North African diversities: a Tunisian odyssey

Tunisia's modern history, from the late French colonial period to the rule of two long-term presidents, has been a constant presence in the life of the journalist Francis Ghilès. Here he reflects on how this experience - familial, social, professional - has over six decades shaped his understanding of Tunisia's complexities. 

Francis Ghilès
22 May 2012

As the barouche moved uphill through the Parc du Belvédère in the crisp light of a mid-October 1951 morning, I looked at the palm trees and inquired of my mother whether I was in a "Babar" story. I had arrived with her the night before after a very rough crossing from Marseille had delayed our docking in Tunis by many hours. I had just spent my first night in Tunisia, which was then a French protectorate, in a hotel in the centre of town, trying to come to terms with unfamiliar surroundings and languages I did not speak, French and Arabic. A month short of my seventh birthday I was beginning a new life, with a father I had only seen for a few weeks three years before in London, where I was then living.

That afternoon my parents moved in to a small house on the beach of Salammbo at the foot of Carthage, a residential suburb of Tunis: Villa Giusepina was to be my home until I left the newly independent country for the United Kingdom in July 1957.

I had learned French by Christmas - my mother proved to be an excellent teacher - and adapted without pain to the local French école primaire the following January. The teaching here was a far cry from the kindergarten ran by Anna Freud which I attended when living in Hampstead in the late 1940s. In my new school, Arabic became obligatory in 1954: in July of that year, the French prime minister Pierre Mendès-France, for whom I was to work when he campaigned to become MP for Grenoble in the winter of 1966-67, had the courage to offer Tunisia a large degree of autonomy, thus sparing the country the horrors of what its Algerian neighbour was to live through from 1954 to 1962.

In June 1955 the great nationalist leader Habib Bourguiba returned home from long years of exile and independence was proclaimed a year later. Bourguiba became prime minister of Sidi Lamine Pacha Bey, the ruler of Tunisia, but within a year he had ousted the Husseinite dynasty which had ruled Tunisia since 1705 and proclaimed a republic. Bourguiba was a true statesman, a modern Arab ruler who granted women equal rights, decades before his peers in Spain, Italy and France; but also a dictator whose refusal to allow free speech and elections allowed an Islamist party to take root in the 1980s and ushered in the harsh rule of General Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 1987.

Bourguiba's behaviour towards Sidi Lamine, who had strongly supported him throughout the early 1950s, was despicable. Lamine was deposed at 19.00hrs on 25July 1957, the day the new republic was proclaimed, and forced to leave his residence in La Marsa wearing a simple jebba and babouches. His wife Jeneina was taken to the ministry of the interior where she was badly beaten, then allowed to rejoin her husband with her daughter Safia in the Bardo Palace where he was kept under house-arrest until his wife died in 1960. He was then confined to a two-room flat in the Lafayette district of Tunis where he died in 1962 at the age of 81. Sidi Lamine was buried in the Sidi Abdelaziz cemetery in La Marsa rather than in the Tourbet el Bey where all his ancestors lie. 

The new ruler did not hesitate either to expropriate the wealth of well-established families, including many who had supported his fight for independence. A typical example of this punitive attitude was his treatment of the Kaddour, the leading family of El Kef, the fortress town on Tunisia's northwestern border with Algeria. Bourguiba insinuated that Sheikh Ahmed Kaddour was descended of a Frenchman, a deep insult in a country where old family lineage is key to the understanding of history. The linkage was with Sheikh Kaddour's direct ancestor Sidi el Mizouni, who had come from western Algeria early in the 19th century and founded the powerful religious fraternity of the Qadiri'ya, and who Bourguiba insinuated was of French Christian origin.

Sheikh Kaddour was further humiliated when Bourguiba, in a speech to the law faculty of Tunis University in October 1973, claimed that the Kaddour had opened the gates of El Kef to the French in 1881 - hence the name of one of the fortress's entrances: “The Gate of Shame”. Tunisia's leader, not content with destroying the reputation of a highly respected family, confiscated their farms and redistributed the land to his supporters. The Kaddour - also noted for their excellent relations with the local Jewish community (a standard of the zaouia hung in the synagogue of El Kef) - were a convenient target, even though they were not opposed to Bourguiba's reformist policies, such as the granting of equal rights to women which was successfully implemented after 1956.

Bourguiba may have consolidated his rule by such vindictive methods, but he also helped to shred the age-old fabric of social relations and deprive Tunisia of any memory of its history before his appearance on the scene in the 1930s. There was further damage, as the policy of harsh collectivisation promoted throughout the 1960s nearly destroyed Tunisia's agriculture. Economic development was focused on the coast, notably tourism: the young unemployed of El Kef and Tunisia's western uplands can thank Bourguiba's misguided policies for a rate of unemployment which hovers around 40%. They were the ones who dared rise against Ben Ali in 2011 and set in train revolts across the Arab world. Some traditional grandees survived: Fadhel Ben Achour, formerly the grand mufti of Tunis, was a true nationalist; his son Yadh drafted the new electoral rules which ushered in Tunisia's first free elections in October 2011. The influence of these traditional families was however minimal in the new republic, where the history of Tunisia before Bourguiba simply disappeared from the textbooks.

