I must admit that Tunisia has captured my attention just as much for what it is as for what it is not. The dynamics of Tunisian society are rather complex, starting with its history and due in no small part to the throngs of interlopers that have called modern day Tunisia home at one time or another. The Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Berbers, Byzantines, Turks, Arabs, Spaniards, and French have all left their mark. It can be somewhat dizzying to keep track of all the influences.
First you have the arrival of the Phoenicians that eventually established ancient Carthage (now a suburb of Tunis). Their defeat in Third Punic War at the hands of the Romans saw the end of the Carthaginian Empire and their dominance over the western Mediterranean. Next came Roman hegemony followed by a short period of control by the Vandals, the rise of the Arabs, a brief interval of Spanish dominance, the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the colonial French era, and finally independence. And don't forget the Berbers that were here for the duration. Simple.
Nowadays, most folks would define themselves as Arab and profess to be followers of Islam (about 98% are Sunni Muslims). In light of this it may be somewhat surprising to discover that there is a rather pungent air of tolerance and understanding, at least in Tunis. How deep does mutual acceptance go? From my stand point thus far it is difficult to draw my own conclusion. I am not sure if professed tolerance masks practical discrimination. I do know that there are small populations of Jews (less than 1%) and Christians (about 1%) still living in the country, mostly in the Tunis area if I am not mistaken. The island of Djerba is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world (they've been there for over 2,500 years) and is an important pilgrimage site. Although there appears to be tolerance for Jews in general I am not quite sure about people's attitude toward Israeli Jews in particular. My intuition leads me to believe a fair amount of resentment exists.
The government for its part has taken great pains to suppress religious extremism and has shunned attempts to create any type of Islamic theocracy. Islam is the official state religion and the president is required to be a Muslim. However, from what I have heard and read those individuals that are a bit 'too Muslim' (for lack for a better phrase) may face discrimination and outright hostility from the government sector. The wearing of Islamic headscarves (hijab) by women in government offices is prohibited by law and they are discouraged from wearing them in public. Police have been known to harass men with beards and those with the distinctive calloused prayer mark on the forehead (received from bowing one's head upon the floor with vigor during prayer). One woman told me that men have been arrested in the wee hours of the morning while on their way to the mosque.
And how would one describe the government, politics, and all ancillary topics? In the 54 years or so since independence Tunisia has had two presidents. Two. That fact by itself speaks volumes. The first, Habib Bourguiba (from 1957-87), was removed in a sort of 'medical coup'. In other words he was declared too old and nutty to rule. Enter Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, (1987 - present) a former minister under Bourguiba. Although considered to be a procedural democracy (by whom I am not sure exactly) Tunisia is in reality an authoritative regime. One need only highlight Ben Ali's absurd margin of victory in any of his reelection bids to realize that Tunisia is about as democratic as I am Tunisian. As one might expect the majority of parliament members hail from the president's own party, the Constitutional Democratic Party (RCD). Shocker. However, it is interesting to note that some 20% of the parliament seats are held by women, a condition not so common in the Arab world. Bourguiba went far in the way of promoting women's rights, a fact cynics might say was merely a way of currying favor in the West and that much of what he accomplished was cosmetic.
|Nothing up my sleeve....
The president is, for all intents and purposes, a dictator. The parliament is of the rubber stamp variety. And the judiciary is free to rule independently as long as its decisions coincide exactly with the wishes of the executive branch, i.e. Ben Ali. Freedom of press is non-existent, public criticism of the government not tolerated. Just ask any number of journalists imprisoned over the years. You might want to start with Fahem Boukadous. Fahem's life currently sucks. He is languishing in a prison in the Gafsa province of midwest Tunisia. His crime? Well, he was reporting on civil unrest involving local mineworkers in the city of Redeyef for a satellite TV network (El Hiwar Eltounsi). Reporters Without Borders disclosed on July 28th, 2010 that Fahem suffered an asthma attack which nearly took his life. At first he was denied medical care but eventually a doctor from the local hospital did appear on scene to provide life-saving care. It is unlikely he will survive the length of his prison term. Want to know more? Try the BBC, Amnesty International, North-Africa.com, middleeast.about.com, YouTube, or a blogger by the name of Robert Prince.
[Author's Note: Oh, what a difference a year makes! Fahem, along with many other political prisoners, were eventually freed by the post-revolution provisional government. ]
Censorship is widespread. Many sites on the web are blocked to include almost every link I have provided in the preceding paragraph. Strangely, the blog by Mr. Prince, a senior lecturer in International Studies at the University of Denver, is accessible. My only explanation is that perhaps his Jewishness is perceived as being fatal for his credibility with Tunisians that may come across his blog. Can you say vast Jewish conspiracy? I could be mistaken but as his site comes up on the first page of a 'Fahem' search I find it difficult to believe it was overlooked.
Wikipedia pages like 'Tunisia' and 'Ben Ali', websites mentioning Fahem, all things porn , and all of YouTube (footage of the protest in Gafsa was posted) are just a few of the vanquished. And yes, it is quite feasible that my blog may fall victim, assuming they actually find it (Good luck!). I suppose being deported is not altogether out of the question as well. Fun.
This is not to say that any of this is readily discernible (at least on the streets of Tunis). The majority of tourists that shuffle through the medina are blissfully unaware of the circumstances. It is unlikely that causal observation and light banter with locals will reveal the facade. Most of what I know I ascertained by scanning the internet. In fact there is a rather tranquil and laid back air to Tunisia's capital, as if all is right with the world. Indeed, for many this appears to be true but then again ignorance is bliss. My sense is that the one arena where dissatisfaction with the government might appear is in the economic realm. Unemployment is especially high here which would help to explain my pickpocket mishap on the tram and why some unfortunates risk their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean in small boats bound for Italy. However, in all fairness Tunisia has one of the strongest economies in Africa and has been the recipient of tons of foreign investment in recent years. It is all a matter of perspective.
Although many countries in the west condemn (in a low voice) the current political and human rights situation in Tunisia little is done (in the way of pressure) to reform its policies. Why? Well, I suppose it is a 'lesser of two evils' type of rationality. Not only does the authoritarian regime suppress basic human rights, it also suppresses extremism. More democracy might result in the rise of fundamentalism and, as the rational goes, 'terrorist' activity.
On a lighter note I paid a visit to the Tourbet el-Bey, an Ottoman mausoleum built during the reign of Ali Pasha II (1758-82). Inside the mausoleum, located within the medina, you will find not so recently departed beys, princes, princesses, ministers, trusted advisers, and servants. The occupants are actually buried in the ground; the decorative marble sarcophagi serving only to mark the spot of burial.