Tunisia: Freedom and the pursuit of unhappiness

 
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By Khaled Diab

With greater freedom has come greater unhappiness in Tunisia. Behind this apparent paradox is economic hardship and nostalgia for a past that never was.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 6 November 2018

In these dark times for the Middle East and with democracy on the retreat even in its oldest and most established strongholds, Tunisia is the exception that proves hope is not just for optimistic fools.

With the revolutionary wave that began in Tunisia at the end of 2010 and swept the region with its infectious demands for economic empowerment, social dignity and political freedom, this small North African country is the exception that proves that despotic rule need not be the rule in the Arab world.

Across the region, many pro-democracy, progressive and liberal activists, opposition figures, human rights defenders and ordinary citizens who believe in freedom, Tunisia inspires them to believe that they are not being delusional in believing their own countries can be reformed.

Over the past almost two years of living in Tunisia, I have found the country’s newfound freedom remarkable, as have other Egyptians based here or visiting. For a start, despite fears that freedom would lead to extremist-led chaos, Tunisia has managed, unlike so many revolutions throughout history, to maintain stability and pass or draft landmark legislation to ensure fundamental rights and equality.

“Tunisia has a vibrant civil society, exceptional record on women’s rights in the Arab world, as well as, overall, a politics, while far from perfect, that is continuously being negotiated forward,” contends Amro Ali, an Egyptian sociology professor whom I met during his recent visit to Tunisia. “What started with them was no ordinary feat; they raised the standards and they’ll be held up to it. So they will be treated like a political beacon, whether they like it or not.”

The street continues to be a major pillar of Tunisian democracy and political direct action continues apace, albeit with less intensity than in the heady early days of the revolution. Barely a week goes by without a demonstration or a strike somewhere in the country, to protest economic hardship, unemployment, government action or government inaction.

Tunisians, both friends and strangers, have plenty of opinions on politics and other issues and they have no reservations about sharing them, even during brief encounters at cafes, parties or on the street, especially when they find out you are an Egyptian.

Although I have no personal pre-revolutionary reference point, Tunisians tell me that this is a far cry from how things used to be in the days of the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Tunisian broadcasters have built up an impressive track record in a short span of time, and I am regularly impressed by the depth and breadth of public debate on the airwaves.

Taxi drivers have been a colourful, engaging, eccentric and diverse source of political commentary, and I have compiled enough amusing anecdotes to write a short book. But this was not always the case. One taxi driver admitted to me that, in the past, he would have been afraid to even think Ben Ali’s name while on the job, whereas now he had turned his taxi into a political salon on wheels.

Tunisian broadcasters have built up an impressive track record in a short span of time. Whereas there has been a trend in the media of maturer democracies towards dumbing down their content, Tunisia has been wisening up its coverage. For instance, many FM music radio stations in Europe and America either carry no political content or cut it up into tiny, bite-sized morsels, out of fear their audiences will switch off. Not so in Tunisia, where even the most commercial music stations carry hours of news, in-depth coverage, discussion and debate.

Despite the immense political, social and cultural progress, the sense of widespread disillusionment and despondency is palpable, and this is confirmed by surveys and polls. The number of Tunisians I encounter who are unhappy with the situation, are sceptical about the path the country is taking and are pessimistic about the future is truly astonishing.

“I think that the Tunisians had built up high expectations about what the revolution could bring, but the political class quickly disappointed,” observes Sarah Ben Hamadi, a blogger, former journalist and deputy secretary-general of the Tunis-based Democratic Lab think tank. “The economic crisis felt by the middle class, which is making the daily lives of Tunisians increasingly more difficult, makes it harder to appreciate progress in terms of freedom.”

Although Tunisia’s economy has slowed down, it continues to grow, but not at a rate that has enabled it to make any serious dent in joblessness numbers nor to improve people’s sense of economic welfare. In fact, with a weakening currency, rising inflation and the phasing in of austerity measures, including the removal of subsidies and raising of fuel and other prices, Tunisians feel worse off today than before the revolution.

