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Post Tunisia: A Personal Memory
Created by John Eipper on 01/27/11 3:28 AM

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Tunisia: A Personal Memory (Patricia Charlton Payne, USA, 01/27/11 3:28 am)

With reference to your note about WAISers visiting Tunisia, while I haven't been back since I left five years ago, my family and I lived and worked in Tunisia, a small land wedged between Algeria and Libya on the southern shore of the Mediterranean about 80km from Sicily, for about four decades. I was successively at the regional office of the Ford Foundation, a Fulbright lecturer at the university, a correspondent for the Economist Intelligence Unit for Tunisia; my wife Patricia was head of the Tunis office of AMIDEAST for 20 years. My son Rhys was also a correspondent of the Economist Intelligent Unit and a Fulbright lecturer to Tunisia, as was my daughter-in-law Lynette. So much for family credentials.

On the whole, my feelings toward the country and the people are very positive. It is a beautiful land, with the Atlas mountains rising in the northern part then petering out in the southern part, with magnificent beaches, generally unpolluted water, and slice of the Sahara. Tunis, the main city, contains a busy souk, along with historical buildings and a modern cosmopolitan section. A few kilometers away lies Carthage, full of Roman ruins, which are found throughout this relatively small country. A succession of other peoples have passed through Tunisia--Phoenician, Vandal, Roman, French, and more recently, World War II armies--the turning point of that struggle took place in North Africa ("The underbelly of Europe," in Churchill's words). Arab dynasties ruled from the late 7th century to the early 16th century when the Ottoman Turks took control. In 1956 Tunisia gained independence. Languages spoken are: Berber, Tunisian Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), French; English is widely studied. The placards shown during the current rioting were principally in MSA, French and English, indicating major allegiances with the outside world.

Habib Bourguiba was the first head of state, ruling from 1957 until he was deposed by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a bloodless coup in 1987. It is worth noting that since Independence, there are been only two rulers of Tunisia.
Bourguiba's accomplishments were dramatic. He liberated women from second-class citizens so that they no longer are required to wear a veil and are enabled to hold important positions in the private and public sectors. Results of this change were also evident in current newsreels which showed woman at the forefront of the demonstrations.

Tunisia has few natural resources. Petroleum is the principal mineral resource and is found both onshore and offshore but the quantity is limited. Other exportable resources are: natural gas, phosphates, iron ore, lead and zinc. Bourguiba realized this deficit and consequently turned to education as his choice of investment with the result that now almost every qualified child is in school. The school system has been gradually Arabized, though French has become the language of instruction at advanced levels of certain subjects. This emphasis on education and advanced degrees raised expectations to an unrealistic level producing as it did too many highly trained individuals for the limited openings. Indeed, the tragic self-immolation of Mohamed Bouzizi was because of his inability to find work, even with a university degree. Creating a market for manpower is doubtless the most pressing need of the country, as is the case in many developing countries.

Another crucial move was Bourguiba's alliance with the western powers particularly France, which had held Tunisia as a Protectorate and was the principal source of Tunisian imports. The USA has been a strong supporter and long maintained an assistance program of considerable proportions. When France turned its back on Tunisia by refusing an asylum for Ben Ali, it was clear that support will be forthcoming. In any case, the rioters thus far have evinced no hostility towards any western power.

The outcry against Ben Ali included accusations of widespread torture, indiscriminate and pitiless. But it was corruption, the scale of which was incredible, which drove people into the streets.  Unfortunately, corruption was not limited to a few but to many, including those in high positions of the ruling party and the government. The most apparent candidate will come from the military, in the person of General Rachid Ammar, who already gained a following because of his refusal to follow Ben Ali's order to file upon the demonstrators, a refusal that sent the former PM unceremoniously fleeing the country to seek asylum in Saudi Arabia after finding he was not welcome in France.

JE comments:  It's great to hear from WAISer Richard M. Payne, whom I remember well from our conversations at the 2009 WAIS conference.  I knew nothing at the time of Dick's decades-long connection to Tunisia, but this is not surprising:  Tunisia was off the radar screen of most outsiders until the recent unrest, which has now spread to Egypt, a much larger country.

Is Mubarak going to be sent packing soon, too?

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