By Emma Sky
Best Defense roving Middle East correspondent
Standing in line waiting to board my plane to Tunisia, I hear a bunch of young guys speaking in the strongest London vernacular. I turn around to see who they are. At first I cannot spot them. It takes me a little while to realize that I am actually listening in to the conversation of the seriously bearded twenty some-things right behind me. They speak like the native-born Londoners that they are. Some are clothed Western, others in Islamic dress. They look like 'Afghan Arabs'. Who are they, I wonder, and what on earth are they doing going to Tunisia? The two-hour flight soon passes without anyone setting fire to himself, storming the cabin, or complaining about the British Airways sandwiches. My first ever glimpse of Tunis comes out of the airplane window, looking down on the pristine white buildings stretched out along the sandy coastline.
Walking down Bourguiba avenue the next day, I feel that I could be in Paris on the Champs Elysees, except, that is, for the barbed wire and tanks. The cafes along the street are packed with Tunisians wielding espressos and cigarettes. Graffiti proclaims "degage," "vive la revolution," "Gadaffi is threatening to the Tunisian revolution".
Passing the "Porte de France," which marks the entrance to the Medina, I feel myself moving seamlessly between Europe and the Middle East. I wander through the Medina, feasting my eyes on the stores selling souvenirs: jewellery, pouffes, leather goods, perfumes. The shop owners try to entice me with calls of "bonjour, madame" which is certainly more persuasive than the "hello, Mister" of Egypt.
I reach the Zitouna mosque which is the center of the medina, and was completed in the ninth century. I sit down on the cool flagstones, appreciating the peace and quiet after the melee of the market, and admiring the beauty of the courtyard. I wonder what has changed since the revolution.
Later, sitting in a store drinking mint tea, the owner describes the new found freedom that people feel, while he brings out different perfumes for me to smell. Jasmine is for the house. Orange is for the bath. This is Chanel. Be careful of your bag, he warns me. Always carry it in front of you. Many thieves in the narrow allies.
Zanga, zanga. Do Tunisians actually say 'zanga zanga'?" I ask him amused. "We took it from Gadaffi," he answers me smiling. "He gave that speech about hunting down enemies ally by ally, zanga zanga." He raises his arms above his head, imitating the delusional leader of Tunisia's eastern neighbor.
A taxi driver explains to me that Tunisians are really happy that Ben Ali is gone. They are proud that they brought about the revolution themselves, through peaceful means. He tells me that Ben Ali was an agent of the United States. He kept the Islamists at bay for America, and in return they supported him to stay in power.
I strike up conversations with Tunisians from different backgrounds, trying to understand how the revolution had come about. There are different rumors about the spark. Some now say that Mohamed Bouazizi, the young fruit vendor, had insulted the policewoman when she told him to move his stall and so this is why she slapped him. While admitting that Bouazizi had doused himself with petrol, some claim that he had not actually meant to set himself alight on Dec. 17. Whatever the truth is no longer matters. Protests spread across the country as people felt frustrated with unemployment and corruption. They wanted justice. The president and his cronies had gotten stinking rich at the expense of the people. They had stolen the country's money. The president was not better than the people. He did not have qualifications. He humiliated Tunisians. As anger increased, Ben Ali made speeches, promising changes, and firing ministers. But on Jan. 14, professionals in the capital turned out to demonstrate. A female lawyer explained to me how Ben Ali's police had entered the hotel near the ministry of interior where she and fellow protesters were staying. It was terrifying. A woman was raped. The police beat people with batons and fired tear gas. She could hear shouting. Her phone was low on battery. But Ben Ali did not have the support of the army. General Amar refused to shoot people. By the evening, Ben Ali realized the game was up, and jumped on a plane to Saudi. Some of his cronies also fled.
Tunisians complain to me about the "fauda" (chaos) in the country. There were no police for over two weeks, and people were scared to go out of their homes. People set up neighborhood watches to guard their communities, wearing white scarves around their necks. Now more police are back doing their jobs. But people are not obeying traffic lights. They are parking anywhere. They are building without planning permission. They are setting up stalls illegally in the street.
Before the revolution, beards were watched by the police; girls were not allowed to wear veils at university; and imams had their sermons approved ahead of time. Today, this has all changed. Tunisians are now able to practice their religion freely. After prayers, the mosques now stay open and people are allowed to stay and read. Imams are free to speak and no longer fear secret police sitting within the audience. People tell me that more women are veiled than before. But still there are plenty whose heads are uncovered and who wear fashionable Western clothes. And there are more beards as religious men are now allowed to grow facial hair without fear of being detained.