The old-new world

My parents received young Arab professionals at home throughout those years. This was very unusual among European settlers, especially in Carthage, but I was too young to realise how very separate the lives of virtually all native Tunisians and Europeans, particularly the French, actually were. At school, however, I mastered the basic Arabic alphabet and dictation, helped by my father who spoke and wrote the language fluently.

The outside world irrupted into what was a conventional family life in unexpected ways. My parents had met in Tunis where my mother had been posted in the summer of 1943 as an interpreter (Italian and French) after the Anglo-American forces had pushed the German Afrika Korps out of north Africa. She arrived in Algiers in the spring of that year, a few months after the Allies' Torch landings in Casablanca, Oran and Algiers on 8 November 1942. She was enthralled by the new world she discovered in Algiers and Constantine - the old Jewish communities so different from her north London background - and was appalled by the open anti-semitism of the French colons.

In October 1940, the French Jews of Algeria had been stripped by the Vichy government of their nationality - though help was forthcoming from their Muslim neighbours. After a few weeks at the Aletti Hotel on the waterfront in Algiers she travelled to Tunis across a land stalked by famine: decades later she would tell me of villages in eastern Algeria where the “threadbare clothes of the natives hardly covered their private parts”. Many were dying of hunger, as they were to do again in the dreadful winter of 1948-49. That grinding misery, more than any other cause, explains why Algeria rebelled against French colonial rule in 1954.

The Anglo-American forces entered Tunis on 7 May 1943, and within weeks my mother was assigned to interpret for Richard Crossman who worked as assistant chief of psychological warfare to Harold MacMillan, then a rising young Tory politician who had been appointed in January 1942 to be minister resident attached to Allied Forces Headquarters (AFHQ) in the Mediterranean. In the words of his chief aide, John Wyndham, MacMillan became “Britain's Viceroy in the Mediterranean by stealth”. Shortly after my mother's arrival, King George VI arrived in Tunis on his way to Malta, accompanied by Winston Churchill. My mother often told me that those weeks offered her a faster introductory course in international affairs than any university could have dreamed of.

Nor was her hectic life simply one of work: dancing and beach parties with American and British officers, receptions at the very elegant British residence in La Marsa, swimming and discovering the old medina of Tunis - where smells of urine blended with those of spices - offered a life which was far more exciting that the Finchley of her childhood or the three years at University College London, relocated to North Wales in 1940, where she had completed a degree in French and Italian. Soon after arriving in Tunis, she met my father, a handsome man whose life suited only too well the idea my mother had of a romantic hero.

Marcel Ghilès was a junior officer in the French merchant navy, He had been arrested on the orders of the governor of Tunisia, Admiral Esteva, who was a close ally of Marshall Petain in the summer of 1940. Marcel had been a militant trades unionist and an active member of the Confédération Générale du Travail, who in that capacity had in 1936 helped organise strikes at the military naval yards of La Zarzouna in Bizerta. He was imprisoned in the fortress of El Kef on the Algerian border and then assigned to residence in nearly Teboursouk until the Anglo-American troops freed him in the spring of 1943 and enrolled him in the Corps Francs d'Afrique, an army unit specially created to reintegrate all those French officers who had been cashiered by Vichy in 1940.

My mother was by all accounts, a very attractive woman: many letters and poems bear witness to the strong emotions she provoked. They include love letters written to her by a handsome Hungarian student, Janos, whom she met on a French summer course in Grenoble in August 1938, when she was seventeen, and who mixes sentences written in immaculate classical French and short music scores to express his feelings. There are also poems written by my father evoking nights in Carthage in 1943, and a wonderful translation of William Butler Yeats's “When you are old…” written in Naples in April 1944 (a few months before I was born) by an Italian journalist, Giovanni de Sanctis, whose reports in the newspaper Il Messagero made him his country's most famous war correspondent after 1945. In the summer of 1940, she had turned down an offer to marry Abba Eban when the latter's parents bought my grandparent's house in Finchley: she told her father the future Israeli foreign-affairs minister was a wee bit too pompous.

After her death in 2010, a close Algerian friend, Fatma Oussedik, described her as une grande amoureuse et une mère superbe. She and my father fell deeply in love though my father was still married to his first wife, a trapeze artist from Bordeaux, when I was born in Rome in November 1944. This love endured until my father died in 1996 but it was a tumultuous relationship and not one easy to bear for their children, who by 1959 numbered three when my younger brother Thierry was born. My mother would often return in later years to this period of her life.

