Still Springtime in Tunisia? A Look on the Inside, Seven and Half Years After the Revolution
Updated: Nov 2, 2018
By NOAM IVRI*
The Post-Revolution Birth Pangs
Tunisia’s mass protests in December 2010-January 2011, ignited by the self-immolation of 26-year old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in an act of economic despair, ended the 23-year autocratic rule of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Fueled by newly-emergent social media in the Arab world, Tunisia’s mass demonstrations trigged a wave of popular anti-government uprisings throughout North Africa and the Middle East, with demands for greater citizens’ rights and government transparency. It moreover captured the conscious of a sympathetic international media, which branded this seeming wave of democratic upheavals as “the Arab Spring.” The circumstances were different in each country, but a common thread ran through all the protest movements: anger at ruling elites over dismal employment prospects, poor socioeconomic conditions, systemic corruption, little to no individual liberties, and a lack of government accountability. In these instances, demonstrators refused to accept official narratives that blamed odious outside forces and hidden conspiracies for their country’s shortcomings.
Yet most of the popular uprisings against authoritarian leaders ended with less-than-desired results: protracted and bloody armed conflict and the breakdown of national cohesiveness (Syria, Libya, and Yemen), a return to dictatorial, non-democratic rule (Egypt), or suppression of the protests and the regime preserving its power (Bahrain). Elsewhere, protest movements failed to generate initial momentum and petered out, at best achieving limited, if not cosmetic, gains (Jordan and Morocco). The chain of protests failed to usher in a wave of democratization akin to Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, instead fomenting bloody civil wars, high death tolls, and humanitarian catastrophes. Nearly a decade later, skeptical commentators mockingly refer to the aftermath of this phenomenon as “the Islamic Winter,” echoing the fears of conservative Arab governments that their autocratic rule alone prevents violent Islamic movements from seizing power and holds back the instability and chaos that would likely ensue.
Tunisia, the source of the Arab Spring, however, has defied this destructive trend. It can arguably be considered the sole success story. Since 2011, regular elections have been held, featuring a multitude of competing players and interests, and the results being peacefully honored by all participants. Tunisia has preserved its territorial integrity and post-revolution political system, demonstrating resilience in the face of numerous challenges. Most fortunately, the country overall has managed to avoid the persistent bloodshed and turmoil that have been the fate of other Arab Spring nations.
Tunisia’s interim success was not guaranteed from the start. Its attempted transition to a pluralist, multi-party political order faced a fair share of initial and emergent threats, often similar to the ones experienced by other Arab countries that had successfully deposed their old regimes: political instability in the vacuum following Ben Ali’s flight, prolonged economic laggardness that included a precipitated decline in tourism, a wave of lethal jihadist terrorist attacks and Islamist social pressures to curb secular influences, assassinations of politicians, periodic protests over cuts to vital subsidies, and pent-up social frustrations.
In the months following Ben Ali’s departure to Saudi Arabia, elections for a transitional government were held. The moderately Islamist Ennahda party, with roots in the transnational Muslim Brotherhood, won a plurality of the vote (37%), capturing 89 out of 217 seats in the National Assembly. Tunisia’s large secularist circles, long dominant in politics and culture since the country’s independence in 1956, initially feared that the Nahda party would govern like its Muslim Brotherhood counterpart in Egypt (who at that same time had won the country’s first elections after Mubarak), imposing conservative Islamic mores on the country and foiling the sprouting of democratic institutions in the post-Ben Ali era. Outside observers expressed concern that the small North African state would go the way of other states that participated in the Arab Spring, with this election ultimately being the first and only one conducted in a free and fair manner.
In the two years of governance by Ennahda-led transitional government, Tunisia indeed witnessed political gridlock and divisive national sentiment, boosting the pessimists’ apprehensions. A rising tide of militant Islamist activity and threats towards secular lifestyles, abetted by the security vacuum in neighboring Libya that emerged after the toppling of the Gaddafi regime, seemed to confirm an unpleasant fate for Tunisia. It was the murder of the leader of the left-wing, secularist People’s Movement, Mohamed Brahm, in July 2013 by a suspected Salafist (which followed the killing of another secularist party head, Chorki Belaid, several months earlier) that marked a turning point and galvanized the secular opposition into concerted action. For several months, protestors assembled in Tunisia’s largest cities, demanding that the Ennahda government resign over its perceived failure to provide security and reign in extremism. In a week-long zenith of the movement’s show of strength, tens of thousands of protestors massed in central Tunis, culminating in the formation of a 3-kilometer-long human chain stretching from the national parliament to the government headquarters in the old city (medina).