“[Tunisians] don’t really count social and political progress as wealth,” asserts Karim Benabdallah, a blogger, activist and photographer. “They usually see things in their own narrow perspective.”

Tunisia’s economic woes have hit young people, who spearheaded the revolution but still make up the bulk of the unemployed, particularly hard, leading them to “feel neglected, unheard and invisible,” according to Omezzine Khelifa, the founder of Mobdiun, which researches the status of youth from neglected neighbourhoods in Tunis and seeks to find ways to empower them politically.

“Those who live in marginalised areas feel the state is not doing anything for them and have witnessed how any form of protest can turn against them in a violent way,” she adds. “They say police is not here to protect us, rather to harm us.”

Although Ben Ali’s repressive state is largely gone and protest is a protected constitutional right, police brutality and violence remain a problem, with class and age affecting how the police treat citizens, as reflected in how the police overreact to protests in poorer neighbourhoods.

In addition, youth in marginalised areas are more likely than their better-off counterparts to experience other forms of violence, including from their peers on the street and domestic violence at home. The alienation and frustration feeding this violence can also be turned inwards. According to Mobdiun, between 6% and 10% of teenagers in one poorer neighbourhood of Tunis have attempted to commit suicide. More alarmingly, similar suicide rates exist among youth in better-off areas.

This points to an existential crisis among young Tunisians, with dreams of emigration their escapism from their dispiriting reality, with some numbing the pain and the unbearable heaviness of being through self-medication. “I said to myself: I’ll find a job, I’ll manage, I’ll find… and nothing, I did not find anything,” confessed one young man who spoke to Mobdiun. “A friend comes to me and suggests we ‘fly’ on a train (i.e. ride on the outside) because we have no money, we are obliged, how else will we buy cannabis to smoke in the evening and to escape a little?”

Some find escapism in the past. While many young Tunisians appreciate the freedom under which they are growing up, others see it as overrated, especially since a whole generation is now emerging that never experienced the bad old days first hand. “The social and political progress seen by outsiders, it’s honestly a big joke,” contends Malek, a law student. “It only proves that they have no idea about how it used to be before.”

This sense of a paradise lost actually originates with and is more common amongst older people, who have established a veritable nostalgia industry, which is slowly trickling down the age pyramid. To hear Tunisian nostalgists speak, one is left with the impression that everything was better prior to the revolution: the economy was better, people were better off, people had a greater sense of civic duty, etc.

Some of those who subscribe to this sort of narrative do so out of frustration at their present hardships or fear of what lies ahead. Others do so as an expression of their authoritarian tendencies. They believe, or have been conditioned to believe, that Arabs do not understand or are not ready for democracy, and that they need a “strong” leader to keep them in check. The number of times I have heard this view, often combined with admiration for the likes of Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi or, worse, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, is shocking.

“The fact that no leader has emerged also means that there is always a certain nostalgia for a time when the president enjoyed great authority,” explains Sarah Ben Hamadi.

However, what nostalgists do not seem to comprehend is that if the calibre of leadership that has emerged since the revolution has been found wanting compared with the Ben Ali era, which I am not sure is the case, this is, in reality, the legacy of decades of dictatorial monopoly over power and the accompanying elimination or sidelining of a viable opposition. In addition, Tunisia is no longer a one-man show and is founded on consensus politics and pluralism, which appears messier but is fairer and holds leaders to greater account and scrutiny.

A similar confusing of cause and effect, of symptom and disease, afflicts the question of economic welfare and prosperity. If life was so great under Ben Ali, the question begs itself: why was there so much desperation, symbolically represented by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi and Hosni Kalaya, and why did Tunisians rise up to demand not just freedom but also bread?

Linking the current economic crisis to the revolution, as many Tunisians do, is wishful thinking, in my analysis. Decades of economic mismanagement and crony capitalism cannot be reversed in a few short years.

If anything, the reason why Tunisia’s economy is performing relatively poorly, failing to create enough jobs and to distribute wealth more evenly, is not because the revolution demolished what came before but because the revolution left the country’s previous economic architecture too intact. In fact, I am personally convinced that if Ben Ali were still in power, the Tunisian economy would likely be in crisis.

