2015 Sousse attacks, Arab League, Bardo National Museum Attack, Conspiracy Theories, Democracy, Ennahda, General Rachid Ammar, Health and Safety, Jasmine Revolution, Jihadism, Metrojet Flight 9268, Military Coup, Mohamed Morsi, Opinion, Politics, Racism, Revolution, Risk Aversion, The Arab Spring, Tourism, Tunis, Tunisia, Tunisia 2016, Tunisia Travel Advice, Tunisian Economy, Tunisian Revolution, War on Terror, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
“Is there anything wrong with this page?” The UK FCO’s Travel Advice on Tunisia.
Over April, Tychy ran a series of fifteen articles which were written in and about Tunisia. I have neither the correct instincts nor the skills to ever make a journalist, but throughout my travels I always kept an eye open and, at allocated intervals, I reflected in prose upon what I had seen. Hopefully the subsequent pictures of Tunis are accurate and pleasing. Everywhere I went the same finding was reiterated again and again: that Tunisia is a highly user-friendly Arab country with exemplary hospitality and the richest of cultures.
My travel diary might have piqued a desire in you to experience Tunisia for yourself. You too might want to spend days lingering before the Bardo’s haunting mosaics, or being refreshed by the beauty of Sidi Bou Said, or trying to haggle in the medieval souks with traders who you could no more outwit than you could death. But unfortunately this country is still to be unlocked for you. Last year’s terrorist attacks at the Bardo National Museum and the holiday resort of Sousse killed over fifty Western tourists. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office currently advises “against all travel” to particularly bleak locations around Tunisia’s borders and “against all but essential travel” to the rest of the country. The consequence of this is to increase the costs of travel insurance until Tunisia is priced off the map for virtually all UK holidaymakers.
Tychy was covered by Battleface, a purveyor of insurance for journalists and aid workers in war zones. My policy cost around £270, whereas insurance from standard providers for a comparable holiday to Greece can come to less than a tenth of this amount (including with coverage for a pre-existing medical condition). Being insured to set foot in Tunisia was, for me, almost as dear as the flight and accommodation, and I did not get very much for my money. I could have claimed for a bionic limb or “repatriation of remains” had I stepped on a landmine whilst shopping in the Tunisia Mall, but I was otherwise left in a strangely dicey situation for somebody with so much extravagant protection. Battleface does not cover pre-existing medical conditions, and so any hospitalisation which had resulted from the mismanagement of my diabetes would have cost me hundreds of pounds.
There are just as lovely beach resorts dotted around the Mediterranean; the admirer of ruins and antiquity still has Italy and Greece as ready-to-go alternatives. Any remaining tourists will be the few who have some pressing specialist reason to visit Tunisia which offsets the extra expense.
Against all but essential travel! This little jingle is like the curse or witch’s spell which lays waste to an entire kingdom. In truth, the words on the FCO’s website have had the same practical effect as imposing economic sanctions upon Tunisia. At least seventy Tunisian hotels have closed and thousands of their employees have been thrown out of work. The percentage of Tunisia’s GDP which derives from tourism fell last year from 15% to 8%, though this dip occurs in the context of revenues which are yet to recover from the previous tourist shutdown in 2011. Tunisia’s overall rate of growth has fallen from 2.3% to 0.8% since 2014.
The FCO’s contribution to Tunisia’s recession is not merely an oversight or the result of forgivable inattentiveness when there are so many countries in the world to get right. It is a deliberate government policy which reveals how risk-averse we are and how unscrupulous we can be when there is a conflict between our own supposed values and risk. Tunisia is both the newest and one of the most mature democracies in the Arab League. Our abandonment of this country is absolutely outrageous.
Let us ponder some of the motivations for the UK government’s policy. The first of them is an almost open racism. Our media are so routinely self-congratulatory about their guiltlessness of racism that when some genuine discrimination finally rears its head they are unable to recognise it. Although France and Tunisia have identical jihadist populations and subcultures, the UK government did not react to the far deadlier terrorist atrocities in Paris with the insolence that it displayed to Tunisians after the gun attack in Sousse. The FCO has not advised UK citizens “against all but essential travel” to France. This is no doubt a case of EU member-states believing their own propaganda, and assuming that they must be innately safer and more sophisticated than an Arab country.
The second motivation is the automated hysteria of “health-and-safety.” Even if the FCO’s risk-assessment of Tunisia was based on sensible calculations, these can have no foothold beyond the shallows of the purely short term.
In suppressing tourism after the Sousse attack, the FCO has awarded a single gunman the power to shut down an entire economy. This is not a power which the killer originally possessed when he stepped on to the beach – it is a power which we have given to him. It is a power which other jihadists are now testing and getting to grips with in every Arab country which tries to enrich itself through tourism. The bomb which was planted at Sharm el-Sheikh airport last November, killing 224 people, was nothing other than incentivised by the UK’s Tunisian capitulation. The FCO travel advice has thus magnified a gun-waving insect into a monster. If you want to know what giving in to terror looks like, the “appeasement” which generations of schoolchildren have been taught to so solemnly shake their heads over, then this is exactly what it looks like.