To the surprise of many, Ennahda showed political pragmatism and accommodation unseen in most other contemporary Islamist movements. Aided by the mediation efforts of the newly-assembled Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet – composed of four leading civil society organizations – in October 2013, the Ennahda government concluded a deal with the secular opposition. It agreed to resign within a few weeks in exchange for a new constitution that would both guarantee freedom of worship and assign a larger role to religion in public life than under the old order. The Quartet would win the 2015 Noble Peace Prize for its efforts.
The new Constitution was ratified by the parliament in January 2014, paving the way for legislative elections to be held in October of that year. The outgoing Ennahda government further designated Ansar ash-Sharia as a terrorist organization, based on its suspected role in the November 2012 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tunis in response to the airing of an anti-Muslim video by a U.S. resident, and its attacks on liquor stores, art exhibits, and movie theatres that showcased content it deemed “un-Islamic.”
In the October 2014 parliamentary elections, the Islamist movement only captured 27% of the vote, seeing its representation decrease by 15 to 69 seats. It agreed to enter a coalition government as the junior partner with the secularist Nidaa Tounes (Tunisia’s Call) movement, which had won 37% of the vote and secured 86 seats, along with several smaller secular-nationalist parties. Months afterwards, Tunisians went to the polls and elected 88-year-old Beji Qaid Essebsi, a former foreign minister, as president, in the nation’s first presidential election deemed free and fair by transparent observers.
While political tensions remain, the current parliament has functioned without any serious crisis. The coalition government, for its part, has stayed intact in the ensuing four years, surviving an August 2016 vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Habib Essid that followed with parliament and President Essebsi approving the appointment of Nidaa Tounes’ nominated successor, the 40-year old technocrat Youssef Chahed. In its tenure, the parliament has addressed legislation on a variety of issues considered sensitive in the Arab world – and in some cases contravening traditional Islamic doctrines – including: LGBT recognition, the right to freedom from religion and protection for atheists, and inheritance rights for women.
In September 2017, President Essebsi approved a law allowing Muslim Tunisian women to marry non-Muslims, something that runs contrary to Islamic law, and despite strong opposition from traditional Islamic circles. In the spring of 2018, the country’s municipal councils held elections for the first time in the post-Ben Ali era, in a process deemed democratic by outside observers. Women candidates won 47.7% of the seats.
The country is now slowly gearing up for the next parliamentary and presidential elections to be held in November 2019, with the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) formally announcing the beginning of preparations in early October. As much as the elections themselves, the process leading up to them will be a litmus test for Tunisia’s ability to safeguard a democratic and civic framework that allows for healthy disagreement and dissent. The preservation of this mechanism, in which ideological and policy differences are addressed by multiple political forces and societal actors through non-violent means, would further cement the country’s successful transition to a democratic system, and triumphing over the initial period of uncertainty and friction that followed the collapse of the Ben Ali regime.
Experiencing Post-Revolution Tunisia: Traveling Among the Locals
In September 2018, I immersed myself for nine days in the new Tunisia, as an independent traveler keen to experience everyday life and observe realities from the field. With fluency in Arabic and basic proficiency in French, I traversed 1,000 kilometers of the country from south to north, spanning desert oases, rural inland villages, large coastal metropolises, and foreign tourist enclaves. Commencing with a celebration of the two-day Jewish New Year among the small but active Jewish community in Djerba, followed by visits to Star Wars filming sites and other Sahara Desert attractions with a tour guide, and culminating in independent travels from the second largest city Sfax to the modern capital Tunis, I observed a diverse society striving to delicately balance its official adherence to civic secularism with respect of Islamic mores and traditional values.
Through experiences such as conversing with Tunisian shopkeepers and artisans maintainig their decades-old family businesses, spending time with locals introduced to me by mutual friends, strolling through the winding alleyways and markets alongside masses of natives in old walled cities, riding various modes of French-built public transportation systems, and reading the nation’s Arabic-language newspapers, my perceptions were shaped of a country finding its way seven and a half years after the revolution that changed the course of its history.
Identity and Self-Conception: First and Foremost, Tunisian; Then, Maybe Arab
A territorial nationalism seemed to be dominant characteristic of Tunisia’s self-conception. Tunisians whom I met from all walks of life were keen to emphasize that their country has a unique localized history and that they are a long-standing independent people, rather than an artificial construct of foreign colonial powers. Tunisian generally stressed their identity as a Mediterranean nation and their roots in the Carthaginian civilization that inhabited this section of North Africa. Only after establishing this paradigm would some people then would speak of belonging to a broader Arabic-speaking North African region (Maghreb) that includes Libya, Algeria, and Morocco. Following this regional frame of reference and association, some would identify Tunisia with the larger African continent and cite its membership in the African Union, while others would stress its cultural similarities with southern European nations.
