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Tunisia – Five Years After The Fall of Ben Ali – a lecture by Rob Prince at the Alliance Francaise of Denver, Thursday, March 17, 2016 – Notes From Talk

March 18, 2016
Tunisian Mint Tea (thanks Ghaith Hajjem

Tunisian Mint Tea (thanks Ghaith Hajjem)



A Note on the Notes:

A number of people asked me to provide my notes from my talk on Tunisia last night (March 17, 2016) at the Alliance Francaise of Denver and I will do so below. Although a few “notes on the notes” by way of explanation are in order at the outset.

Firstly, I do prepare presentations with notes and did so this time..but then the presentations tend to have a life of their own – including this one. That said, although I did not cover the notes in the order below, most of the points made in the notes were covered below.

I would give special attention to certain links  – the Francis Ghiles article, that by Hebah Saleh from Financial Times (that I could not link to because of FT‘s internet subscription policies) and the link about Olam Lamloun and Mohamed Ali Ben Zina’s research on Douar Hicher and Ettadham, two impoverished Tunisian suburbs.

Finally given the weather (it was snowing) the turnout was strong and the interaction between the audience and the speaker (me) was lively and I think productive, the liveliness of the event enhanced by the fact that two Tunisians living in Denver were in the audience and added much to the discussion.

The talk took place two days after the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on the Bardo Museum outside of Tunis



Intro Remarks…

I want to begin by thanking the Alliance Francaise for inviting me to give a lecture on the situation of Tunisia now five years after the collapse of the Ben Ali government.

Why Tunisia? Why me?

Until recently from 1966 through 2015 – that is close to half a century – for most of that period, minus a few breaks – I have had a career in higher education, some in Tunisia itself, most here in Colorado. Since 1993 I have been employed by what is now called the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Affairs where I was a part of a team that helped build the department’s Undergraduate International Studies program into one of the better programs of its type in the country.

My interest in Tunisia – whose situation, progress, crises have long been close to my heart – is as long as my teaching career for a number of reasons.

1. First and foremost are the years I spent in the country as a Peace Corps Volunteer – 1966-1968 when Tunisia, newly independent from France (1956) was an exciting place to be. The winds of what were then a very positive form of Third World post colonial nationalism were sweeping through the country. There was so much going on there, economically, politically, culturally – frankly much more than I could grasp at the time.

2. Over the years I have become fascinated by the prospects of small countries to successfully compete in the global economy. I admit to a certain boredom concerning situation of the larger countries, great powers whose political strategies are for the most part, sadly predictable, whose lofty rhetoric rarely coincides with its actual record…be it the United States, China, Russia, or..for that matter France.

3. I want to point out – from the outset here – “the angle” with which I study Tunisia – as I am finding that at least here in the United States, there is little appreciation for this particular view-point – it is through the lens of what is referred to as political economy. To what does this refer? It looks at the economic and political systems in countries – what their economy is about and how it is related to the political system because it is – rather than let’s say giving primary attention to cultural or sociological factors. This is not to say that cultural (which includes religious) or sociological factors are not important and do not play role – they do. It is simply a way of coming to know a place – a starting point.

In academia, we like to explain social phenomena in terms of “models” – a sometimes useful, but often misleading way to understand the world. In any case, Tunisia was – and in many ways remains – a model of a certain kind of moderate post colonial modernism.

• It was a country in which there has long been a balance between what might be called the state and the market – in sharp contrast to its two sizable (geographically anyway) neighbors – Algeria and Libya
• It is a classic example of the efforts of a small country – geographically and population-wise – to compete and prosper in the global economy and of its attempts to “modernize” – ie, break from its role as a semi-peripheral player in the world economy to a “core” player – much as South Korea and Taiwan were able to do in East Asia.
• From a technical viewpoint, Tunisia is what is referred to as a “semi-peripheral country” – one “in the middle” – much better off than the poorest countries in Africa. You cannot really compare the comparative material prosperity of the place with let’s say Yemen in the Middle East or Mali or Burkina Faso in Africa. It is much more economically prosperous than these and its institutional and infrastructural development much greater.
• On the other hand, it has not been able to maintain an economic breakthrough that would place it in “the first tier” economically or politically.
• Its economy is essentially an export oriented one – with the exports focusing in great measure on two countries – France and Italy. This places it in a certain bind – for if France and Italy are in the economic doldrums, it is difficult for Tunisia, so dependent upon these two markets, to prosper.

