Cycling to the Sahara: Tunisia after the revolution

The louage driver slaps my hand and gives me a toothy smile. “Ahh, 2011!” he says, then gives me directions to the giant hand-cart.

I’m in Sidi Bouzid. It’s a town in central Tunisia. A working town, like any other. It reminds me of Sfax, only smaller and with zero tourists and zero tourist appeal.

Except for one rather odd monument.

A statue of a fruit and vegetable cart in Sidi Bouzid.

In 2010, a streetseller called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside a government building in Sidi Bouzid. Whatever the truth of his grievance, it was enough to spark riots. These riots blossomed into revolution. And this revolution evolved, mutated and spread: most dramatically into Egypt, most violently into Libya and most notoriously in Syria, where civil war is still bleeding.

So this is the post you’ve all (probably) been waiting for: the revolution one. I’ve waited this long because I didn’t want to make any snap judgements and because I wanted to wait until I’d come to the place where it all began: Sidi Bouzid.

Mohamed Bouazizi: a proud portrait on a rather battered post office.

On the other hand, I could have waited forever to write this post because, frankly, there is no judgement I can make that won’t be so bereft of truth as to be called empty. I’m an outsider, I don’t know what Tunisia is really like after the revolution. I can only say what I see.

I did go to Tunisia while it was still under Ben Ali, in 2008, but that was also only for a month. You can’t get more than a vague sense of a place in a month. So I’m comparing vague sense with vague sense in this post. Furthermore, I have a real problem collecting evidence. The evidence of my own eyes is almost totally without context and the evidence given by others, by Tunisians or by expats, is hard to filter.

These caveats given, I shall proceed with my judgement: what is Tunisia like after the revolution?

Better placed than me to comment on post-revolution Tunisia: a curious tortoise.

Tunisia post-revolution is a democracy. Under Ben Ali, it was also a democracy. The only difference is that now more than one political party is allowed. Ha.

Democratic elections were held comparatively quickly after the revolution, in October 2011, and the current government is dominated by the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda. Ennahda recently announced that the first clause of the Tunisian constitution should remain as it is: in other words, they will not be introducing Sharia (Islamic religious) law. The constitution still demands, however, that the president be a Muslim (a feature shared by 98% of the population).

That there was some doubt as to the future of Sharia law in Tunisia is something I have encountered on my trip. In Sousse, I ran into a Salafist rally held on the walls of the old medina. It was startling to see the infamous black and white flags of hardline Islamism flying over the moderate Tunisian skyline. And the locals seemed about as taken aback as I was, with many of them taking photos or film, like tourists.

Salafi flags over the medina in Sousse.

These rallies have been held all over the country, including one of 10,000 in Tunis. But even so, I met a chap who told me that of the 10 million people in the country, perhaps as many as 9.5 million opposed the Salafis. At the rally in Sousse, there were about 200 people and about fifty of them were shouting themselves hoarse in support of the speakers. The women were segregated, although not especially effectively – I saw a slightly bewildered fat white man in a baseball cap emerge from the tightly packed women in full Islamic dress. The rally was bossed by heavyset men in smart cropped beards, many wearing khaki military waistcoats and jackboots. It’s the kind of dress code I recognise from BNP rallies in the UK.

So the question of Sharia law has been answered for the moment, but for how long? The young man I spoke to in Sousse was utterly disbelieving that such a thing could ever happen in Tunisia. But the truth is that Islamist parties now have a legal platform on which to stand in Tunisia. Under Ben Ali, they were effectively silenced. It remains to be seen whether, allowed the freedom to campaign, they will be rejected or whether their calls for religious law will be heard sympathetically, as an effective alternative to Western political and economic domination.

“Stay standing, people of Tunisia – everyone is proud of you.”

Two anecdotal changes post-revolution are a reduction in litter collections (litter was already a huge problem in 2008, this makes things worse) and an increase in petty thieving – the ‘catastrophes’ my motocycle chaperone talked about. I myself have noticed two further changes regarding freedom of information: the newspapers are no longer filled with Ben Ali’s fat face and the internet browser I’m currently using has hardcore porn saved as a bookmark.

One post-revolution change that I can certainly attest to is the massive drop in tourist numbers in Tunisia. I’ve met about a dozen other tourists, hotels have been almost totally empty and, if it wasn’t for the fact that I was here during Tunisian spring holidays, I’d have felt very alone at times.

There are hopes that this summer will see an increase of tourists compared to last year – but last year was a disaster. Tourism accounts for 7% of the Tunisian economy and in 2011 tourist numbers were down over 30%. That means 3,000 jobs lost. That means more people like Ali and Walid taking to hard drink.

In Sidi Bouzid, there are still streetsellers peddling their carts, there are still beggers outside the mosque, the cafes and streetsides are still packed with young men smoking and old men slapping down cards or dominoes, under- or un-employed. Mohamed Bouazizi’s market still runs, selling post-revolutionary fruit – appetites ignore politics. And of course there’s still the governor, the police and the Garde Nationale, but they’re on our side now, aren’t they?

The infamous government building. The blue banner reads: ’17th December Tunisian revolution of freedom and dignity.’

Turning to more optimistic matters, I think there is an essay to be written about graffiti and freedom. There probably already has been. People graffiti when they are no longer scared and there is definitely more graffiti in Tunisia, post-revolution. Most of it is basic paintwork slogans, like ‘EST’ – a reference to Esperance Sportive de Tunis, one of the big football clubs here. But I have seen more political slogans, most memorably ‘Fuck the police’ (not, I presume, solely a reference to NWA) and ‘Ben Ali a l’enfer’ – ‘Ben Ali go to hell’.

Around the revolutionary monument in Sidi Bouzid, there is more peaceful, commemorative graffiti. It has been left untouched, despite decorating the walls of the local police station and the notorious government building outside which Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight.

Revolution, liberty, blah, blah, blah.

It should be said in conclusion, to echo my comments at the start of this post, that no conclusion, no judgement is final. Tunisia is still in the delicate phases of post-revolution. One point of note, though, is that these phases have been calmer than those in Libya or even in Egypt. Perhaps this is a sign that Tunisia has more to lose than these other countries. Perhaps it is a sign that, despite the oppressions of Ben Ali’s government, in general things were not so bad.

For a country situated between Algeria and Libya on the continent of Africa, Tunisia is well-developed, well-educated and the people here have it better than many. Tunisia has a literacy rate of 88.9%, compared to Egypt’s 66.4%. Tunisian GDP per capita is $4,200, while in Egypt it is only $2,700. Tunisia might not have the raw wealth of oil-rich Libya, but it does have a society worth preserving, seen in the friendly smiles of the people I pass on my bicycle.

The very least that can be said of the revolution is that power is no longer coalesced in one man, as it was in Ben Ali and in Habib Bourguiba before him. A servant to his country until the very end, Ben Ali fled the revolution for Saudi Arabia, charged with corruption, theft, money laundering and drug trafficking.

No doubt Tunisia is better off without him. But only a couple of days after my trip to Sidi Bouzid, I came face to face with the reality of protest in post-revolution Tunisia.

2 Replies to “Cycling to the Sahara: Tunisia after the revolution”

What do you think?