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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.


How to resist the charms of ISIS – Lessons from Tunisia

ISIS bans all forms of merry-making, so what would it make of this?  – the Tunisian dunes, alive with the sound of music!

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On my first visit since the country’s  Jasmine Revolution, I have chanced upon Les Dunes Electroniques, a three-day festival of world music held in the Tunisian desert around the oasis of Nefta.

Parts of the original Star Wars film were shot here, but this is Episode 2 of the festival, building on the unexpected success of last year’s inaugural event, where over 3000 Tunisian and foreign visitors danced from noon till midnight in the vast open spaces of the Sahara. ISIS eat your heart out.

dunes electroniques 4Dunes Electroniques

Of course February in the desert can have its surprises, and this year the 7000 visitors had their commitment levels tested to the full, not by an ISIS attack, but by torrential rain turning the sand into Glastonbury-style muddy rivers, forcing cancellations as water and electronics mixed.

Even this could not dampen the spirits of Tunisia’s young at heart, as they 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.

At the nearby oasis of Tozeur, traffic jams surround the famous Le Petit Prince restaurant, set on the edge of the palm groves.

tozeur oasis


Its surreal planetary interior is buzzing with custom, a total contrast to the previous night spent in Tunisia’s mountainous interior. Then I was the sole guest of the Hotel Sufetela overlooking the perfectly preserved Roman temples of Sbeitla. Four policemen had just been shot in an ISIS raid not far away. Yet even there, the hotel staff are positive:

“Just give us 100 days,” the manager said, “and you will see. Our new government and president will fight these crazy extremists.  Our period of instability is coming to an end, and tourism will return.”


Compared to other Arab countries with their still ongoing revolutions, Tunisia stands out like a bright light. Why is that, when there is clearly still economic hardship, unemployment and a big rich-poor divide?

Tunisians themselves from all over the country give me a remarkably coherent answer, which boils down to two things: women and trade unions.

In the capital, Tunis, most young women are unveiled, dressed so cosmopolitanly in jeans and jackets that it is hard to tell their nationality. Young men and women mix freely in the cafes of the souvenir souks in the colourful old medina, laughing and chatting comfortably in a blend of French and Arabic.

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“Our women saved our revolution,” was a refrain I heard regularly from Tunisian men.

When the previous Islamist government tried to change the constitution by making the role of women ‘complementary’ to men, Tunisia’s women, strong and emancipated, were having none of it.

They thronged the streets in their thousands and staged a sit-in in front of the parliament building, till the government backed down and the wording reverted to ‘equal’.

Tunisia’s middle and working classes – male and female – have long been unusually vocal, helped by the powerful trade unions who have played such a leading role in creating modern civil associations, instilling a sense of responsibility.

“We think of it as normal to pay our taxes,” a local shop-owner explains to me in Carthage, where the modern presidential palace overlooks the ancient ruins.

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“In most Arab countries the mentality is that only stupid people pay tax. Of course the rich will always find ways to avoid it, but here we understand that it is like a contract. It gives us the right to make demands from the government in return.”

All this would be lost were ISIS to gain a foothold, and everyone knows it.

In the heart of Tunisia’s poorer south at Sidi Bou Zid, a huge clay model of a fruit cart marks the spot where Muhammad Bou Azizi, a thwarted fruitseller, ignited the Arab Spring by setting himself on fire.

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I buy some bananas and watch a march of local people demanding the government speed up the anti-terrorism laws. “Don’t give up the fight,” says the graffiti on the cart.

Back at Tozeur’s oasis I visit Paradise Gardens  with its hands-on zoo.  The cheerful young keeper lets me hold the egg an ostrich has just laid.

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Then he puts Janet the scorpion on my hand, named after Michael Jackson’s sister, and introduces me to Angela Merkel, the horned viper, before draping a spaghetti of snakes round my neck.

“Are these called ISIS?” I ask.

“No,” he replies, “We don’t allow them here!”

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Tunisia snakes at Tozeur zoo

This text was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 ‘s From Our Own Correspondent on 5 March 2015:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0542zv0   (starts at 06.06 mins in)


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