Instead of ensuring that Tunisia remains a pariah sunspot, the UK government could have taken a more daring and imaginative approach. It could have sent its own security personnel to Tunisian beaches, to train their Tunisian counterparts and work in cooperation with them. In the short term this might have provoked further terrorist attempts, though the UK state has by now a reliable record of disrupting such plots. In the long term it would have earned us the infinite appreciation of Tunisians and guaranteed the kind of relationship which we should be building with this wobbling country.
The “Jasmine Revolution” of January 2011 ended with the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fleeing Tunisia and the setting up of democratic elections. You might judge this breakthrough for democracy to be so considerable that it should render Tunisia as close an ally to the UK as the United States. Democracies are the superheroes in the world’s population of mutants and they should band together, like Marvel’s the Avengers, if only for the splendour of the display. The UK should be agitating for closer cultural and economic ties with Tunisia, for student exchange programmes, for the touring of historical artefacts and art exhibits. Some of this relationship building is pootling along: for example, Andrew Murrison MP, the UK’s trade envoy to Morocco and Tunisia, was recently in Tunis to hobnob with its bigwigs. Yet Tunisia does not stand out amongst our allies as it should. There is just a relationship, not a special relationship.
Some seasoned observers of Tunisia might warn against too fanciful an estimation of the country’s democracy. Is it genuinely comparable to the political culture and practices within the UK? This will have to be answered by way of a detour.
Contrary to appearances and years of misinterpretation in successive Arab capitals, the Jasmine Revolution was at heart a military coup. After Ben Ali had nimbly extricated himself from Tunisia, General Rachid Ammar emerged as the de facto ruler of the country and a self-appointed supervisor of the democratic process. He could have seized power outright and there are murky allegations that Ben Ali’s left-behind cronies had offered him some form of Protectorate. Nonetheless, the political analyst Sharan Grewal has noted that, “there was no need to assume an official political position: for all intents and purposes, Rachid Ammar had become the center of power.”
After Ben Ali was ousted, General Ammar promised the demonstrators that, “Our revolution is your revolution.” His revolution was the overthrow of an inept dictator who had favoured the police as the premium security apparatus rather than the army. The demonstrators’ revolution was the overthrow of a regime which had additionally failed to benefit the people. Ben Ali did not flee from rampaging protestors; neither were his security forces dispersed by a crowd in from off the street. The spontaneous discontent of the masses had found its expression not in a Lenin or a Trotsky, but in a military leadership which would, in fact, micromanage every aspect of the revolutionary appearance.
The Jasmine Revolution could not be replicated in any other Arab country. Unlike in Tunisia, the uprisings in Libya, Egypt, and Syria soon stalled because the powerbases of these nations’ dictatorships could not be unrooted without unimaginable societal upheaval.
I cannot bring myself to be wholly cynical about the Arab Spring: it overthrew dictators, terrified the regimes that remained, and in some instances led to democratic concessions. But aside from in Tunisia, those listless crowds of youthful, selfie-uploading protestors were disastrously bereft of leadership. And in Tunisia, the leadership was never authentically revolutionary.
The Tunisian “revolution” is yet to be tested in any fire. For now, the coalition of interests which rules Tunisia is broad enough to accommodate both the needs of the army machine and the wishes of the majority of the population. This may not always be the case. In Egypt, the Islamist candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected President in 2012 on 51% of the vote. Though Morsi consciously operated as a bulwark against hard-line Islamism, his sharia-flavoured constitution still offended the liberal and secularist sensibilities of much of Egypt’s middle class, including, fatally for Morsi, the army.
Having disgraced itself in this way, the democracy which had brought Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement to power could not be allowed to stay. Morsi was arrested after less than a year in office, his constitution was suspended, and hundreds of his supporters were massacred. General el-Sisi, the former chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, was elected President under an improved constitution, with a 96% mandate from the section of the population which had been encouraged to turn out.
In 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s own election-winning Islamist outfit Ennahda were playing the same game. Both were centrists and gradualists, who wanted to gently tilt their countries into a more Islamist system, whilst somehow keeping the secularists and hardliners on either flank appeased. Morsi did not delve into this conundrum with the necessary skill, but Ennahda lost power harmoniously, in a free election, and they might be back in the future.
Ennahda is today admired by Western commentators for its subscription to the democratic model, its relatively liberal outlook, and its decision that sharia is a “philosophy” rather than a workable legal code. But however freely and sincerely the leadership of Ennahda might have chosen these policies, the party could not have realistically placed anything else in front of the Tunisian electorate and expected to have enjoyed a peaceful, lawful continuation. Tens of thousands of Islamists had been imprisoned under Ben Ali’s regime, leading to an institutionalised paranoia and a single-minded cautiousness within the party. The determiners of Tunisia’s destiny had no need to spell anything out. With the army’s breezy supervision of the democratic process came a clearly understood demarcation of where any political party had reached its natural limits. Ennahda could not be anything other than meticulously inoffensive.
