When I last visited Sidi Bou Said, just to the north of Tunis, in November 2015 it was almost deserted, with tourists from across the world having largely chosen to go elsewhere following the shootings near Sousse in June of that year. I remember being saddened about the very visible loss of income for the many small traders who had previously made their livings selling souvenirs from the numerous small shops that lined its main streets. Revisiting the village yesterday on a beautiful warm, sunny day, with a cool breeze freshening the air, it was good to see the lively buzz of visitors filling the streets. It is a beautiful village, with the blue doors and shutters (reputedly to thwart mosquitoes) contrasting starkly with the whitewashed walls of the buildings.
It was also great to find that my favourite restaurant in the village, Au Bon Vieux Temps, was still there, and serving food as good as it has always done. The only sad thing was that the traders seemed very much more aggressive than I recall even in the dark days of 2015. A well-traveled friend and colleague reckoned it was the worst hassle he had ever experienced in a tourist resort! I had to agree, which is sad, because they would achieve very many more sales if they were a little bit less aggressive. Be warned, but go and enjoy Sidi Bou Said nonetheless.
Two things have struck me in particular about the recent dramatic events in Tunisia and Egypt that seem to have been insufficiently addressed in much of the media coverage:
- The way in which the protest movements have been so personally focused on opposition to two individuals Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak – they could never have stayed in power for so long unless substantial segments of the populations from both countries had not benefited from and supported them. So the issues I do not fully understand are: why have the protest movements not focused more attention on the old regimes’ supporters in general; why was the protest so personalised; is this a particular feature of politics in the region, or a more widespread feature of mass uprisings (and here I think of the overthrow of the Ceaușescu regime in Romania); what will happen to those who worked for and implemented the wishes of Ben-Ali and Mubarak (those left behind who could not flee the country); and given the power vacuums that have been created, how will new political and governance structures be crafted that really serve the interests of the people (in many revolutions, those who bring down the old regime are not those who then eventually become the new leaders)?
- The hypocrisy of Western leaders – some of the rhetoric coming from the US and French governments is to my mind utterly appalling. One of the reasons why both Ben Ali and Mubarak stayed in power for so long is that they were supported by external governments in the capitalist world, and particularly the US and France. If the Obama and Sarkozy regimes had really wanted what has happened now on the streets of Cairo and Tunis to have occurred earlier, they could easily have encouraged much more rapid political change in Egypt and Tunisia – and yet they did not! They supported the old regimes in both countries, and are being entirely opportunistic in their new approaches. Of course this is not unexpected from leaders such as Obama and Sarkozy, self-serving and arrogant as they are, and perhaps this is simply the reality of global politics. I would, though, be much more respectful of such leaders if they actually apologised to the people of countries, whose unpleasant regimes they have propped up, once those regimes fall. There is scarcely a country in which the US has intervened that has not subsequently experienced dramatic political upheaval. The history of Vietnam and Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught USAns something. I hope that the new leaders of Egypt and Tunisia are strong enough to let the governments of Western countries know exactly what they feel about the past, and that they will tell the US in particular that it should not meddle in the political affairs of other sovereign states. Once Obama has substantially improved the USA and once Sarkozy has done likewise in France, then, and only then, might they have some words of advice that people in other countries could listen to. As most sane people understand this will never happen, because neither leaders have the vision or ability fundamentally to change their own societies and to make their states fairer and better places in which to live.
We live in interesting times. Six months ago, I for one never thought that the start of 2011 would bring such political change – and I remain amazed at how peaceful and successful the protests in Tunisia and Egypt have been. What will the next six months bring? We all have much to learn from the people on the streets of North Africa.