In addition to Tunisia’s own internal faults, there is the regional and global dimension contributing to its economic woes. Not only is the fallout of the global economic crisis of 2008-09 still hurting Tunisia, the upheavals and conflicts across the region, especially in neighbouring Libya, have had a negative impact on the Tunisian economy.

The austerity-driven approach of international financial institutions are making a bad situation worse, as is the unfair structure of the global currency regimen, which excessively rewards rich countries and penalises poorer ones. In fact, with an economy barely larger than that of a multinational corporation, Tunisia is being crushed by the old titans of the West, who are desperately clinging on to their old privileges, and the new titans, foremost among them China, who are carving out a space for themselves, not just at Europe and America’s expense, but more brutally at the expense of developing countries with higher labour costs and smaller economies.

Constructing an a-historical narrative about the splendour of the Tunisia of Dictatorship Past will not restore a lustre which never existed. Instead, if believed by enough Tunisians, it risks leading to the Tunisia of Dictatorship Future, and the deconstruction or destruction of the most significant gains the revolution has delivered: freedom, dignity and collective decision-making.

The creativity, intelligence, wisdom and guts that overthrew a dictator and built a vibrant democracy should and can be harnessed to develop an economy that serves all Tunisians.

—-

This article was first published by The New Arab on 18 October 2018.

 

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Podcast: Baladi – from bread to dance

 
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Baladi is one of those elusive Arabic words that can mean different things to different people at different times.

Tahiya Carioca

Thursday 27 June 2018

‘Baladi’ is one of those Arabic words that is hard to translate. In Egypt, it can mean native, local, authentic, folk, rustic, and even unrefined, uncouth, and low class.

Derived from ‘balad’, the Arabic for country, town or village, baladi can be used to describe traditional culture, music and cuisine, a little like the English adjective ‘country’. It is often used to refer to the native, in other words, the “local”, even if the baladi was once not local at all, as opposed to the foreign, mostly western.

‘Eish baladi’ describes the native round bread that Egyptians traditionally eat. And ‘Raqs baladi’ refers to what English speakers call belly-dancing. Before entering the cabaret and the fantasies of orientalists, it was the traditional form of dancing that Egyptian girls and many boys learnt and performed at family events, such as weddings and feasts, minus the glitzy, revealing outfits that have become the stuff of cliché.

There was a time, not long ago, when the world’s best and most innovative baladi dancers were Egyptians, and no Egyptian film was complete without an elaborate dance routine. Possibly the most legendary of the silver screen dancing queens was Tahiya Carioca, who began her illustrious career in the 1940s.

Today, fewer and fewer Egyptian women are dancing professionally. Paradoxically, this is both a sign of growing religious conservatism, which sees belly-dancing as sinful, and of rising gender equality, where ever more women feel that belly-dancing objectifies them.

Meanwhile, belly-dancing has become a popular fad amongst some European and American women, with schools popping up in some of the most unexpected of places, from Russia to the USA. Today, many belly-dancers in Egyptian and Arab nightclubs are from Eastern Europe, though Egyptian aficionados believe they lack the mischief and spontaneity of their Egyptian counterparts.

Egyptians feel both shame and pride, towards things that are baladi. While the so-called ‘foreigner complex’ means Egyptians often see western things as superior and local as inferior, nationalistic pride pulls them the other way. This leads to the bizarre situation where baladi forms of music can, at once, be the object of disdain for some, especially from better-off classes, but also the subject of celebration, especially among the young or the revolutionary, who are reclaiming and reinventing this heritage, often in hybrid form.

Amid all the upheavals since the revolution in 2011, baladi again carries street cred. This can be seen in the popularity of T-shirts with Arabic slogans and calligraphy, where English once ruled. You also see it in how traditional teahouses and eateries are now trendy amongst the middle and upper classes.

But as has long been in the case, Egyptians are finding new and creative ways to merge and fuse the baladi with the foreign to create new varieties and flavours of the local.