I learn that the beards on my flight may well be Brits of Tunisian origin. Since the revolution, al-Nahda has become the most prominent political party, with its leader Rashid Ghannouchi and his supporters returning from exile in London. The party has been underground for years, but after the revolution it is now out in the open, with branches across the country. Many think that al-Nahda will win the elections but believe it will need to be moderate to gain and maintain support of the people. So far 81 parties have registered for the elections. Another 200 parties apparently want to register. The election of a constitutional assembly is supposed to take place in July, but there is discussion that this might be postponed until September or October. There is not yet a law on the financing of political parties, so where will they get their money from? Everyone believes that al-Nahda is the best financed and that it receives funds from abroad with rumors of support from Saudi and Kuwait.
I am invited by U.S. Embassy friends to dinner in a very swish restaurant in Tunis. Keen to show its support for the Tunisian people and the Revolution, a State Department team has been dispatched to Tunisia to help the Embassy increase outreach to Tunisians, build the capacity of the Tunisian media, and identify how best to design a public diplomacy program. For years, the activities of the U.S. Embassy in Tunis were limited by the regime. Embassy officials had limited access to officials, required permission to visit universities, and needed permits to travel. The political section had kept Washington informed of the excesses of Ben Ali and the corruption of his cronies. Suddenly the revolution has turned things upside down. Embassy officials can now meet with who ever they like and travel where they want. And Tunisians appear keen to receive US support. I chat with a 27 year old Tunisian man wearing a Superwoman t-shirt. He tells me he was ready to die for the revolution. He put his money in the bank in his brother's name before going out to protest. He is a total geek. He tells me that he was opened up to U.S. culture by Disney, Marvel, and Hanna Barbera. He traces his development in stages: from 1996 he started in chat room IRC; from 2004, he was involved in blogs and forums; and from 2009 he was active on social media. For a decade he had been involved in discussions criticizing the regime. He thought the first ten years of Ben Ali's regime had been OK. It was censorship of the internet that had driven him to action against the regime. He really believes in open government. He organized a Ted Ex discussion in Tunisia, telling people: "Don't wait for Jack Bauer to come and save you -- do it yourself." Also at the dinner is a Serbian, who has worked in many different countries for a US NGO which helps people develop political parties and gain the skills to be active participants in a democracy. It is fascinating listening to the Serb share with the Tunisians his experiences of transition in the Balkans. The evening goes long, as we drank through bottles of wine, eat copious amounts of food, while engrossed in deep conversations about making the world a better place. In the background, the Tunisian singer tirelessly plays song after song of golden oldies in a multitude of languages. I am humming along to Dalila's "Kilma kilmatain hilwa ya baladi" when the bill arrives. Our table goes quiet. We have been charged $1,000 for the lobster.
And so it is that I happen the next day to be in a U.S. Embassy vehicle headed to Tatouine near the Libyan border, when we overtake a long line of stationary vehicles and find ourselves surrounded by youths who are blocking the road and barring any vehicles from passing in either direction. The youths sit on our bumper and knock on the windows. I smile back and wave. I have no idea what is going on. Stay calm and carry on. But the kids won't budge. One comes to the window and asks the driver who we are. The driver tells him that we are foreigners, indeed Belgians, just visiting the country. Please can we pass? The youth refuses our request. He and his friends are from Gargour village. It is a village of 17,000 people and they have no water. They are stopping all traffic from passing today until 5 pm. He asks that we turn around and go explain their plight to people in Tunis. We have no choice but to reverse and to try to find an alternative route to the south. A few miles down the road, we see some police at a traffic circle, and explain to them that the youths of Gargour are blocking the road because they lack water. The police respond that they know about the situation and shrug their shoulders. They don't seem to be motivated to do anything about the youths -- or the water situation.
During the eight hour drive to Tatouine, I cannot but be impressed by the quality of the roads, the electricity, the gas stations. Olive trees stand in formation, mile after mile. There are fields of wheat. Sheep are grazing. Factories are visible from the main road. Quality infrastructure assuring access of goods to markets. We pass Ben Ali's village of Hamam Susse, and there, in the middle of nowhere stands an international airport. Since his departure, the airport is no longer operational. And yet, back from the main roads, the villages are only connected by dirt tracks, and some do not have water. By the side of the road, Tunisians are selling jugs of Libyan benzine. The inequities in Tunisia are glaring.
In Tatouaine, an impressive young Tunisian woman shows us around her NGO where she runs after school English language classes. The walls are covered with messages of peace, love and freedom. The children have put up letters to the Peace Corps to thank them for their work in Tunisia. I ask the kids their favorite movie and actors. They respond: Twilight, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. As for their favorite soccer team, there are different responses: Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea. The young teacher has been selected for a Fulbright scholarship and will spend next year in the US learning more about the country and culture to pass on to Tunisian children. She tells me that the Tunisians demonstrated against Ben Ali to remove oppression and inequality. She had been so happy to see the U.S. Congress come out in support of the Tunisian people. She had always wanted to establish an NGO but could not do so before as it required permits from Tunis which were difficult to get. But as soon as Ben Ali departed, she started up her NGO. She takes us to meet a group of young adults in order to hear their hopes and aspirations. All appear well educated, and keen to use their skills - but few have jobs. This is their primary concern: there are few employment opportunities in the area.