The colonial evening

Today, when Britain (along with the rest of Europe) faces a turbulent southern Mediterranean rim, it is worth remembering that whereas anything east of Suez hardly featured in the thoughts of most ordinary Britons during and after the war, the dramas of Malta, north Africa, Sicily, the mainland of Italy and Greece had been seared into British imaginations. Knowing this period and Britain's two-century-old love-affair with the mare nostrum - so well explained in Robert Holland's Blue Water Empire - helped me a lot when as a journalist and broadcaster I was called upon to comment of the region for the BBC and in seminars in Europe and the United States. Historical depth and texture are essential to any serious understanding of a region which has re-emerged as Europe's vulnerable periphery.

My grandfather was furious when my mother returned to the UK in the summer of 1945: gone were his dreams of her marrying into the British establishment. A few years later he had to contend with my mother's youngest brother, Anthony, enrolling in the Communist Party while studying maths at Cambridge and helping to organise the first-ever sit-in at the atomic power-station, at Aldermaston, for the left-wing Labour MP, Ian Mikardo. Anthony went on to a brilliant career as a computer specialist, writing (among other books) the first biography of Thomas Babbage, the 19th-century inventor of computers. My mother and her brother were both influenced by their mother, Fanny, and happy to challenge established norms; in this they were polar opposites of their father, whose wish to join the ranks of the establishment were somewhat spoiled when membership of the Highgate golf club was denied on account of his being Jewish. In the 1950s, being a retired senior manager for Shell, affluent, a Conservative voter, and sporting Savile Row suits, did not guarantee access to a posh golf course.

My parents were not conventional by the standards of colonial society but I led the normal life of a French school kid on whom the tragic events north Africa was going through hardly impinged. In Tunisia, the Neo-Destour party was fighting for the country's independence and the 1951-54 years witnessed plenty of violence in Tunis and the countryside. In Algeria, 1 November 1954 saw the beginning of what was to be a very bloody eight-year war of independence. That year, my sister Michele Andree was born. My mother remarked wistfully: “As you were born in Rome and your sister in Carthage I hope you two get on.”

From time to time the outside world would erupt with brutality. In the spring of 1956, friends came to dinner while my English grandmother was staying with us - they were a French colon of Maltese origin from nearby Algeria called Sauveur Calleja, and his beautiful Tunisian Jewish mistress, Paule Bédoucha, who owned a smart clothes shop in Tunis's Avenue de Paris. Calleja explained at one point that he whipped his farm workers to keep them in good order: my parents, who were both on the left, were embarrassed, but it was my grandmother, sporting her usual elegant Dior attire, that just stopped the conversation and ordered Calleja out of the house.

A few days later in Tunis, a tearful Paule Bédoucha, who after 1958 was to become the mistress of Roger Frey, the interior minister of General de Gaulle, begged my grandmother's forgiveness, only to receive the tart answer: “How can a self-respecting Jewess lie with a man of this ilk?” In the autumn of 1956, having just started my first year at Lycée de Carthage, I entered the classroom at 8am one morning in the company of my sweetheart, a girl called Monique Arbey, to be greeted by all my mates giving a military salute. I quickly discovered that they all knew my mother was Jewish and Monique's mother Christian Lebanese: we were in the midst of the Suez crisis and anti-Arab feelings were running high among the European. My friends also spoke disparagingly of our maths teacher, a Breton woman married to a native Tunisian: “she fucks with an Arab” was repeated again and again during our class breaks throughout the crisis. Another memory from a few years earlier is of my father having a pistol by his bedside for a few weeks after the assassination by French colonial hardliners belonging to La Main Rouge of the Tunisian labour leader, Ferhat Hached, on 15 December 1952. My father had by then ceased all political activities but still felt threatened.

The outside world floated into my schoolboy bubble in other, more agreeable ways. One day, having lunch with my grandmother in the very elegant Dar Zarouk restaurant in Sidi Bou Said, where on the twin hills of Carthage 17th-century privateers had built summer houses with a breathtaking view across the Gulf of Carthage to the extinct Bou Kornine volcano, I was amazed to see an elegant American in his fifties come up, kiss her hand and say: “Mrs Hyman, I believe? Did we not meet in New York in 1937?” My grandmother, sporting Dior clothes and a eye-stopping green Murano glass necklace,  was born a queen and reacted with her trademark, “to the manner born" natural grace and wit.

