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Tunisia’s costly choice


As Tunisia agonises over whether Friday 26 June’s horrific attack on western sunbathers at the Port El-Kantoui resort could have been avoided and as ISIS claims responsibility for the attack, much of the blame will inevitably turn to ‘blow-back’ from the 3000 Tunisian fighters who left to join ISIS in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Out of Tunisia’s population of over 11 million, these radicalised fighters represent a tiny albeit highly destructive fraction, who must not be allowed to destabilise the entire country. There is too much at stake.

Four months ago deep in the Tunisian desert I chanced upon Tunisia’s version of Glastonbury, Les Dunes Electroniques, a three-day festival of world music, where over 7000 Tunisian and foreign guests danced into the night in the vast open spaces of the Sahara. Parts of the original Star Wars film were shot here.

dunes electroniques 4

February in the desert can have its surprises, and this year’s ravers had their commitment levels tested to the full, not by an ISIS attack, but by torrential rain turning the sand into muddy rivers, forcing cancellations as water and electronics mixed.  Spirits undampened, Tunisia’s young at heart padded good-naturedly through puddles wearing plastic bags on their feet. They also enlivened the spirits of the hoteliers, restaurateurs and shop-owners of the region, for whom the drop in tourism over the last four years has been hard.

Tunisians have a uniquely tolerant Islamic heritage. Most are moderate Sunni Muslims and many have a natural affinity with mystical Islam or Sufism. In the heart of Tunis stands a statue of the figure who embodies this, himself a Sufi – Ibn Khaldun, the world’s first sociologist philosopher. Born there in 1332, he stands with his back to the historic old medina, gazing out to the new city and beyond towards the sea.

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In modern Tunisia this heritage was personified by the Sufi poet/novelist Abdelwahab Meddeb (1946-2014). His landmark work La Maladie d’Islam (2002) explained: “If, according to Voltaire, intolerance was Catholicism’s sickness, if Nazism was Germany’s sickness, fundamentalism is Islam’s sickness.” He wrote over 30 books advocating an Islam of Enlightenment and a dialogue between civilisations.

Tunisia Abdelwahab Meddeb

But when battling against fundamentalism, how do you get the balance right? How do you protect your citizens without also infringing their human rights?  This is the question which faces us all in countries where freedom and democracy are valued.

Full protection for Tunisia’s Mediterranean beaches, lined as they are by strings of contiguous hotels  – some reports say the attackers arrived by boat – can never be guaranteed, just as  London’s British Museum for example, could never be fully protected against random suicide bombers. Rigorous airport-style security checks are difficult to put in place, leaving the priceless statues of the world’s cultural heritage, seen as ‘idols’ by ISIS, an easy target.

Tunisia’s secularist government took the difficult path, the costly path, to aim for western-style freedom and democracy. After the Bardo Museum massacre which left 24 dead on 18 March, their Cabinet proposed new anti-terrorism laws, seeking to enhance the powers of the security services and extend the period police can detain suspects from six to 15 days before they appear in court. Human Rights Watch warned that the new law risks criminalising political dissent.

In Tunisia the army is generally respected by ordinary citizens, so it is significant that Prime Minister Habib Essid is sending army reservists to guard archaeological sites and resorts. The army sided with the demonstrators at the outbreak of the Jasmine Revolution, helping them come through with less than 400 deaths. Compare that with Syria’s death tally of 250,000 and rising.

The police and security services on the other hand are perceived by two thirds of Tunisian households to be corrupt, according to the Global Corruption Barometer. They are mistrusted, with a bad track record of abuse and torture of detainees in prison, sometimes even leading to death. Tunisians complain that, in the last year or two, police corruption has got worse, with a feeling that they see themselves as above the law. Women feel especially vulnerable to intimidation. Bribery to avoid detention is often the only option.

tunisia police

Soon after the Jasmine Revolution  I asked a Tunisian official how the country had dealt with its corrupt security forces. He told me about 10%, those that were too corrupt to stay, were forced to leave, most of them flying out to Italy. It seems a new layer has quickly replaced them.

Maybe Friday’s attack and the world condemnation that has followed will be a wake-up call to reform Tunisia’s police. Many Tunisians blame the police and security services for not doing more to prevent the Bardo Museum massacre. They will blame them even more if, thanks to these failures, the Tunisian economy deteriorates further  and the unemployment rates, already at 35% among the young, go higher. The government has a long hard road ahead, trying to persuade secularists to coexist peacefully with religious conservatives, and trying to stop its Jasmine Revolution being hijacked by a minority of violent Islamists.

Tunisia is unique in the Arab world in having strong women who have campaigned hard for equal rights with men, and in having a strong middle class civil society and responsible trade unions. All this would be lost were ISIS to gain a foothold, and everyone knows it.  Pictures of Tunisian women donating blood for Friday’s victims say it all.

tunisian women donating blood

Tunisia’s fragile fledging democracy got more fragile on Friday. The coming weeks and months will test it further. The US and Europe must without delay help the country make a successful transition and stay the course of moderation.

