Avenue Bouguiba, Tunis. Photo by cjb22, Flickr, Creative Commons.
Eunice Crook, British Council Country Director Tunisia, blogs about one of the most remarkable events in the country’s history, and how it affected our staff and our work.
I returned to Tunisia from my Christmas break on 11 January and walked straight into the upheaval preceding the departure of President Ben Ali on 14 January.
It was instantly clear that the country I had left three weeks previously had changed; from the most stable country in North Africa we were suddenly on the verge of revolution.
This has been called the Jasmine revolution, a term rejected by Tunisians, but in fact it was and is a Facebook revolution.
In the succeeding month we shut down our operations during the unrest; evacuated 22 non-Tunisian staff and their dependents; maintained contact by mobile phone with our remaining Tunisian staff; reopened the office, which is close to the city centre, as soon as it was safe to do so, and gradually began to pick up the pieces.
Now all our teachers and dependents are back and we began teaching again last Tuesday after nearly three weeks.
The project work we had planned for this period is still mainly on hold while new ministers restructure departments and deal with the more critical matter of getting schools and universities back to normal.
In the interim we’ve had violent demonstrations, the army on the streets, sounds of gunfire disturbing our sleep, barricades, community watch groups protecting neighbourhoods from looting, and jubilation at the departure of an extremely unsavoury regime.
The staff meeting we held on our first morning back in the office will be etched on my memory forever. We haven’t been able to celebrate properly yet, as the situation is still too tense. But we will.
So one month on, what has changed?
Well, for a start, everyone in Tunisia, from grandmothers down, now has a Facebook account. One colleague told me last week that everyone was so busy talking to their friends on Facebook each night that face to face family conversation had almost come to an end.
Where protest was banned it is now, at least for the moment, endemic. In Tunis, protests against the presence of former Ben Ali ministers in the government have now morphed into protests about pay and conditions, or protests against bosses who have been linked to the Ben Ali system or possibly have just been too tough.
Outside Tunis, protests have continued to result in violent confrontations.
Lack of information has become a deluge of information, but it doesn’t seem that much easier for people to really know what is going.
Ministers, most of whom have no political background or experience, are being rated on their perceived openness in endless television interviews. Debate about whether the Foreign Minister was engaging in subtle diplomatic language or was just incomprehensible during one 45 minute interview may have cost him his job. We wait to hear.
The ubiquitous Arabic soap operas which people watched devotedly on television each day have been replaced by the Ben Ali and family story – a real life example of truth being even more incredible than fiction.
But people are talking, sometimes nervously, almost unable to believe that the huge state machinery that controlled their every utterance is not still listening with malicious intent.
It is fascinating to watch and listen as people who have kept quiet for 23 years try to find their voice, but also to understand that freedom of speech means that other people may have different opinions which have to be respected.
With freedom comes responsibility.
And the future?
Tunisia’s great strengths are a well educated population and an essentially tolerant and liberal tradition. The speed with which Tunisia quashed the potential descent into anarchy immediately after Ben Ali’s departure and returned the streets to some semblance of normality is a testament to the courage and wisdom of the people.
There is both a need for effective cultural relations, as well as an opportunity. Our priorities are likely to be assisting the process to free and fair elections; helping young people meet their aspirations for employment; developing the English language skills of the people to better enable them to interact with the wider world.
We hope that we will be able to build on the extensive programme of support for English language teaching which we have already developed here, as well as work with our contacts in the arts and civil society to support them as they develop the new voice and institutions the country will need.
The next six months will be critical.