We all know what Tunisia is like today. Protests started as a result of massive unemployment of university graduates and rising food prices. Overreaction by security forces resulting in many deaths and injuries. Promises of reform by President Ben Ali, followed by continual demonstrations now against corruption by his family, and then his abrupt and unexpected departure from the country. More riots and looting, spreading around the country. Confusion as to how a successor to Ben Ali should be chosen. Fewer demonstrations, and increased activity by police and security forces.
That is today. What about eight months ago, May 2010, when I spent a week in the country?
The overwhelming impression that Tunisia gave eight months ago was that it was a land of peace and moderation. An Arab and a Muslim country, it gave no hint of extremism or fundamentalism. In Tunis, the capital, and in the other areas where tourists flocked, Arabic and French seemed to be two co-equal languages. All signs were multi-lingual; all shop keepers, taxi drivers, and hotel employees greeted you in French. The country seemed very hospitable and welcoming.
Obviously, it was not paradise. You certainly saw areas of poverty, and you saw coffee shops filled with customers who looked like they were there because they had nothing better to do. But you were never threatened, never frightened.
My visit was a rather unique one. A trip sponsored by American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel, with forty or so university supporters, several university faculty members, American and Tunisian guides. We went to Tunis, to the beach suburbs of Tunis, including Carthage and Sidi bin Said, to see the Roman ruins at Douga, and to the island of Djerba, off the south-east coast. We stayed at beach front hotels, where most of the visitors seemed to be French. We visited a farm east of Tunis in the country side. We saw the main sights of Tunis. We saw the American and the British war cemeteries.
The Jewish oriented part of the trip was extensive. We visited synagogues, including the recently renovated Grand Synagogue in Tunis, we visited the large Jewish cemetery, we had home hospitality in Carthage at the home of one of the Jewish families who remained in Tunisia after it became independent from France in 1956 (at one time, the Jewish population of Tunisia was over 100,000; it now stands at about 2,000). In Djerba, where there has been a thriving Jewish community for perhaps 2,000 years, we visited the El Ghriba Synagogue on the community festival day of Lag B’Omer, we visited the active yeshiva and pre-school, we visited the tourist oriented commercial area of Ham Souk, with so many Jewish owned shops. We learned how the Jewish minority and Muslim majority seemed to get along so well.
We did not notice anything that spoke to fundamentalism – we saw women walking about with seeming freedom and learned that gender equality was a hallmark of Tunisian life, and that the universities, for example, were almost fifty percent female in their student bodies. We saw that (at least in the areas we visited) that about half of the women wore head scarfs, and half did not. That the head scarfs were just that, scarfs, nothing more. We saw the two groups of women interacting, sitting at the same tables in restaurants, for example.
We saw that the retail establishments seemed to be busy, and that the area surrounding central Tunis was filled with new office buildings and shopping centers – signs of modernity and commercial progress. While we heard that there were college graduates who could not find employment and certainly saw areas of the city where the population seemed to be financially struggling, this seemed natural for a North African country attempting (and to an extent succeeding) in keeping up with the Joneses. We saw no signs of desperation.
We did learn that, since Tunisia received its independence from France 55 years ago, there had only been two heads of state. President Bourguiba, who led the country for the first thirty years of independence, was respected as a moderate, western oriented leader who set the course that Tunisia continued to follow. President Ben Ali, who had deposed the aging Bourguiba in a bloodless revolt, was more controversial to be sure. He led a one party country, with a large and highly trained security apparatus designed to hold back to potential sources of problems – political opposition and religious fundamentalism. We learned that he was not universally loved. And that his policies and the military and police forces were feared – that, in spite of how it looked, speech was not free, and internal spies were scattered about, keeping everyone to some extent on edge.
What we did not hear was what the plan was for Ben Ali’s successor. We did not hear that unemployment was such a problem that the country was a powder keg. We did not hear about the increasing prices of food in a country where many simply could not afford to pay more. And we did not hear anything about government corruption, or special favors being given to special people.
So, when the riots started, and particularly when Ben Ali fled, I was taken by surprise. What will happen now is unclear, but one hopes that the desire of so many Tunisians for a now peaceful period where a new government is elected (and where more than one party is on the ballot) will come about, and that anti-western fundamentalism will not somehow take control. I am also obviously concerned about the Jewish community and how they will fare. It will be interesting to watch from afar. From inside, are there many who truly want to live in interesting times?