A story leapt out of my news feed on Monday morning that may well put me in a good mood for the rest of the week. There was a start-up competition with 85 students from 33 universities vying to pitch products and services to a panel of judges. The ensuing beauty pageant of fresh ideas included thermal energy generators, “stress-relieving steering wheels,” room sensors to monitor the safety of elderly patients and, although don’t quote me on this, what appear from the photographs to be virtual reality headsets to make drunk people sober again. Or alternatively these headsets are meant to simulate drunkenness in people who are too virtuous to drink alcohol. In any case, the winning team were the one with the generator idea. Their prize is a trip to New York to pitch this project at an entrepreneurship forum that is being held by the competition’s sponsors, the Columbia Business School (CBS).
What was so unusual about this competition is where it took place: Tunisia, the teething democracy and pariah sunspot that the UK Foreign Office had until last year targeted with a travel ban. Things were looking up for Tunisia when their dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in 2011, but everything took a dive again following two separate massacres of foreign tourists by ISIL militants in 2015. 30 percent of Tunisia’s undergraduates are today unemployed. The continued grip of the monopolies that were built under Ben Ali’s rule denotes a fatal lack of dynamism within Tunisia’s economy, with these monopolies profiting from the 50 percent of the economy that is, according to the analyst Nicholas Noe, in the black market. This year, the seventh anniversary of Ben Ali’s departure, saw mass protests and, more ominously, mass arrests.
In a recent contribution to Al Jazeera, the Tunisian academic Haythem Guesmi has condemned “the myth of Tunisia’s exceptionalism.” He dismisses the post-revolutionary progress on women’s and LGBT rights, which is otherwise ground-breaking for the Arab world, because such achievements “reflect an artificial top-down approach to the issue[s]… and suffer from the absence of a genuine and healthy public debate.” He writes approvingly of Fech Nestanaw, a new youth movement that promotes the “widespread idea that a corrective second revolution is urgently needed.”
Tunisia is being admittedly throttled by the IMF, with the government now backing price and tax rises in order to suppress the country’s deficit. The police, who were cut down to a healthy size with Ben Ali’s downfall, are stealthily grabbing more powers. One bill that is going through the Tunisian parliament will, if enacted, potentially criminalise criticism of the police. Tychy has maintained that the 2011 revolution was in essence a military coup in democratic drag. The army’s leadership had finally lost patience with Ben Ali and it was the army, not the protestors, who had chased the dictator out of his palaces. Perhaps, with the current boldness of the security services, we are seeing the reptilian flesh of what Noe calls “the deep state” stir beneath the democratic clothing.
Yet it is important to note that regressive Islamism remains so far marginalised in Tunisia. It may be that the army end up in open control, with the democracy being reduced to a powerless figurehead rather like the British monarchy, but programmes such as the CBS competition set pumping a fortuitous blood transfusion of liberalism. Foreign investors and NGOs can never fix Tunisia – only a showdown between people-power and vested interests will achieve that – but cultural exchange is nonetheless of great significance. The CBS competition may offer tangible opportunities to only a handful of students, but it will light the road out of provincialism and a familiar Arab dearth of aspiration for many more.
We should acknowledge how farsighted the CBS’s competition is. 50 of the 85 students who were selected were women. The competition was basically a sophisticated networking programme, in which the students were encouraged to share their skills with those from other Tunisian universities as well as advertising them to prospective foreign partners. As the adminstrator Houda Ghozzi conceded, “the process of networking… that’s the prize.” Unlike the MIT’s Arab Start-up Competition, which awards a cash sum to its winners, the CBS has singled out Tunisia and provided a unique access to its campus that students from no other country are eligible for. We should pursue this openness not just in entrepreneurialism, but in all cultural fields. Tunisia is a struggling democracy and there should be a special relationship, wrought from programmes and exchanges, between us and them.