Monday, June 6, 2011


Western Mail article June 4th 2011

Last week, I was in Tunisia for the OECD, the global economic development body.

The aim of the mission was to support the development of enterprise education within Tunisian universities in order to help more young people to develop their enterprise and employment opportunities.

It was a fascinating couple of days not only to experience the dedication and passion of the participating academics but because, only five months ago, Tunisia started a revolution that has since swept through the whole of the Arab world.

For many of us living in the UK, this small North African nation that is located between Libya and Algeria is seen predominantly as a Mediterranean holiday destination.

Yet the country has a rich and varied history encompassing the great empire of Carthage whose most famous general, Hannibal, nearly defeated the might of the Roman Empire. Indeed, even when the Carthaginians were eventually conquered following the third Punic War, their country became of enormous strategic importance, earning the sobriquet of the "bread basket of Rome". The importance of food production continues even today, with farming accounting for eleven per cent of a local economy that is amongst the most developed in Africa.

Since the end of Roman rule, Tunisia has been subject to the rule of a series of empires, changing hands as the tides of history ebbed and flowed over the centuries until, in the 1950s, the country managed to wrest control from the French Government which was vesting itself of its colonies and protectorates in North Africa.

For thirty years, Tunisia flourished under the leadership of its first President, Habib Bourguiba. However, any sense of nationhood that had been developed quickly disappeared when he was deposed by Zine el Abidene Ben Ali in 1987 in a bloodless coup that led to growing corruption for the next two decades with the only beneficiaries being supporters and friends of the ruling family.

That is until November 2010 when the actions of one young man changed the entire geopolitical environment across North Africa and the rest of the Arab World.

When government officials closed down his business, 26 year old Mohamed Bouazizi decided that a stand had to be made. It was an extreme and desperate one - pouring petrol over himself before setting himself alight in protest at the way he had been treated by the police and government officials.

When he died of his burns a few weeks later, it sparked the so-called “Jasmine revolution” that not only brought down the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia, but began a domino effect that quickly spread to other Arab countries including Egypt, Libya and Syria.

During my short visit, I had the opportunity to speak to a number of ordinary Tunisians about the current situation. The revolution had, they said, brought a new vibrancy and urgency to the nation, ushering in an era where people were united in ensuring that the new democracy succeeded and that deep-rooted problems such as unemployment and low living standards could finally be addressed. And yet concerns were also voiced that the old regime could reassert itself at any time, especially if the rest of the World did not support the new interim government.

Therefore, the news last week that both Egypt and Tunisia will be offered around $20 billion in loans by G8 is both welcome and timely and should be followed by further support from funders such as the World Bank and the European Investment Bank.

In fact, the way ordinary Tunisians expressed their hopes and fears was a revelation to someone who, like in the UK, takes their democratic rights for granted. Of course, the real test will be in the Autumn, when the country votes in a general election that will determine the fate of this North African nation.

Certainly, everyone I spoke to during my short visit looked forward eagerly to exercising their right to vote and to then moving quickly to developing a new Tunisia that could, with the right support from the EU, the World Bank and other bodies, become a model for democracy across the rest of the Arab World. I can only hope that when I return at the end of this year, their dream - and that of millions of ordinary Tunisians - will finally have been realised.