I got the impression that this focus on national identity and geographic localism has grown considerably since the 2011 revolution. For many, the “Arab Spring” term was inaccurate in describing Tunisia’s experience in overthrowing a strongman. From the remarks I heard, the domestic social and economic problems that planted the seeds for political discontent were uniquely Tunisian, even if similar conditions existed in other Arab states. The protests reflected the unique will of a nation disenchanted with its elites that had failed them. Similarly, this view urges that Tunisia prioritize addressing its complex and formidable internal matters, while avoiding getting caught in regional conflicts and sentimental political-ideological causes that are popular in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Most immediately, Tunisians associated their neighbors with instability (the brutal civil war in Algeria only two decades ago, and the lingering lawlessness and violence in Libya in the present) both of which proved detrimental to their country. Many expressed a desire to be insulated from regional squabbles, especially as they reflect badly on Tunisia’s international image as being caught up in a dangerous area. Towards Algeria, many were also resentful that the now-stable, energy-rich country does not provide discounts in its oil and gas exports to its eastern neighbor, which they believe impacts the high domestic energy prices and difficulties in providing a stable electricity grid.
Many Tunisians referred to the Arab Middle East with even greater disassociation. Though I occasionally encountered some locals who spoke of fraternity with other Arab nations, this was decidedly a minority viewpoint. For most, the Arab Middle East is far away and distant, its people speaking near-unintelligible Arabic dialects, and that region’s issues far different from their own. In many instances, I struggled to communicate with Tunisians, as I only understood bits here and there of the local Arabic dialect, while fewer locals than I expected could communicate in Modern Standard Arabic or my Levantine Arabic dialect. Even when I told them of my Palestinian ancestry (not entirely false, as my grandmother lived in the British Mandate of Palestine), only a handful would favorably reference the Palestinian cause, whereas the majority were indifferent. Likewise, displays of Palestinian flags or other expressions of pro-Palestinian sentiment were far and few between.
A common Tunisian viewpoint on the Arab Middle East characterized the region as the source of extremist Sunni Islamic ideologies that have been propagated locally in the post-revolution era. These ideas were perceived as dangerous threats to Tunisia’s more moderate and syncretic Islamic sentiments, and a poison for recruiting economically-struggling Tunisians to join jihadist causes in Syria and Iraq, or commit acts of terrorism at home. Middle Eastern locations such as Yemen and Syria were often identified with religious fanaticism and sectarian conflict, rather than fraternal countries that had tried to actualize Arab Spring reforms of their own.
Another oft-repeated perspective towards the Arab Middle East emphasized the lack of financial support from wealthy Arab Gulf states for Tunisian’s post-revolution economic development. Tunisians were convinced that they needed to look elsewhere for their wellbeing. Among the Middle Eastern countries, Saudi Arabia was often cited the most negatively – especially for its providing sanctuary to the deposed Ben Ali family, and to a lesser extent for purportedly encouraging the propagation of radical ideologies into North Africa.
Reflective of this popular outlook, the 2014 Constitution unsurprisingly makes only a few references in the short preamble to Tunisia’s identity as part of the greater Arab nation and the North African Maghreb. These statements appear as general and vague declarations, without clear policy implications, as if merely paying lip service to Tunisia’s Arab identity. The remainder of the document is far more focused on addressing the nation’s domestic challenges and outlining the practical functions of its government.
One other dominate node of identity is the country’s proud Francophone status, even as Tunisia has been independent from France since 1956. While Modern Standard Arabic is the nation’s official language used for writing, and colloquial Tunisian Arabic is practically dominant in everyday spoken communication, French could be described as a close second for both speaking and writing. Most Tunisians I encountered spoke French as effortlessly as the colloquial Arabic, especially true the farther north and closer to the coast I went. All signs at government buildings and on roads are written in French alongside Arabic, while most privately-owned shops also seemed to opt for bilingual writing. French-language products dominated the shelves of pharmacies, supermarkets, and cosmetic stores. Whereas the Levantine Arabic dialogue and the Middle East seemed distant and foreign to many, French was a welcomed part of Tunisian identity for most, and France was comfortably on their radar: many of the Tunisians whom I encountered had relatives in France, and/or they themselves had traveled or studied there.
Balancing the Secular-Religious Pendulum
While the new constitution defines Islam as the state religion and asserts that the nation possesses an Arab-Muslim identity, it defines Tunisia as a civil state based on citizenship rather than ethnicity, and guarantees individual freedom of conscious. It furthermore does not provide any context for the application of Islamic law. Practically applied, this means the state’s security forces cannot arrest people for eating in public on Ramadan, ban establishments from selling alcohol, or prosecute a spouse for infidelity.