Tunisia, region filled with turmoil –

Recent security events – Libya

Security concerns –

Just today (March 17, 2016) France announced that it was going to give major financial assistance to Tunisia to the tune of Euros 1 billion which would target infra-structural development in the country’s interior, a worthy notion (made perhaps less impressive by the role that France played in destabilizing Libya in the first place with the NATO led invasion of that country in 2011).

Although there are other factors involved, the overthrow of the Khadaffi government in Libya, under the highly questionable pretext of a “humanitarian intervention) – and the chaos that followed has intensified the Islamic terrorist (ISIS) threat to Tunisia considerably.

• a Islamic guerilla movement in the west of the country near the Algerian border, Mt. Chaambi which the administration, despite repeated attempts, cannot seem to neutralize

• three major terrorist attacks in the past year –

Bardo Museum (Tunis) attack of March 15, 2015 – 22 died, mostly European tourists

– Sousse beach attack of June 26, 2015 – 39 deaths, an equal number wounded; again European tourists attacks

double whammy – crippled the Tunisian tourism industry – one of the key pillars of the economy.

Ben Guerdane attack of March 7, 2016 – a mere ten days ago

some elements of the attacks…

1. They all came from Libya
2. They were all were perpetrated by Tunisian youth recruited and then trained in Libya
3. The first two caught the Tunisian security apparatus by surprise to an embarrassing degree.

Ben Guerdane, the last one, deserves more attention.

It comes after a Feb 19 combined U.S-British air attack on an Islamicist base in W. Libya at Sabratah that killed 40 militants, including one of their leaders, Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian, who is suspected of being one of the masterminds of the Bardo Museum attack. Interesting commentary in the NY Times which while noting the military success of the operation, went on in a more critical vein:

…”but the mission also highlighted the widening gap between American diplomatic operations and diplomatic efforts to bring peace and stability to a tumultuous region.

The Algerian press, often quite astute where it comes to regional developments suggested two reasons for the Sabratah attack –

a. it was revenge for the Sabratah operation
b. there was more to it – and that the Islamic state, strong in Libya’s western region, is preparing itself for a major NATO ground offensive and is seeking refuge and a “back base” in the Ben Guerdane region

Whatever, a few more comments on this…that will segway into the main line of my discussion – Tunisia 5 years after the fall of Ben Ali…

It appears that much of the strength of the Islamic state base in Libya comes from Tunisia…

According to several sources, among them The Financial Times of Feb 22 of this year, the number of ISIS fighters in Libya has swollen to more than 5000, most of them based in the Islamicist region strongholds in the west of that country near the Tunisian border.

– of that number, it is estimated that there are some 3000 Tunisian recruits to ISIS based in Western Libya and that the last two operations – the Sabratah attack and its follow-up at Ben Guardene, hardly dent that number nor its effectiveness.

– Add to this, that prior to these recent attacks it is Tunisia that provided the single largest number of ISIS recruits fighting in Syria – their number being estimated as many as 5,500 as recently as December, 2015….many of whom passed through Ben Guardene, Western Libya and then on into Turkey from whence they entered Syria with the complicity of the Turkish (and other) governments.

Among those Tunisians adhering to ISIS are women of Sunni background many of whom have volunteered their services as sex slaves.

Unquestionably, more and more – what we can say is that a large factor in stabilizing the security situation in Tunisia is to stabilize Libya…and that the 2011 NATO led overthrow of the Khadaffi government has resulted not just in the collapse of a state – authoritarian yes, but not without some positive social aspects – but the destabilization of an entire region of North and Sub Saharan Africa…with Tunisia because of proximity, suffering greatly as a result.

As, from all appearances, the suggestions are mounting that having destabilized Libya through the 2011 attack that now, to “correct the situation”, NATO is again seriously considering, if not outright planning to send ground troops to Libya….if they haven’t already…

No peace and stability in Libya = instability, terrorist attacks,

Alienated Tunisian Youth…

I want to start this section with a memory. In 2011, I spent the better part of a month in the Tunis region, my first return visit in decades to Tunisia.