For if Tunisia fails there is no hope for all the rest.

tunisians against terrorism

(Text as published in The Sunday Telegraph 28 June 2015)


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Tunisia’s Bardo Attack and the legacy of Ibn Khaldun

In the heart of Tunis stands a statue of Ibn Khaldun, the world’s first sociologist philosopher. Born here in 1332, he stands with his back to the historic old medina, gazing out to the new city and beyond towards the sea.

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Ibn Khaldun understood that true power resided not in the cities but in the countryside, for it was always there that rebellions, revolt and reform began. He also knew that neither religion nor ideology were the real drivers of society and human behaviour; rather it was the strength of the tribal/family solidarity, their economic interests and their traditions. So when, to fund their lavish lifestyles, 14th century rulers all across North Africa failed to invest in agricultural infrastructure, land became unproductive. The rulers neglected the maintenance of springs, wells and irrigation canals, forcing up the prices of basic foodstuffs – popular unrest ensued.

So it was with Muhammad Bou Azizi, a young fruitseller in the impoverished southern agricultural town of Sidi Bou Zid, who first ignited not only Tunisia’s revolution but the whole ‘Arab Spring’, by setting himself on fire. Repeated battles with corrupt bureaucracy had left him in despair. Four hard years of turmoil, chaos and instability for Tunisia followed, from which it has been just now emerging, only to have its efforts and successes jeopardised by the 18 March Bardo Museum attack in which over 20 have been shot dead in broad daylight at one of Tunisia’s showcase sights, right beside the Tunisian Parliament building.

Tunisia Bardo

Up to that point, Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution had been doing so well – the new government and president elected, the constitution settled, with the loss of less than 400 lives.

Eager to discover how and why Tunisia was succeeding, while other Arab countries remained locked in chaos and conflict – and above all whether any of its lessons might be applied to Syria, so locked in the most tragic and intractable of conflicts – I traveled in late February all over Tunisia with my family. Picking up a hire car at Tunis airport, we drove from the Europeanised capital to visit the Roman sites of Dougga, Makhtar and Sbeitla in the remote mountainous interior, then further south to the desert oases of Gabes, Tozeur and Nefta.

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We crossed the Chott El-Djerid salt lake to ride on camels in Douz on the edge of the Sahara, lunched in underground courtyards of Matmata of Star Wars’ fame, then looped back to the coast at Sfax, and north to the coastal resorts of Monastir and Sousse.

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Throughout the trip I looked and listened closely, chatting to local people in Arabic and French and asking questions. I used to know Tunisia well, having authored guidebooks on it for Thomas Cook and the AA.

Here is a summary of what Tunisians themselves told me:

  1. The vital role of women

“Our women saved our revolution” was a refrain I heard regularly from Tunisian men. Tunisia’s women are strong and emancipated, believing strongly in their role in society as ‘equal’ to men. When the former Islamist government tried to change the wording of the constitution to ‘complementary’ – the infamous Article 28 – Tunisia’s women came out onto the streets in their thousands, blockading parliament till the government backed down.

Tunisia womenTunisia women topless

  1. Civil society, trade unions and taxes

Tunisia has long had a vocal and well-organised trade union system, the UGTT, which conducted itself highly responsibly since the outbreak of the Jasmine Revolution in December 2010. They knew when to go on strike and when not to, for the sake of stability. This has given the working and middle classes a strong and coherent voice with which to challenge the government. “We think of it as normal to pay our taxes,” one businessman told me, “Of course the rich will always find ways to avoid it, but we realise it is like a contract. It gives us the right to ask for things in return.”

Tunisia trade unions Tunisian trade unions

  1. Tolerance and moderate religion based on Sufism

Most Tunisians are Sunni Muslims and have a natural affinity with mystical Islam or Sufism. Ibn Khaldun was himself a Sufi, in the tradition of Ibn Arabi (1165-1240). This tradition is personified by the poet and novelist Abdelwahab Meddeb, born in Tunis in 1946, who died in 2014 of lung cancer. In his landmark work La Maladie d’Islam (2002) he wrote: “If, according to Voltaire, intolerance was Catholicism’s sickness, if Nazism was Germany’s sickness, fundamentalism is Islam’s sickness.” He wrote over 30 books advocating an Islam of Enlightenment and a dialogue between civilisations. Tunisians have a uniquely tolerant Islamic heritage.

Ibn Arabi Tunisia Abdelwahab Meddeb

  1. Aversion to violence

The Tunisian psyche is stable and peaceful by nature, with a deep repulsion to violence and extreme behaviour. Compromise seems to be the preferred modus operandi.  In all my years of travelling in Tunisia I have never once witnessed any acts of aggression, bullying or bad temper.

For all these reasons Tunisia is different from many Arab countries, a guiding beacon. Europe and the West must give their full support and do whatever they can to help the country stay its course of moderation. The Foreign Office travel advice on Tunisia remains unchanged; travel insurance remains valid and I for one will be going back.

For if Tunisia fails, with its legacy of the moderate Ibn Khaldun and Abdelwahab Meddeb, there is little hope for all the rest.


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