the electoral process in Tunisia. Since June I have written over 30 stories about the process and the politics. I have especially enjoyed talking to Tunisians. Many have shared their thoughts and emotions with me in a way that many people from my own country would never do. It is heartwarming.

During these last few months, I have tried to maintain balance and not interject my own opinions. As we enter the final days of the campaign, I would like to reiterate the importance I put in staying out of the business of Tunisians. While I have been incredibly fortunate to be able to follow the politics, the elections are for and by Tunisians. Whatever your party, whatever your belief, this election is for you, the Tunisian people.

I remember casting my ballot for the first time. I did so at a local school in Minneapolis. I remember the strange sense of responsibility I had when I made my selection and cast my ballot. I am happy to witness this moment as an entire country has this opportunity to express itself.

I wish Tunisians the best of luck and thank you for your hospitality and openness. I hope to continue to learn from you in the months to come.

The Anticlimax of a most anticipated election

Mostly it’s not talked about, but when the subject is broached, most reactions are nervous and tense, the rest defensive. For over 9 months 50 years Tunisians have been waiting to elect their leaders. With election day fast approaching, most people just want it over with.

The first free elections in Tunisia’s history are a historic day for the Tunisian Republic and the entire Arab world. Revolutions caused not by foreign powers or violent minority groups are few and far between in this part of the world. Tunisia is being looked at by the rest of the world as an example of how a country can successfully overcome years of authoritarianism to create a republic by and for the people. But if that is how the rest of the world sees Tunisia – why are Tunisian’s so reticent about the elections?

The transition period has been a trying time for most Tunisians. Faced with a weak global economy, a devastated local economy, including a near 40 percent drop in tourism (probably even more in revenue terms as hotels and resorts have lowered prices); a full-blown civil war in Libya, and the high expectations of freedom, Tunisians have waited 10 months to see the fruits of their revolution. Instead, Tunisians have seen a marked deterioration in the security situation, the continued presence of virtually all of the former regime officials in the administration (with the exception of those very close to the president and his family), and a political climate that has been more about trading barbs at opponents than reaching out to the common citizen.

Meanwhile, international dignitaries continue to tout the example of Tunisia as a beacon to the world. Aid would be given, democracy would be restored, women would be well-represented, and moderation would win the day. Civil society participants praise the brave Tunisians who brought down their government through social media, and bloggers talked about Slim Amamou and Julian Assange in the same sentence. Government officials talk about the example Tunisia could be to the rest of the Arab world – yes, Iraq had been a mistake, but supporting Tunisia would make up for it! Yes, the West had long supported the corrupt Tunisian government, but this time would be different – they now understand the voices of the “Arab street.” This narrative is reinforced at each step by Tunisian politicians – all unelected – who assure their counterparts that the country is on the right track – this is not the same message delivered to their fellow citizens back home.

For a time, the Western narrative and the Tunisian narrative coincided. The euphoria of Tunisians following the flight of the Trabelsi clan was real and palpable. Tunisians spoke openly and optimistically about their future and their place on the world’s stage. But as the foreign reporters moved on, first to Egypt, then Libya, the myths began to diverge. Foreign newspapers did file some stories from Tunisia, mostly about unrest in one area of the country or another, or perhaps on the hospitality of Tunisians to their warring neighbors. But mostly, Tunisia’s reality was severed from the West’s mythology.

Meanwhile, while many Tunisians kept pressure on the government for reforms, forming citizens groups and protesting; most Tunisians got tired of waiting – the jobs were not there and the politicians were not listening. A tireless campaign by the Independent Elections authority was met by indifference from many Tunisians.

Less than three weeks from the election, nervous foreigners wonder aloud whether they should stock up on water (or perhaps wine – what if the Islamists win?). When the question of violence is raised, Tunisians are defensive – the elections will go as planned, they say, through force of will – if nothing else.. But there is an uncertainty in their voices. It is like the entire the entire country does not want to jinx the elections.

While Tunisian society has held up remarkably well in the face of many obstacles, a violence unheard of under Ben Ali (if it existed, it certainly was not reported) continues in many parts of the country. Reports of the police finding arms caches are rumored and then often confirmed. Last month an army helicopter destroyed seven vehicles carrying weapons, presumably from next door in Libya. One is reminded constantly of what is at stake as tanks and armored vehicles occupy more and more intersections around the capital. An extra 30,000 troops and officers on the street are meant to deter any action by possible troublemakers. One cannot be blamed for being tense about the most important event in Tunisian history since January 14.

In this environment of angst, the Tunisian independent elections authority has continued its work to ensure that the elections are free and fair. Foreign observers will be present, and so far they have put their stamp of approval behind the authority’s work, but mostly they stay in the background. Despite protests from the major parties, the authority has banned political advertising in the final weeks before the elections. Parties big and small are guaranteed the same amount of public space near each voting station (about 2 feet by 1 feet) to advertise whatever they would like to electors. Some parties have chosen to display their leaders’ faces, others long political tracts – to date, most stand empty – one wonders if they are carrying their message to voters through word of mouth.