It was a visit filled with vivid impressions, one of which I want to share with you.

I noticed that in the neighborhoods I was frequenting, young men sitting in cafes…all day, from morning till night. Everyday. They played cards, board games, talked and nursed cups of coffee for hours on end.

Later I learned that many of these cafes were state subsidized.

Many of these were – in prosperous and poor neighborhood – a part of the country’s vast army of unemployed. It wasn’t hard to understand, that without jobs and a future, despite how pleased and excited that Ben Ali had been overthrown, that it was precisely from this element that ISIS and like groups would find a rich gold mine of recruits…the more so in the rural and interior regions where the employment opportunities were even less likely than in Tunis.

No doubt, while five years after the overthrow of Ben Ali, Tunisia can rightly boast having rid the country of a greedy, repressive dictator in what was – with some notable exceptions – a generally peaceful revolt – and that freedom of speech (more or less) continues to be respected…that to call the Tunisian revolution “a success story” – something of an exaggeration.

In fact, the country is walking on egg shells – and while the Libya overflow is a part of the picture there are domestic sources to the crisis which cannot be overlooked…and the facts, unfortunately speak rather eloquently to a portrait of a country, perhaps not “over the edge” like Syria and Iraq…but very close…

So…let’s look at some statistics…and while the sources are many, I would refer you to three articles that cut through the haze of what is happening in Tunisia –

Francis Ghile’s “Something Is Rotten In The State of Tunisia” which appeared at the website “Open Democracy” on January 29, 2016

Heba Saleh’s “Tunisia: After The Revolution” which appeared in the March 10, 2016 edition of the Financial Times..

Rob Prince’s “Tunisia Explodes Again” which appeared at the Tunisian website, and at Foreign Policy In Focus

These three pieces essentially cover similar ground – evaluating the situation in Tunisia five years after the collapse of the Ben Ali government..

What are the main points?

▸ that the political climate in the country has seriously deteriorated with the split in the ruling party, Nidaa Tounes
▸ that the informal sector has engulfed the economy and represents more tha 50% of GDP, thus depriving the government of much-needed tax revenue and the formal economy of much-needed demand
▸ that the economy itself is probably in recession (shrinking, not growth) despite claims to the contrary of the World Bank
▸ that the government, still, five years after advent of the new political era, lacks an economic vision
▸ what might be considered “the three engines” of the Tunisian economy are floundering: consumption, exports, investment.
▸ The export sector is in trouble…true, there was a bumper olive oil crop this year, but both phosphate exports and tourism are down. For a whole variety of reasons phosphate production is down to 2/3 is 2010 levels and the tourism industry has been mauled by the recent terrorist attacks.

Concerning Tunisia’s tourist industry:

More than half of Tunisia’s 570 hotels are closed; some 300 travel agencies in the country have stopped operating. 80% of the tourist guides are unemployed and the related craft sector has seen its sales collapse. Flights from Europe have been cut and 65% of former European visitors travel to other destinations now.

There are structural problems as well – I’ll only name a few

– the whole Tunisian economy is oriented towards exports towards Europe, two countries in particular – Italy and France. When the European economy is in trouble, Tunisia’s is worse.

– as a result of this more than 90% of Tunisian economic activity centers around three coastal cities – Tunis, Sousse and Sfax. It is here that most of the investment and development dollars have gone at the expense of the interior, rural areas which have been neglected.

– despite promises, in the past five years there has been very little to no development in the interior and rural areas in infrastructure or industry… (France has promised such investment just today – if it actually comes – it will help)

Now let’s look at some demographic patterns, most recently underlined in an excellent article by Vanessa Szakal at

Domestic Tunisian Migration Patterns

Domestic Tunisian Migration Patterns

As the charts in this article show (there is a link to it in my notes)

– the regions of the country that between 2009 – 2014 gained population were the Tunis region and the central coastal region between Sousse and Sfax, where most of the country’s economic activities are concentrated.

– the northwest, central interior and southern regions to the contrary in this same period were bleeding population at an alarming rate.

