Tourism in Tunisia? Only for the Brave

Had we not been in the midst of such a “culture shock” moment a few days ago, Tony and I would have found this article on Tunisian tourism at the moment more than a little amusing. I guess we count as brave. And I don’t know. Would taking pictures of our kids next to a Tunisian army tank be considered voyeuristic? We did ask permission first . . .

In any case, other than the odd panic attack, we continue to feel quite safe. Unfortunately, although the situation improved dramatically between the President’s departure and our arrival, things since have taken a bit of a downturn. The curfew was finally lifted a day or two ago, but the state of emergency remains in force. Thomas Cook, the giant UK holiday company that led the tourist exodus from Tunisia, has pushed back its February 15th date for a return to the country by two weeks (we can only hope that in two weeks it won’t get pushed back again). A few die-hard protesters continue, and there have even been some scattered deaths. Just a few days ago there was a self-immolation like the one that touched off the revolution in the first place. Only this time it happened around the corner from our house! We weren’t there, thankfully, and only saw the news crews interviewing people after the fact. I guess maybe it makes sense, since the lack of tourists means that the employment situation in the traditionally more affluent coastal communities like ours has only gotten worse since the revolution.

However, the most difficult problem seems to be the lack of internal security. During the revolution, the police were seen as complicit with the Regime, and were responsible for most of the deaths. The army, on the other hand, disobeyed Ben Ali’s orders to fire on demonstrators, and became hugely popular. Unfortunately, the President, whose career began in the police, had always kept the police force larger than army. Now, although the elements in the police loyal to Ben Ali have been arrested, large numbers of rank-and-file police are just not showing up to work anymore because of serious public sentiment against them. This, along with the reputed 11,000 prisoners who escaped from detention during the chaos of the revolution (and keep in mind that Tunisia is a country of only 10 million people), leaves many Tunisians concerned for their basic safety. Nobody so far has listened to my clever idea of issuing army uniforms to the police . . .

The security vacuum is also what triggered the arrival of boatloads of Tunisians in Italy last week, prompting the Italians to offer the services of their own police force (a proposal that was of course roundly refused by the indignant Tunisians). Here on the ground though, perhaps aided by our reclusive habits, we haven’t noticed much difference, other than a slight increase in security forces in our area. Yesterday, when we went to visit our lovely Tunisian landlords in the Tunis suburb of Hammam Lif, we saw workers busily rebuilding the police station.

Perhaps the most formidable hurdle is the Tunisians’ general lack of experience with democracy, and the resulting unrealistic expectations. After all, while freedom of speech and government corruption were key motivators, the central issue for the demonstrators was always unemployment and lack of economic opportunity, something that remains a tricky problem even for Western democracies. How quickly the government can show results that will satisfy the people and alleviate the problems that drove them to desperation and revolution remains to be seen.