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.