___

This recording first appeared on the BBC World Service’s The Cultural Frontline on 4 June 2018.

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Recipe for gourmet camping

 
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ByRay O’Reilly

Who said camping has to be hard ground, twisted sleeping bags and Knorr’s instant pasta dishes? Here’s a recipe for gourmet camping in Burgundy.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

I’ve just scoffed a goose terrine and a fine bottle of Burgundy. In this version of fine dining, there are no snooty waiters, no starched table cloths – in fact no table at all – and no cutlery, glasses or any other standard accoutrement associated with such delicacies.

Ingredients for this dining experience:

-one Swiss Army knife

-one mug

-one artisanal terrine from the region around Auxerre

-one bottle of reasonably priced Henry de Vézelay Pinot Noir 2009

-one fresh baguette

-optional chair, plate, cherry tomatoes, local cheese

Dining ambience:

-roosting birdsong

-mating frog calls

-crickets

-water feature (open spillway)

Preparation:

-shopping itinerary: if the ‘travelling salesman’ algorithm can’t be used to plan an efficient route for visiting cellars and towns in Burgundy, then I suggest you head south for about an hour, taking in recommended sites, then do the same in the easterly, northerly and westerly directions until back to base. You should also:

-take time to visit artisanal shops with local produce (tell them the wines you bought or ask for recommendations on wines to accompany your terrine/cake/cheese, etc.)

-key to the preparations is the right mental state: make sure you are both tired and hungry as hell (I went on a two-hour bike ride around the nearby vineyards and back roads, taking in the terroir, you could say, before visiting the cellars

-back at the campsite: open the bottle and then go and have a shower to wash off the road and freshen up. By the time you’re back, the wine is ready for drinking

-open your jar of goose/rabbit/duck/pork … terrine

-tear off a large piece of baguette (big enough to tear the roof of your mouth) and smear a ridiculous quantity of tasty congealed meat onto the bread

-wash it back with a gulp of Burgundy from your mug

-repeat above step (perhaps adding a cherry tomato or two to lighten the meatiness if you can’t handle it) until you feel totally stuffed and satisfied with life!

Afters:

-a handful of mixed unsalted nuts, dried fruit and broken pieces of plain chocolate

-more wine

Then all you need to do is rinse the cup, wipe the knife and crash in your (wonderfully spinning) tent

Joy.

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By bread alone

 
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By Osama Diab

The Egyptian government looks to overhaul its bread subsidy system, but experts warn of a possible popular backlash.

14 April 2010

As the sun starts to set over the sprawling Sayyida Zeinab market, sellers begin to pack up their stalls, stowing fruit, vegetables and meat that have doubled in price during the last five years.

But not far away, the lines are still long at a small, worn bakery that sells subsidised bread, with dozens of men and women standing patiently, plastic bags in hand, waiting for a chance to snap up loaves at five piastres apiece.

With inflation hovering in the double digits, the lines are getting longer; a growing number of people are becoming reliant on the one food item that hasn’t seen its price change in the past two decades.

But there are signs that the government, burdened by an annual bread subsidy bill of LE 16 billion, is planning to change radically the way it supplies bread to tens of millions of poor and working class Egyptians.

That is a prospect that worries Cairenes, many of whom lived through traumatic plans to revamp bread subsidies during the 1970s.

“Everything gets expensive: gas cylinders, sugar. What’s next? Bread?” says a woman standing in line at the Sayyida Zeinab bakery, who asked to remain anonymous. “Bread means life for us. If they change its price, people will die.”

The government has not made its plans public, but a top official at the Ministry of Social Solidarity told Business Today Egypt that it was considering handing cash or in-kind subsidies directly to consumers, instead of supplying discounted flour to state-licensed bakeries, a process widely viewed as rife with corruption.

“There are no plans to eliminate subsidies, but we want… to reform the supply chain system,” said the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to deal with the media. “We have a sincere will to reform and make sure the subsidies reach the right target group with a decent quality.”