Moreover, the liberal legal statutes enacted under the secularist-led coalition government since 2014, such as the above-mentioned Muslim women’s marriage laws, demonstrate this civil-minded framework. Even after the revolution and the introduction of political Islam into the public space, the country has mostly continued along a secular-nationalist trajectory first formulated by the inaugural president of the independent republic, Habib Bourguiba (who adopted Ataturk’s secularizing reforms in Turkey as the model for the modern Tunisian state), rather than pivoting towards Islamic Sharia codes. Similarly, the post-revolution government has not rescinded Bourguiba’s ban on polygamy, despite calls from some conservative voices, keeping Tunisia as the only Arab country to forbid the practice.
That being said, Tunisia’s Islamic character is fully on display in certain aspects, such as the public call to prayer from mosques and the designation of Islamic holidays as national holidays. These reflect Tunisia’s status as an overwhelmingly Muslim-majority nation and a broad implicit support by its people for such cultural-religious mores. However, on many other issues of Islamic conduct and customs, there is a wide divergence of opinon. On questions such as style of attire, the consumption of alcohol, and the mixing of the sexes, the religious-secular pendulum swings rather differently, highly dependent on location.
Therefore, while the law is uniformly applicable across all of Tunisia’s 24 governorates – as opposed to the American model of states having authority to enact laws that differ from one another – local sensibilities and attitudes will almost always determine a particular area’s embrace of more secularist or more religious norms. Generally, the farther south or deeper in into the desert interior one goes, the more conservative and Islamic the customs observed. The farther north and closer to the Mediterranean coast, the more secular the attitudes present, with the capital Tunis and its environs being the pinnacle of secularist influence. Beachfront resort towns, particularly those that cater to European tourists like the Sousse suburb of Monastir, also constitute bastions of relaxed social and cultural mores.
A useful reference that roughly illustrates these secular-religious dividing lines is the map below of the 2014 parliamentary elections, which shows the party that received the plurality of votes in each of the governorates.
Governorates highlighted in Red represent those in which the liberal-secularist Nidaa Tounes party won the greatest number of votes, and fittingly these areas tend to reflect more secular lifestyles. Likewise, the governorates marked in Blue are those in which the conservative-Islamist Ennahda party won its pluralities, and where one can find more traditional and religious modes of behavior.
While walking in the streets of the oasis town of Tozeur, situated in the center-west part of the country (the base for exploring locations that were used for filming several of the Star Wars films), I observed café after café frequented by only men and lacking alcoholic offering. Women out in public were overwhelmingly dressed in headscarves. The only men and women interacting together tended to be families. The culturally-rooted, voluntary gender separation was also present throughout the southern rural towns and in neighborhoods of the southeastern island of Djerba, includling among the traditional Jewish population there.
In contrast, in the Tunisian capital and its affluent suburbs, it was commonplace to see men and women sitting in cafes and restaurants together, smoking cigarettes (or slightly less frequently, nargilah water pipes) and drinking beer or wine. Most of the restaurants lining the trendy Avenue Habib Bourguiba in central Tunis serve alcohol, while the majority of patrons are dressed in casual attire. Women were mostly without headscarves, while it was not uncommon to see men and women alike with dyed hair, piercings, and other forms of liberal self-expression. I even occasionally spotted people with tattoos, which have largely remained taboo in Tunisian culture. Whether in the trendy hilly seafront town of Sidi Bou Said or in the entertainment districts of the capital, I often noticed secular and religious Tunisians amicably interacting and spending quality time together, respectful and without judgments of their colleagues’ divergence in dress and lifestyle.
Tunisia’s second-largest city Sfax, situated on the eastern coast and located roughly midway between the northern and southern extremities, logically follows this geographic pattern, falling squarely in the middle of the religious-secular axis. In my twenty-four hours in this metropolis and the nearby Kerkennah Islands, I observed plenty of signs of secularism. A slightly larger number of women without headscarves than those wearing them walked the streets. In the French-built city center (ville), I came across a number of noisy pubs and pulsating nightclubs catering to secular clientele, many serving cocktails and the national spirit, the fig-based boukha.
Yet during a night out with some newfound Sfaxian friends, I discovered that these nightspots, whether serving alcohol or not, seemed to be exclusively populated by men. My local hosts told me that such voluntary gender separation at nightspots was the custom, though groups of young men and women could be found eating together at restaurants and walking through the city’s central commercial areas. Still, the hybrid secular-religious atmosphere in Sfax and its environs seemed sufficiently socially-relaxed and liberal to attract throngs of neighboring Libyans from their religiously-conservative country. I saw no fewer than 100 Libyan license plates over the course of just one day in the city (Sfax is about a five-hour drive from the Libya-Tunisia border).