– it is precisely in these regions where both the 2011 and 2016 social explosions erupted concentrated in around the towns of Gafsa and Kasserine.

– these are, naturally, the regions where Islamic militant radicals have found a home and many recruits for their cause.

I want to finish up by looking at a sociological study done by two Tunisian scholars two years ago, Olam Lamloum and Mohammed Ali Ben Zina. Jeunes de Douar Hicher et d’Ettadhamen: Un Enquete Sociologique, published by Arabesques/International Alert: 2015. (The full report is available in English – highly recommended)

It is quite revealing and relevant to who is joining ISIS and like groups and why..
I can’t say it is surprising, although the research is thorough and well done.

Let us remember the figure given above for the number of Tunisian youth (mostly youth) that have joined up to ISIS…

Let us also keep in mind that ISIS militates best in places with no or few functioning state services and where the economy is “gray”. –

Douar Hicher and Ettadhamen are two suburbs north of Tunis..

▸ two neighborhoods with high youth unemployment and reputations as being hotbeds of Salafist militancy
▸ education here is abysmal, jobs scare
▸ 93% of the youth interviewed in Lamloum/Ben Zina study are forced to live with their parents because they cannot provide for themselves
▸ more than half (54%) of the young men and a third (34%) of the young women had to drop out of school to help their households financially
▸ nearly half (44%) of those interviewed said that daily life had not improved since the fall of Ben Ali and around that same percentage (46%) think their condition has actually been degraded since “the revolution.”
▸ the youth in the neighborhood complain of having no clubs, cultural centers or parks in which to gather
▸ Other than mosques, there are few public spaces – it is no surprise that the mosques are so popular
▸ More than half of those youth interviewed (53%) pray regularly
▸ When venturing outside their neighborhoods, young men not infrequently encounter violence; 30% have suffered physical abuse, most from police but also from people in adjoining and other neighborhoods
▸ These youth have no faith in the political or economic system
▸ a whopping 98% of them distrust the political parties (from right to left) and think that politicians fight merely to advance their own interests, starting with the rich getting richer.
▸ Ennahdha, the Tunisian moderate Islamic Party associated with the Muslim Brotherhoods in other countries, lost big here between 2011-2014 with its rate of support dropping precipitously and the communities turned to a more radical Islamic direction

“It is hardly surprising therefore that youths in these neighborhoods tend to support political groups that are outside the parliamentary order, such as the outlawed Salafist group Ansar al’Sharia.
– Most interviewed said they knew someone who had left for Syria to join ISIS or to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Italy



I am adding the maps/pictures I showed as well

Tunisia - 1864 Rebellion - 1

Note on this one (above) – there was a rebellion in 1864 against the government based on essentially two issues 1. higher taxes 2. the elimination of the millet system which gave Moslems privileges over Christians and Jews…like the more modern rebellions in the country it started deep in the interior of the country before it spilled over into the coastal areas. In the case of the 1864 rebellion, it stopped short of taking Tunis, which it could have easily done; tribal unity broke down and the Ottoman government was able break the back of the rebellion which they did with some ferocity.

Tunisia - administrative-map 4a

the encircled area: Kasserine (the pass with the same name made famous in WW2 in a major battle between the Nazis led by Rommel and the U.S. troops led by Patton). It is here that the most recent uprising (Jan – Feb 2016) started. Unlike 2010, 2011, it failed to ignite a national rebellion against the current government but it did shake the powers that be to their very being..


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarge Cheever permalink
    March 19, 2016 10:01 am

    good stuff as usual–except there’s a place in the next where you say Tunisia’s neighbors–and then say they are Algeria and Tunisia. Maybe you meant Libya. Check it out and revise if necessary. sarge

  2. Phil Jones permalink
    March 20, 2016 1:55 pm

    Really good overview – and the info about 1864 is an excellent addition…Phil

  3. kerim permalink
    March 20, 2016 11:32 pm

    Insightful as always, jampacked with facts, and the1864 map was just another bonus that Rob had in store .
    Looking back in time, tunisian population was around 1.5 million at that time . On the other side of the Altlantic, the american Civil War was raging, and had still one more year to go .

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