On a recent day in central Tunis passersby stopped for a quick look at each of the candidates. To an observer, it seems civil, fair, and democratic. Tunisians may be tired of the transition and eager to get the elections past them, but one has the impression that they will do their best to see them go as smoothly as possible.

As foreign reporters trickle back into the country in advance of the elections one wonders if this will be the moment when the Western narrative will once again meet the Tunisian reality?

Tunisia during Ramadan: A month of (political) reflection

The holy month of Ramadan tends to grind most daily activities to a halt in Tunisia. The work day is cut in half, and productivity plummets, especially so this year, as Ramadan coincides with the scorching Tunisian summer.

The night, however, is a different story. After breaking the fast – usually with family – Tunisians take to the streets, cafes, and public spaces to enjoy the cool evenings, listen to music, or chat with friends.

This year, evenings during Ramadan have also included public debates, political rallies, and meetings of civil society. On any given evening in Tunis, usually starting around 10 p.m., one can find Tunisians gathering to debate the future of the country. In many cases, these gatherings evoke previous political or social leaders from Tunisia’s history, such as early Tunisian poet Abou el Kacem el Chebbi or Saleh Ben Youssef. Political rallies tend to be more understated than usual, a reflection of a religious, rather than competitive, mentality.

On a recent evening in the Medina in Tunis, which begins to rouse itself around 9:30, I witnessed gatherings from all kinds of groups, the green parties of Tunisia were discussing climate change, while the center left party PDP was discussing their economic agenda. The Tahar Hadad Club had the the ambiance of a philosophy society  that was thinking about the big ideas Hadad himself contemplated. My Tunisian friends impressed on me the importance of Hadad in Tunisian society. Hadad was a Tunisian thinker from the early 20th century, who fought for women’s and worker’s rights, and against polygamy. Many credit him as the inspiration for the modern, secular society Habib Bourguiba installed in Tunisia upon independence from France. On Saturday, a local radio station broadcast a multi-hour debate on the pros and cons of a parliamentary versus presidential system and the importance of electing a constitutional assembly prior to installing a legitimate government.

In short, it is true that Tunisians remain frustrated at the pace of reform and of the usual cast of characters and issues that dominate the airwaves two months prior to the first free elections in the country’s history. But underneath the bluster, there is a society that is discussing, debating, persuading, and pushing for the ideas that will change this country. It is no surprise that in a country that has been at the vanguard of some of the most important thinkers in the Arab world that these debates are raging. The pace of change may be slow, but it is happening.

High School Civics or Conversations with Taxi Drivers

“Where are you from?” Taxi drivers never fail to ask as you hop into their car. And the question would never fail to be followed by “And what are you doing in Tunisia? Tourism?” and after a look in the mirror, a welcoming smile: “Do you like Tunisia?”

From Tunisia 2011

But since January 14, these conversations now include the follow-up question, “What kind of political system do you have in the US, presidential or parliamentarian?” or “which do you think is the best political system? I mean in an ideal world, what would it be?”

The recent decision by the Tunisian government to delay the election of the constituent assembly (to replace the interim government and form a new constitution) ensures that I will have at least 4 more months of fascinating discussions with taxi drivers, shoe shiners, friends and neighbors about the best system of representative government, conversations that usually have me trying to think back to 10th grade American history classes and what exactly John Stuart Mill meant in On Liberty.

Since the fall of the Ben Ali regime in January, one of the fundamental questions for Tunisians has been whether they should continue with the presidential model of government, choose a parliamentary system, or some sort of mix between the two.

While certain political questions remain very sensitive (the role of women or religion, for example), and thus not entirely open for discussion, the system of government is a question that is openly debated in cafes, on the “drive time” call in shows, and in just about every conversation I’ve had with Tunisians over the last 6 months.

On more than one occasion I’ve been told that all Tunisians want is some sort of alternation in power. The fact that Ben Ali hung on for 23 years is the biggest  problem many Tunisians, especially those who prospered under the regime, seem to have. This led to an unnecessarily abusive and corrupt system.

What is interesting, and surprising for me, given Western perceptions about the Arab Spring, is that so much of the hopes of Tunisians is based on the system of government, rather than the ideology of the government. Many people believe that having the proper structure and constitution – along with accountability and competence – will lead to the best outcomes for the country, regardless of the beliefs of any political party in charge.

In this respect, the debate here is often more along the lines of political theorists, like Locke or Rousseau describing the social contract, than it is about freedom, liberty or expression. This academic perspective in turn perpetuates debates that exclude the hard issues – such as what role women or religion have to play in society.

As I reflect on this, and my 10th grade history lessons, I realize that these were probably the same debates that allowed the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. The hard issues, such as the role of the federal government or the institution of slavery, were fudged or left for later, and difficult compromises were made. And while leaving these issues for later had serious consequences, it allowed the nation to coalesce around the common values of democracy, basic civil rights (if not for everyone), and above all, the rule of law.

As Tunisians continue their national public debate, and as various political parties try to steer the conversation in one direction or another, I will be looking to see if these debate ground rules hold, or if they will be high-jacked. In either case, the taxi cab civics debate will continue….