A typical weekend sight in central Sfax. Mostly secular residents walk alongside a main street in the city’s modern urban center (ville), built by the French in the colonial era (Right). A car with a Libyan license plate parked by the author’s hotel in Sfax, a common sight in the city.(Noam Ivri)
Everywhere I visited, the Islamic character seemed to be expressed more through folklore and cultural traditions than fervent religious piety. The call to prayer sounded five times a day in every city, but the volume was noticeably fainter than anything I had heard in Cairo, Amman, or elsewhere in the Arab Middle East. Mosques were adequately attended but not overflowing, many residents simply going about their lives during prayer times. While many men and women dressed conservatively and modestly outside of the capital area, even their clothing was mostly Western and modern, rather than traditional Islamic garments. Tunisians of religious and secular persuasions alike repeatedly emphasized their culture’s historic moderation in religious practice and its respect for diversity, often contrasting this posture with the perceived rigid and stark traditionalism of Algerians and Libyans.
Attitudes Towards the Jewish Minority
In this spirit of pluralism and acceptance, Tunisian authorities are keen to emphasize tolerance for the country’s non-Muslim citizens. This is especially true regarding its population of roughly 1,500 Jews – about 1,100 of whom are concentrated in northern Djerba’s Hara Kebira neighborhood. According to the official line, and a sentiment shared by many commoners, Jews residing here are integral part of the Tunisian nation, only differing in faith from the Muslim majority. The island’s historic El Ghriba Synagogue, the site of continuous Jewish worship for at least 2,000 years, is fervently promoted as one of Djerba’s main tourist attractions. A driver I hired to take me around the island for several hours insisted that the synagogue was usually the most requested site by tourist passengers and included it as a “must-see” attraction on his proposed itinerary. Similarly, the island’s Guellala Museum showcasing local history and folklore features several exhibits about Djerban Jewry. These displays portray the community as an indigenous element of the island’s ethno-religious mosaic, and highlight the community’s similar, and in many cases shared, cultural practices with local Muslims.
The government promotes the annual pilgrimage to the El Ghriba Synagogue over the Lag B’Omer holiday in the spring. In the past three years has begun to rebound with several thousand visitors, after sharp declines stemming from the initial post-revolution anxieties and the 2015 terrorist attacks saw only several hundred attending in some of the past few years. The Tunisian president or another high-ranking official is always one of the keynote attendees at the festivities, expressing support and solidarity with the community. While praying at the synagogue on the second day of holiday, I came across the French-language signs and advertisements already deployed to promote the 2019 festival.
In the new Tunisia, the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage constitutes the one time of year that Israeli passport holders are permitted to enter the country. The new policy constitutes something of a compromise in the post-revolution era: during Ben Ali’s reign, Israelis could visit Tunisia visa-free throughout the year – even after Tunisia broke off diplomatic relations with Israel in 2000 to protest Israeli policies during the Second Intifada – whereas in the new era, many voices in civil society and policymaking circles have advocated for an unequivocal, permanent ban on Israeli nationals. In this regard, while official attitudes towards Israel are less conciliatory than under Ben Ali, the contemporary Tunisian leadership has not made anti-Israelism a central tenet of its foreign policy and has rejected occasional proposals to criminalize ties with Israel and Israelis. It also has continued to allow Tunisian Jewish citizens to travel unhindered to Israel, as I would learn from discussions with community members in Djerba.
The government provides stringent security for Jewish institutions around the country. All roads leading into Djerba’s Jewish enclave feature roadblocks set up to prevent a potential vehicular attack, manned by security forces 24 hours a day. The El Ghriba Synagogue is surrounded by concrete walls – installed after the deadly 2002 truck-ramming terror attack at the site – and has police officers deployed on site, who check the passports of tourists and verify the identities of any unrecognized faces of prayer-goers. Similarly, at the Great Synagogue of Tunis, I was required to undergo a security check and turn over my passport to the soldier standing guard upon entering.
In Djerba’s Hara Kebira neighborhood, the Jewish majority lives side-by-side with a Muslim minority, with the two groups interacting cordially towards one another. During a six-kilometer walk from the neighborhood to the El Ghriba Synagogue on the second day of the Jewish new year, the local Jewish prayer-goers accompanying me often exchanged greetings with Muslim farmers and home-owners as we passed by their olive groves, date farms, and other plots of land. Given that these Jews walk every Saturday to the synagogue for morning prayers, they have become familiar and friendly faces to Muslims living along the route.
Given that the vast majority of Tunisia Jews live in Djerba, it is here where I encountered most of the positive sentiment towards Jews and awareness of their presence. The Muslims with whom I spoke on the island all seemed to be keenly aware of the Jewish community in their midst. In contrast, elsewhere in Tunisia, most people I encountered were ignorant of the Jewish minority that remains, though more were cognizant of the fact that a large Jewish community once lived here (which peaked at 100,000-110,000 before the establishment of Israel). Nevertheless, I did not encounter any identifiable public displays of anti-Semitic sentiment, and most Tunisians seemed to maintain neutral indifference towards Jews one way or another. Unlike on visits to other locations in the Arab world, I did not come across central bookstores prominently displaying Mein Kampf or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, swastika graffiti, or other anti-Jewish signs and motifs.
