Saturday, April 30, 2011

Life in North Africa - post revolution

I've had a couple of people express concerns for my safety, and thought this was probably the best way to communicate to the larger group.

As you undoubtedly know, Tunisia was the first country in the Arab world to experience a popular uprising against their dictatorial and corrupt president. Led by the country's youth, this did so with amazing courage, literally putting their lives on the line for democracy. I was in Dubai, giving a session at a workshop there, having left Paige here in Tunis. She is the one who lived through the sounds of machine-gun fire, the constant passage of helicopters with searchlights, the smoke. I went through a different kind of hell at a distance.

Tunisia had the great good fortune to have a president who was a coward and who fled the country after four days of rioting, other members of "the clan" having taken to their heels even earlier. (The worst of those Belhassen Trabelsi, is now living high in Montreal, where he had taken out residency papers four years earlier.) Once The Family was gone, the primary goal of the protesters was accomplished, and Tunisians basically went back to work. (This is a bit of an exaggeration, but I don't have time to write up the whole process of a country discovering how to strike, for example. These will be tales told over a beer in the summer.)

One example of the kind of courage we saw here occurred January 12, two days before  Ben Ali closed Tunisian air space and took off. Six Family members showed up at the Tunis airport and demanded places on a flight to Leon. The flight was fully booked, but that didn't matter. The airline chief was called and six people lost their seats to make room for the Trabelsi's. When the pilot heard who had just boarded his plane, he refused to take off.  He told the chief that if "those people" were on his plane, he was leaving the cockpit. Which he did. His main concern was for the safety of his passengers. He knew that many of the Trabelsi's had warrants against them in Europe, that they must therefore have boarded the plane with weapons to make the pilot to fly to some other country. He wasn't going to put his passengers at risk so he refused to fly. The Trabelsi's were subsequently arrested and are still being held in the army barracks quite near my school. The audio link at the bottom of this article is a really good one.

Mubarak stood up to the will of his people longer in Egypt, and therefore the violence went on longer. He stayed in his country and is now in jail. In contrast, Tunisia's president and horror of a wife now live in Saudi, a country where they cut of the hands of children who steal food, but that shelters large-scale criminals like Ben Ali without batting an eye. Syria's willingness to massacre its own people because they want a voice makes me weep.

Libya is horrifying, with their mad dictator killing his own people with his considerable expertise and delirium. Estimated death toll is now 30,000, with perhaps triple that wounded. About 13,000 people seeking refuge stream across the Tunisian border every week. All are sheltered, fed and treated, some in camps, but mostly in people's homes. Italy, a country of 60 million, was horrified to have a few thousand Tunisians  arrive in Lampedousa; tiny third world Tunisia has taken in hundreds of thousands. (I understand Lampedousa's pain. Almost all of the Tunisians who fled there are criminals, and they now outnumber the residents. That said, listen to this from a home-owner who gave a whole floor of his house to refugees in southern Tunisia. “If there is something to eat, we will eat it together. If there is nothing to eat, we will have nothing together.”

This week, Gadhafi has been shelling the Tunisian border town of Dhuheiba, killing not only Libyan rebels, but Tunisian citizens. The Tunisian military seems to be putting up with it, either withdrawing or simply escorting people back to their side of the border. I don't quite get it. Can you imaging what the US would do if a civil rebellion in Mexico spilled into Texas, killing a few US citizens?

And of course, a horrible event occurred in Morocco yesterday. An Islamic extremist - and they represent a tiny minority of Muslims - blew himself up in one of the most famous tourist cafés in Marrakesh. I feel surrounded by madmen and today can't wait to get home. That said, the area where I live and work is very quiet and secure, so I do not fear for my safety. It's just stressful to live in this environment.

Mostly I feel privileged to have been here and witnessed first hand this country's first steps toward democracy, and to see the inspiration they have given to all the dictatorships in the region. It will be a long, hard struggle, but a good one. Inshallah.