Memories of Tunisia
I lived in Tunisia, the small North African nation now in the news for its civil unrest, from 1997 to 2000. I served at the U.S. embassy in Tunis, the capital city. At that time, a tour there was an enjoyable assignment for U.S Foreign Service officers choosing the sometimes unsettled Middle East.
Young women dressed in the latest Paris fashions. I don’t recall any of them wearing a head scarf. Many were students in Tunisian universities. Our friends and family from the States visited us for trips to the Sahara and to stroll the nearby ancient city of Carthage. We took them to see the desert movie setting for the original Star Wars films. We boarded the train in downtown Tunis for the short ride to Carthage and a visit to the cemetery for American military personnel killed in Tunisia during Second World War campaigns against the Nazis.
The embassy during my assignment was located in downtown Tunis. On weekends, I would drive to the Embassy and park, then walk from there into the old city to worship in a centuries-old Christian church. The walk took me past a Muslim mosque and a Jewish synagogue. The Jewish settlement in Tunisia was ancient; some said it began with refugees from the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 605 B.C.
During the week, work load permitting, I enjoyed riding the bus from my home to work. Once in a while, for exercise, I walked all the way. We ate in local restaurants and visited ancient ruins scattered throughout the country. Tunisia at that time was perceived as a stable, progressive country, its beaches a destination for tourists from Germany and other countries. Golfers played on the links in Tunisia’s mostly sunny weather.
Now the tourists are being evacuated. The U.S. embassy moved to a newer facility in a safer location out from Tunis after the terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in east Africa. I notice from news pictures that some of the women appear to be wearing head scarves. The train station where my friends and I took the train was burned by rioters. The Tunisian president fled to Saudi Arabia.
What happened? Why the sudden changes?
Unemployment and economic needs are cited as reasons. However, more than the economy is involved. Hard economic times can be endured if all perceive the suffering as shared. In Tunisia, for years, as average citizens struggled for decent jobs, the country’s rulers lived in luxury and used their power to grab wealth in corrupt business deals.
In the over half a century since Tunisia gained its independence from France, the country has had only two presidents, the last, Ben Ali, seizing power in a bloodless coup. Only one political party was allowed to rule, jailing and sometimes torturing any perceived opposition. Now the country has need of leaders not tainted by the old regime, but few have had experience in governing a country or understanding the democratic process.
How much better if those in power govern justly, not using their positions for their own gain, but understanding their responsibility to serve. Best if they rule in humility, allowing others to participate, realizing that no single group is all-wise. Both the political system and the economic one should be perceived as fair.