Over the two-day holiday, I asked Djerban Jews for their thoughts on the post-revolution situation. The general feedback I received conveyed a sense that current state of affairs is bearable for now, and that that the worst fears during the security vacuum following the revolution and Ennahda winning the interim elections were not realized. Everyday relations with Muslim neighbors have not turned sour. The the current government is perceived as showing a willingness to include the Jews as part of the new Tunisia and protect them, even if it occasionally pays lip service to anti-Zionism and pan-Arab solidarity. It seemed that there was a sense of reassurance among Djerban Jewry following the secularist parties’ winning of the 2014 elections and Ennahda peacefully relinquishing control.
A few community members did emphasize that amid the general peace, there have been periodic acts of violence since the revolution. In 2013, there was an attempted arson attack on one of Djerba’s twelve synagogues, for which the teenage suspect was caught, tried, and convicted by authorities. At the beginning of this year, demonstrations in Djerba were held as part of a nationwide campaign against government austerity measures and economic difficulties, under the cover of which a few individuals left the main procession and threw petrol bombs at a Jewish school, though fortunately causing no damage or injuries. Djerban Jews characterized these incidents as isolated acts by hateful people, rather than a broad and accurate manifestation of mainstream feelings.
Still, many in the Jewish community conveyed apprehensive uncertainty towards Tunisia’s future course. There seemed to be a unanimous opinion that Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule was more secure for the Jews than the new era (echoing sentiment I have heard among Middle Eastern Christians, who overwhelmingly support their strongman leaders as benevolent guarantors of their minority communities, and fear that democratic elections will enable hostile and extremist Islamist movements to come to power). The former Tunisian leader was recalled as a staunch secularist who curbed the power of political Islam, locking up Islamists advocating violence and suppressing terrorist groups, while preventing the legitimization of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the national discourse.
The biggest concern that the Jewish locals exhibited was that the country’s post-2011 embrace of political pluralism and the debating of ideas in the public square has seen anti-Semitic sentiment enter the fray as just another “competing voice.” While now this voice remains marginal in Tunisian society and the government has embraced it Jewish population, many in the community feared that proper safeguards are not in place to counter its potential expansion to larger segments of the population. They especially worried that a new wave of revolutionary fervor and/or economically-driven protests could ignite anti-Semitic currents.
Security and Economy
A newcomer to Tunisian capital without any prior knowledge of its recent history would probably understand rather quickly that the country has experienced terrorism in the not-so-distant past. Some of the security procedures when entering museums and other crowded public places reminded me of standard security procedures in Israel for large-scale gatherings. Security forces were present in large numbers in the capital, deployed at the entrances to the walled city and patrolling the main streets of the city center’s commercial and entertainment district.
A section of the city center’s key throughway, Avenue Habib Bourguiba, was blocked off entirely to motorized traffic by police barricades. (As this essay went to print, a female suicide bomber detonated on this busy street, in the country’s first terrorist attack in more than three years. The blast injured eight security personnel and one civilian, highlighting the security challenges that still face the transitioning nation.)
Visitors entering Tunis-Carthage International Airport must undergo a luggage scan and walk through a metal detector immediately upon entering the premises, in addition to a standard security checkpoint after passport control. Some modern restaurants and bars in Tunis’ affluent eastern suburbs had private security guards manning metal detectors and inspecting visitors, perhaps fearful that their high-priced exclusivity and the serving of alcohol could pose an attractive terror target.
Popular tourist sites and resorts outside of the capital also required a security check to enter, such as the ancient Roman amphitheater in El Djem and resort hotels in northeast Djerba’s tourist district. In contrast, security in areas not frequented by tourists in the center and south of the country seemed laxer (other than the above-mentioned exception of the Djerba Jewish neighborhood). The only non-tourist places in these parts of Tunisia in which I observed sizable security forces were at tollbooths on the country’s main north-south coastal highway, where policemen routinely stopped drivers to inspect registration papers and driving licenses.
The precautionary measures and an improved security situation since the wave of high-casualty attacks in 2015 have helped generate a modest recovery in tourism, which had fell off precipitously after the revolution. Nonetheless, for many in the tourist industry, the numbers still fell below expectations. Shopkeepers in Tunis’ central bazaar, grateful for my patronage, lamented that an average of only 5 million tourists have visited the country in the years since the revolution, in contrast to the 7-8 million who had come in the final years of Ben Ali’s rule, while the 2015 attacks only exacerbated Tunisia’s post-revolution perception as dangerous. They did, however, express hope that as a state of terror-free security prevails, the numbers would gradually return to the pre-revolution levels, if not exceed them.