The government has promised any changes to the system — which according to media reports could be overhauled as early as next year — would leave the total value of subsidies untouched.

But critics are worried that changes to the massive subsidy programme could result in a painful adjustment period. Egypt uses 13 million tons of flour per year to produce 220 million loaves of subsidised bread daily. Every day, the average urbanite has 3.1 loaves of subsidised bread, while rural dwellers consume 1.9 loaves.

What worries critics most is that the bread subsidy system itself might well be under threat. The centerpiece of the country’s social safety net, food subsidies amount to about 1.8% of Egypt’s GDP. Leaders have been eager to slash that tab in an effort to reduce the country’s deficit, which currently stands at LE 57.5 billion.

The government has cut or reduced stipends on several essentials, including gas, as part of a slate of market reforms. While the liberalisation push has resulted in significant economic growth, experts warn against repeating history and deregulating the bread market.

A half-baked plan

On January 18, 1977, news spread that the government was planning to eliminate subsidies on basic commodities, including bread.

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to protest the decision, one of the biggest social insurrections in the recent history of Egypt.

The uprising was eventually put down by the army, but the government of Anwar Sadat was forced to backpedal on the reforms.

“There’s an economic term — a Giffen good,” says Karim Badr El-Din, a professor of economics at Sixth of October University. Unlike most commodities, “when incomes decline, its consumption increases.

“In Egypt, the Giffen good is a loaf of bread. It’s a good with strategic implications for the nation.”

Governments have to be careful when they fiddle with things like that or they risk sparking an outpouring of popular anger, he says.

“The poorest segment of society has most of their income allocated for food going… to bread because it’s cheap and sates their hunger. If people can’t afford that … you can expect a reaction from them.”

That was evident two years ago when the price of wheat skyrocketed on the global market and the government struggled to provide enough flour to local bakeries. Shortages led to violence in bread lines and were among the causes of Cairo-wide protests.

John Salevurakis, a professor of economics at the American University in Cairo who specialises in food subsidies, says opening up the market can be a “myopic” approach.

“What we have learned from recent events is that the wholehearted embrace of liberalisation and worshipping at the altar of efficiency has the ability to yield or hasten our approach to crisis,” he says, a nod to the global economic downturn.

A state secret

To date, the government has refused to reveal its precise plans for the bread subsidy system. But a February article in al-Masry al-Youm, quoting an unnamed source, said starting from 2011, citizens will be able to choose between either direct cash payments or in-kind subsidies, most likely in the form of vouchers. Citizens who get cash subsidies would have to buy bread at the market price, which some experts estimate could reach 20 piastres a loaf — four time the subsidised rate.

Officials are eager to make the change because up to 15% of the subsidised flour provided to bakeries is siphoned off and sold on the open market, according to al-Masry al-Youm.

Changes to the system could have a dramatic effect on the more than 18,000 bakeries authorised to sell subsidised bread, 90% of which are privately owned. For decades, they have produced relatively low-quality bread but had no shortage of customers.

Many bakers say they have no problem charging market rates, but some clearly aren’t prepared for the no-holds barred liberalisation of the sector.

“They should only allow authorised bakeries to sell bread, otherwise our business will be harmed because anyone would then have the chance to make and sell bread,” says Othman, the owner of the Sayyida Zeinab bakery, who asked his family name not be published.

Salevurakis supports a gradual elimination of subsidies so wages will have time to adjust. “The only way we can reduce or eliminate subsidies is to adopt a gradualist approach where the long-term schedule of reduction or elimination is known and credible,” says Salevurakis.

Bread in colloquial Arabic is aish, which translates to life, and for the 44% of the country living below $2 a day, according to the World Bank, the subsidies are a matter of survival.

“The humanitarian in me says that the current state of affairs is the only option,” says Salevurakis.

“The economist in me says that it’s unsustainable, and the pragmatist in me says that we can achieve economically rational results only over a very long period of adjustment.”

This article first appeared in the March 2010 edition of Business Today Egypt. Republished here with the author’s consent.

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