Despite their own hardships, the people of Tatouine are very generous towards the Libyans, reaching out to them, and taking them into their homes. They estimate that around 35,000 Libyans have come to their town. The Islamic Relief organization is helping with food distribution. And the locals are providing toys and books for the children. The Tunisian economy is dependent on Libya, and is being hit hard by the on-going war. An estimated 250-300k Libyans are believed to now be refugees in Tunisia. Tunisians put the number higher, and reckon that around half a million Libyans have taken refuge in their country. In addition to this, around 100,000 Tunisians have had to leave their jobs in Libya and return home. Furthermore, tourism is down considerably in Tunisia since the revolution putting tens of thousands out of work.
To get to the island of Jerba, we have to take the ferry. It costs nothing as fees have not been charged since the revolution. Jerba is known in history as the land of the lotus eaters. Today, it is more likely to be known as the land of overweight sunburned Europeans in search of cheap holidays on golden beaches. That said, it remains a place of some charm. Jerba is also known for its Jewish community. A devout Muslim from Jerba tells me that those who know the true Islam have no problems with Jews. The Prophet Mohamed lived among Jews, had Jews as neighbors, and traded with them. Talking to a leader of the Jewish community, he confirms that there are no problems between Arabs and Jews here in Jerba. Yet. But adds with a sigh that nowhere in the world do people really like Jews. Standing outside the synagogue, where all the Jewish men and little children are gathered for Shabbat service, he tells me that they are a very religious community, of around 1,200 people, who follow the Torah to the letter. On Shabbat, they do not use money or drive.
At the University in Jerba, the Director tells us that he is keen to set up exchanges of professors and students with universities in the United States. He, and other members of the faculty, studied in the United States and Europe and benefited from the experience. The Director has built up strong relations with the Ministry of Labor, as well as with industry, and reckons that 70 percent of his students find work on graduation. He describes how the revolution has impacted the students. They appear much more empowered now, reaching out to help Libyans, working harder at their studies, and interacting with their teachers in a more mature manner. His initial fears that things might get out of hand had proved unwarranted. Instead, he directed the faculty to make some concessions on discipline.
We visit the seventh century Great Mosque of Kairouan. In former times it was regarded as the fourth most holy city in Islam, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. It is said that seven pilgrimages to the Great Mosque are the equivalent of one to Mecca.
On the way to Carthage -- where Aeneas once loved Dido -- we pass the residence of Abu Jihad. The PLO leader had been living there with his family when gunmen, presumably Israelis, entered his house and assassinated him. Eating fish at a restaurant on the beach, I am reminded of Gaza in the 1990s when the PLO returned from exile in Tunisia to work towards statehood. Days of hope and excitement. Dreams of the Palestinian state.
Tunisians feel optimistic about the future. We are a moderate people, they tell me. We wear shorts and go to the beach. Women walk around head uncovered or veiled. The legacy of Bourguiba remains strong. His secular modernizing vision for Tunisia pushed family planning and investment in education setting a stable foundation for the future. Most are pleased that Ben Ali left so quickly without much bloodshed. Around 300 people are believed to have died in the protests. But others feel he got off too lightly and that he and his cronies should be put on trial and held accountable for the treatment of the Tunisian people, for destroying trust in government, for the theft of Tunisia's resources. Nowhere did I see photos of Ben Ali. In offices, a nail on the wall was the only reminder that his picture had once hung there.
Tunisia has a difficult period to pass through as it elects an assembly, drafts a new constitution and chooses its new government. And through the next months, the country will have to wrestle with the impact of the war in Libya, the fall in tourism, and rising unemployment. The interim Government does not have the resources to deliver services -- nor the legitimacy to undertake large programs. And yet there is every reason to believe that Tunisia will make it through the transition. Tunisia has a stable foundation, infrastructure, and good human capital. It is a manageable sized country, with a population of only 10 million. Sitting drinking my last cup of almond tea in a café in Sidi Bou Said, looking out to sea over the white washed walls and blue windows, Tunisians tell me once more that they are different from other Arabs, much more moderate. Even the bearded ones in Tunisia seem moderate.
Baroness Sky is traveling the Middle East exploring the 'Arab Spring.' She was a Spring 2011 Fellow at the Institute of Politics of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and served as Political Advisor to General Odierno in Iraq from 2007-2010.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.