Indeed, I encountered just a smattering of fellow tourists in most of my visits to prominent tourist attractions: archeological ruins, beaches, museums, and Star Wars film sites. Except for the latter category, local tourists seemed to have outnumbered foreign visitors. Tourist shops and restaurants set up alongside many of these sites were mostly empty, I often being the only patron inside browsing for trinkets or drinking coffee.
Shopkeepers in Tunis’ main bazaar within the ancient city walls eagerly wait for visitors, as the country’s tourist industry struggles to rebound following a spate of high-casualty terrorist attacks in 2015 (Left). A few tourists roam through the Roman stadium in El Djem, a notable contrast to the masses of international visitors who daily visit the similar-looking but more accessible and better-known Colosseum in Rome. (Noam Ivri)
While terrorism and post-revolution instability fears seem to have deterred many visitors from Tunisia’s traditional main source of tourism, Western Europe, the country has been able to capitalize on nearby countries’ security troubles to bring in visitors from other markets, especially Russia. Since 2015, it has begun to receive a high volume of Russia tourists who have been banned by Moscow from visiting Egypt, following the ISIS terror attack that month against a Russian charter plane taking off at Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport, in which all 224 passengers on board were killed (the ban was only lifted in April 2018).
Under these circumstances, Tunisia has successfully branded itself to Russians as a similarly hot and sunny destination with the appropriate tourism infrastructure, and which offers visitors all the attractions that they had hoped to experience in Egypt: pristine beaches, an array of desert-based adventures, and innumerable historical sites of interest. At a few of the Star Wars film sites and some desert oases, I stood alone among tourists as the only non-Russian, who arrived in convoys of 4x4 jeeps or large buses.
The other observed case of sizeable group tourism was busloads of Chinese visitors, whom I spotted in El Djem and the Tunis airport. As I’ve witnessed across Europe, the new Chinese middle class has begun to capitalize on its expanded purchasing power to partake in tourism across the world, and it appears that Tunisia has emerged on their radar. China could become the next promising source for Tunisia’s tourism sector, especially if many Western Europeans continue to stay away.
Tunisia’s fledgling tourism industry and security alertness were secondary themes of observation from my trip. Far more observable and stark was a depressed economic situation and sub-standard infrastructure, especially in the periphery. In nearly every small town in south and central Tunisia, roadside cafes were full of young men idly drinking tea or coffee and smoking nargilah waterpipes. I asked my newfound friends and colleagues to explain the situation: they reasoned that only a small minority of these men had family inheritances from agricultural fields and plots of land and therefore could afford to pass their days by in cafes; the clear majority, however, were simply unemployed and had dismal job prospects (I later learned that the unemployment rate in these rural regions is estimated at 30%, twice the official national average).
In September 2018, it seemed that the gloomy socioeconomic conditions that had precipitated revolutionary discontent nearly eight years prior were still as apparent, and a worrying hindrance to the country’s forward progression. Similarly, it is these dismal prospects that many analysts opined has played a factor – though by no means the only one – in recruiting young Tunisian men and women to terrorist movements. Tunisians, it should be recalled, have constituted the single largest nationality among the ISIS’ foreign jihadists in Syria and Iraq (6,000).
Many aspects of the faltering transportation sector stood out like sore thumbs. The railway network seemed like it hadn’t been upgraded since the French departed the country six decades ago, serviced by ancient and dirty carriages, and lacking in any on-board amenities. At I waited at the fly-infested, air-conditioning-less train station in the port city Sousse in sweltering late-summer heat, I saw that the timetable showed delays for four of the eight trains arriving later in the day – all of them by more than an hour; I boarded a train at 11:30 that was meant to arrive at 8:30, only for it to stay motionless at the platform for an additional 30 minutes before finally departing.
Tunis’s metro tram and light rail system also featured antiquated passenger cars, with weakly-powered fans providing little respite to the masses of sweating commuters. People entering the stations waited single-file on long lines to purchase tickets through a lone agent, absent any ticket-issuing machines and seemingly without the option of multiple-use passes or cards. Without straightforward signs and information points in any language, the network was a confusing mess for the first-time passenger like myself. I only found my way around through the help of generous locals, who probably recognized me as the predictably befuddled tourist struggling to navigate their byzantine transportation system, as they had recognized many before me.
When travelling by service taxi to Sfax from the central mining town of Gafsa, the ride was delayed by half an hour as we neared the city limits. Mere kilometers outside of Tunisia’s second largest city, we encountered bumper-to-bumper traffic along main (unpaved) road leading to the city, as construction crews tried to frantically pave and widen the route. At several major intersections, police had to direct traffic, as traffic lights weren’t functioning. Though lined with businesses and residences, this central thoroughfare lacked sidewalks, forcing pedestrians to tread cautiously alongside the vehicular traffic. I encountered similar chaos at Tunis’ international airport, where I nearly missed my departure flight waiting at passport control: border agents kept closing lines and re-opening them elsewhere, all while some officials argued among themselves rather than service the masses of departing passengers.