Sharan Grewal’s fascinating report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that the threat from Tunisia’s army was skilfully defused by Moncef Marzouki, the human rights lawyer who had served as the country’s interim President between 2011 and 2014. Following Egypt’s military coup, there were calls from amongst the Tunisian opposition for a similar intervention in their own system. Grewal notes that Marzouki had acted quickly to dislodge General Ammar from office and promote a new class of officers who did not hail from the Sahel, Tunisia’s affluent eastern coast. No overall chief of staff was appointed to run the military, which also impaired its ability to intervene decisively.
The army’s power might have been rendered more unwieldy to exercise but the civilian apparatus has not secured any long-term advantage over it. Moreover, the party which could offer the greatest practical dissent from the pre-Jasmine status quo has grown steadily weaker. UK observers might spy in Ennahda some of New Labour’s relish for maddening its own grassroots. The process of drafting Tunisia’s constitution revealed Ennahda to be endlessly deferring its long-held beliefs and apologising for its political identity. In her study of the constitution, Monica L Marks has concluded that the party “made up many of its constitutional stances as it goes.” Such a slippery, bendable political product could only in the end reflect the demands of one customer: the military.
Last year’s terrorist attacks have had the same inevitable beneficiary. I am by no means a conspiracy theorist but it is impossible not to acknowledge their methodology at this point. Conspiracy theorists have surely enough material to make the most tremendous meal out of both attacks.
A post-mortem found the gunman Seifiddine Rezgui to be off his face on cocaine during the Sousse assault. Staff at the Bardo believe that the museum’s attackers were similarly drugged. In both attacks, the terrorists were unable to detonate their explosives. The three gunmen all had decidedly louche personal histories for jihadists and only the flimsiest of connections to jihadist organisations. So our conspiracy theorists can quite effortlessly assign these men the role of state players or maybe even drugged-up dupes in the conspiracy. After you have done your work, the men would have been told, you will be smuggled to safety.
Next, there are the missing security personnel at the Bardo at the time of the assault (they were all on a coffee break) and the forty minutes that it took the police to arrive at the Sousse resort. Finally, there is the steep rise in financial aid to the Tunisian military after the attacks, with American funding alone being tripled. The army has been allowed to assume the flattering position of democracy’s heroic defender; it has been also strengthened in its soundless power struggle with the democracy.
No, I can’t believe it! This has no psychological plausibility to it as a theory, not least in massively overstating the expertise of the bungling security forces. Still, the Tunisian military has only a humdrum sense of what reality is really like as its alibi. The conspiracy narrative otherwise hangs together quite cohesively when it comes to the military’s motivations.
The FCO travel advice can be only based upon intelligence which has come from the Tunisian military, the organisation which has the greatest incentive to keep the country’s state of emergency open-ended. And by its inability or unwillingness to question the military, our government has quietly sided against the democracy.
Whilst the UK is overtly relying on the Tunisian army to contain the Jihadist threat, it is, in keeping with decades of foreign policy towards the Arab street, covertly relying on it to safeguard a more indiscriminate “stability.” This reaffirms the prejudices which the Guardian commentator Gary Younge had once thought were being challenged by the Arab spring:
Over the last decade in particular, the Arab world has increasingly been depicted in the west as a region in desperate need of being tamed so that it can be civilised. It has been portrayed as an area rooted in religious fervour, where freedom was a foreign concept and democracy a hostile imposition. Violence and terrorism was what they celebrated, and all they would ever understand…
All of these attributes – the need to be tamed, the religious fervour, the designs on democracy – have been suspected of Ennahda over the last few years, both within and beyond Tunisia’s borders. The army, meanwhile, is fixed securely in place as an example of what Edward Said has termed “the iron bands that tie Arab societies into sullen knots of disaffected people, insecure leaders, and alienated intellectuals.”
The UK government’s attitude towards Tunisia is of a piece with a recent pattern of attempts throughout the West to undermine or devalue democracy. Around the world, democracy is now floundering in response to what is undisguisedly a counter-revolution. The stunning economic growth and stability of China, under the leadership of an unelected bureaucracy, offers a far more damaging alternative to the promise of democracy than was ever afforded by the Soviet Union. The image of expert managerialism which is on display in China could not be more faithfully copied by the European Commission. You can today find the wisdom of unelected EU administrators being accepted en masse by educated people across the UK, as the lynchpin of economic “stability.” By contrast, the outbreak of democracy in Tunisia has, from the perspective of today’s politics, a distinctly retro vibe to it.
The true responsibility of the intellectual in 2016 is to fight for democracy. And if you wish to express solidarity with Tunisia’s democrats and undermine its security machine, surely the very best thing that you can do is to go on holiday there. We will win the battle for democracy mojito by mojito.