Tunisia: Political Dynamics research
However, while the media and pundits are generally eager to declare Tunisia’s political transition to be an “exemplar model,” the Tunisian people paradoxically continue to feel disenfranchised by the new political system. In my interactions with average Tunisian citizens, I heard some form of “Tunisia didn’t have a revolution” at least a dozen times. For them, a revolution means a new way of life. In their view, things on the ground have only changed for the worst. Many, if not all of those with whom I spoke did not vote in either of the presidential elections.
Since the 2011 “uprising,” as it shall be called, Tunisia’s economy has been struggling with weak economic performance with the single exception of its agriculture sector. The status of the economy is particularly salient among young Tunisians, who are well educated and eager to join the workforce. In my conversations, the freedom to vote means little when qualified Tunisians are unable to find jobs. Furthermore, as I have come to understand, many of the payouts given to business owners under Ben Ali have now disappeared, leading many companies in the manufacturing sector to shut down. The tourism sector, which constitutes 7% of Tunisia’s GDP, has suffered immensely from security concerns.
Tunisians represent the largest contingent of migrants to the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Tunisia’s Minister of the Interior estimates that 90% of those people join the ranks of violent organizations like Isis. Hundreds have returned. Terrorist attacks against the Bardo National Museum in March 2015 worsened the tourism sector. Furthermore, President Essebsi estimated that over 1 million Libyan refugees place further security and economic pressures on Tunisia’s population of just 11 million. Essebsi noted that his administration is focusing on three salient initiatives, in this order: locking down its democracy; securing the population and remaining vigilant against the threat of terrorism; and bolstering the economy for job creation.
During my research, I have had to opportunity to speak with many different Tunisian citizens across all social strata to form a better understanding of the political situation. I learned that the situation on the ground is a painting evoking much less optimism than the one represented in the literature. The SSP Summer Grant has given me a unique opportunity to vacate my armchair and hear and feel the local story of the Tunisian revolution.
What are two interesting things about Tunisia that the average person doesn't know?
Tunisia has a fascinating history. A former French colony, Tunisia peacefully gained independence in 1957. Habib Bourguiba, who became “president for life,” ruled unchallenged for 30 years. His legacy is strong among Tunisian citizens and the entire city of Monastir – Bourguiba’s hometown – is in apparent dedication to the former leader. Bourguiba was quite progressive for Arab leaders, placing value on a secular government, education, and women’s rights.
However, Bourguiba also showed distaste for religion and actively repressed Islamist movements. On one occasion, Bourguiba shockingly broke the rules of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan by purposefully drinking a glass of orange juice during a live broadcast. Another anecdote I found to be particularly interesting was of a proposition from Muammar Qaddafi of Libya to unify the two states. A clever statesman, Bourguiba feigned interest but ultimately rejected the offer. At the end of his term, then-Prime Minister Ben Ali impeached Bouguiba in a bloodless coup d’état and led the country from 1987 until the 2011 uprisings.
What is the best day you had on your trip?
About two weeks into my trip, I took a louage (taxi-bus) to the city of Kairouan. The ancient city is known for being the fourth holiest Islamic pilgrimage site, behind Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Okba ibn Nafaa, who led the Islamic conquest of the Maghreb region, founded The Grand (Okba) Mosque, for which the city is known, around 670AD. Today, the Grand Mosque acts as a major attraction for both foreign and Tunisian visitors. Unfortunately, the city has also attracted Tunisians loyal to Isis, who declared the city of Kairouan a province (wilayat) of the Islamic State weeks prior to my arrival.
Show us a picture of your favorite meal. What is it?
At an unnamed restaurant along a rare quiet alley on the edge of the Tunis medina, I routinely enjoyed a Friday couscous meal outside with the company of at least six unusually healthy looking cats. Every week, I ordered spicy chicken couscous with steamed vegetables, legumes, and a delightful tomato sauce. Leben, a fermented yogurt/milk, turned out to be very helpful as my taste buds lit ablaze and sinuses drained.