The sanitation and health trends epitomized Tunisia’s infrastructure discrepancies, in which some modern elements are fused with “Third World” standards. Throughout the cities, vehicles mostly running on diesel or lead fuel emitted lingering air pollution and an uncomfortable breathing experience, which seemed to have contributed to a persistent cough that I developed in the last half of the nine-day visit. I was told not to drink the tap water in the south and center, but could chance sipping it from Sfax and northwards. Jewish families in Djerba related that despite the sweltering summer humidity, they must use the air-conditions sparingly, as the power supply is frequently halted due to limited electricity capacity. Around the country, garbage could be found littered about, even in central areas of the largest cities. Garbage cans, recycling bins, and other collection points for refuse seemed to be the rarest of sights.
Can Tunisia’s Spring Prevail?
Insights from the week and a half trip left me with the impression that, nearly eight years after overthrowing the old order, Tunisia finds itself on a positive trajectory politically, while Tunisians are cautiously optimistic about their future. The country has weathered the initial turbulence following the revolution and shows promising signs of solidifying its democratic culture and peaceful mechanisms for debating the issues of the day.
From talking to a multitude of Tunisians from a diverse range of backgrounds and in a variety of places throughout the country, the consensus seemed clear: the people staunchly support this civic-democratic process and certainly do not take their newfound liberties for granted. The widespread expressions of moderation – both in religious practices and political beliefs – and an immense pride in a national identity set apart from conservative neighboring North African states and Arab countries farther afloat, are key factors that suggest Tunisians will determinedly fight to ensure that their hard-won victories are not erased.
If anything, the country’s peaceful revolution and status as the lone Arab country to successfully forge a stable new system after overthrowing its former dictator, to say nothing of establishing a budding democracy, have themselves become central components of Tunisian identity. In this regard, the failure of the democracy project could constitute an irreversible stain on national identity, and harm morale for years to come. Tunisians are thus more so emboldened to ensure that their national identity continues to be linked to success rather than embarrassment. The 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, therefore, could prove the decisive test: successful democratic balloting and the orderly transition of power, accompanied by security and societal calm, could bring this dream of sustained democracy and stability much closer to permanency.
Security-wise, the country demonstrates a high state of preparedness and the society has continued to function unabated, demonstrating resilience following the murderous string of terror attacks three years ago .The government’s formidable resources allocated to protect the statistically miniscule Jewish minority, tourist-frequented attractions, and large gathering places in and around the capital, demonstrate the seriousness with which the it views the terrorism threat and values the lives of its citizens and guests. In the same vein, the presidency and parliament have not used terrorism or occasional civil unrest as a pretext to suspend civil liberties, as has been done in other Arab countries. Likewise, security has not been seized upon as an excuse to derail the democratic process of continued discussion of the national agenda, even on the most sensitive and taboo issues.
While sporadic attacks against security forces by al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates near the Libyan and Algerian borders have occurred since 2015, the civilian heartland has mostly known peace since then. True, this prevailing quiet was tragically interrupted with the recent suicide bombing in central Tunis, highlighting that Tunisia still faces security challenges in its ongoing post-revolution transformation. Yet the experience of the past few years suggests that the Tunisian security apparatus will adapt to address these threats, while the Tunisian people will prove cohesive in the face of terrorism.
It is the weak-performing economy, especially in the outlying regions, that comprises the new Tunisia’s Achilles’ Heel. The initial protest by the hopeless street vendor in December 2010 represented first and foremost pent-up anger at the old order’s inability to facilitate economic security, more so than frustration towards its anti-democratic, despotic nature. Tunisia’s inability to address the lack of employment opportunities and facilitate economic development could be the impetus for a future campaign of protests and revolutionary anti-government sentiment; or worse, a depressed economy could re-strengthen the appeal of violent and extremist ideologies. Should the months and years pass and Tunisia’s economic prospects not markedly improve, Tunisians may start to desperately second-guess whether the long struggle for political and individual freedom was worth it, if their day-to-day livelihood remains no better than before.
 It should be noted that given my residence in Israel and the sensitivity surrounding any relations to that country in Tunisia, I have kept the names of the Tunisians I encountered anonymous.
* Noam Ivri was raised in Boca Raton, FL and earned a bachelor's degree in International Affairs from The George Washington University. He currently lives in Tel Aviv and works at the Israel office of a global public affairs consulting firm. A fluent Arabic speaker, Noam has traveled extensively in North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and the Balkans. He is in the process of completing an MA in Middle Eastern and African History from Tel Aviv University.