She had sailed to New York and many Latin American destinations such as Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires and visited Mexico with her husband before the war on one of his frequent visits to clients of Shell across the United States, Latin America and Asia. She usually sailed back to the UK after a month or two as her husband continued by ship, air and train, criss-crossing the world cross in the leisurely style of the period. Family photo albums are littered with pictures of her stylishly standing on ship decks “two days out of Southampton” and of him in golf clubs across the British empire. I was already set on travelling to faraway places, but the encounter in the Dar Zarouk that day convinced me I needed to discover New York.

Watching the Comédie Francaise perform Corneille in the ruins of the Roman theatres at Dougga in western Tunisia and Carthage and picnicking under the arches of the Roman aqueduct near Zaghouan gave my grandmother, a regular visitor, the opportunity to give me a thorough grounding in Roman history, my father supplementing it with explanations of the more recent Arab and French past. Rock-and-roll erupted into this colonial backwater in the winter of 1956 when I broke my first pair of glasses as I thoroughly enjoyed what my father called this “wild negro dance”. On 1 June 1955, I watched the triumphant return of Habib Bourguiba to his native land. The hills of Carthage and Sidi Bou Said were black with people as the ship carrying the Moudjahed al-Akhbar (the Great Fighter) sailed through the Gulf of Tunis in brilliant sunshine. I had no idea that I was witnessing history in the making, despite young lawyers from Bourguiba's party being frequent visitors to Villa Giusepina.

The forgotten uplands

I returned to Tunisia fifteen years later, in 1970, as I was finishing my thesis in Oxford on Algerian colonial history. I lived in a house in the medina in Bab Souika rented by an American who played the piano in the symphonic orchestra of Tunis, and was plunged back into the smells, colours and music of a country I had lost touch with.

But as I visited my Sicilian grandmother, whom I hardly knew, and travelled to El Kef, I was reminded of old family ties. On a very hot August day, an old man dressed in traditional costume stopped me as I boarded a bus in El Kef to go to Kairouan: “might you be the son of Marcel Ghilès?” When I answered in the affirmative, he said: “Convey my regards and tell him he was one of the best Juge de Paix we ever had here”. The two English friends with whom I was travelling were dumbstruck. My father had done a law degree after the war and eventually became a lawyer for Mobil Oil, but because he needed to recover from the tuberculosis he had contracted while in prison and because he spoke excellent Arabic he was sent by the French authorities to El Kef for a year in 1948.

My next visit to Tunis was as a budding journalist and I returned to the country frequently throughout my years at the Financial Times, particularly after I was appointed the paper's north Africa correspondant in 1981. As I started writing my first articles about Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco I quickly realised that I did not fit neatly into certain “categories”. Many among my French peers were on the left and were convinced, at least in the late 1970s, that Habib Bourguiba and even more so the Algerian leader Houari Boumedienne were leading their countries into a socialist paradise: it took them many years to be disabused. Many of my seniors, not least in the Anglo-American press corps, had started working during the fight for independence of Tunisia and Algeria; most thought the Moroccan monarchy was doomed (a view held by the CIA until the late 1980s), and very few attached any importance to economic affairs. The more a Tunisian or an Algerian looked and sounded like a Frenchman or an American, the better.

The few who spoke Arabic, let alone Berber, got beneath the surface of events, the others I soon bored of - they seemed to move between Tunis and Hammamet and when in Algiers in a mythical “Rive Gauche” which included all the revolutionary groups which made that city so fascinating in the 1970s (from the PLO, the ANC and the Black Panthers to the more dodgy movement to liberate the Canary Islands).

In August 1972 I travelled from Morocco to Tunisia by train and first set foot in the Kabylia mountains of eastern Algeria where my paternal grandfather was born. I made the decision then that I would continue to discover north Africa, not by means of an academic career but by becoming a journalist. The ultimate aim was to join the BBC or the Financial Times. The BBC's French service turned me down because my voice was deemed unsuitable for broadcasting, but I discovered a few years later when I got to know Bush House better that the head of the service had recruited one of his girlfriends.

My determination to acquire deeper knowledge of the Maghreb was greatly helped when, in March 1977, I joined the FT, thanks to its legendary managing editor JDF Jones. The "pink one" attached great importance to reporting on the ground and concentrating on economic facts. I soon realised that reporting in an autocracy is much easier if you are ostensibly concentrating on economic facts and discreetly work out the politics, be they national or local, from the bottom up, through visiting farms and factories and meeting local officials - many of whom are flattered to receive the envoy of such a prestigious a newspaper even if they spoke no English and had never set eyes on it. As I began to contribute to the BBC World Service radio in 1975, I would increasingly meet people who had heard me speak on the air. To this very day, the three letters BBC carry an aura of trustworthiness second to none across the Maghreb - the Arabic radio service carries particular weight.

In the spring of 1975, I met the man who was to become my mentor in Tunisia and a trusted friend. Mohammed El Fadhel Khalil was then a dashing young adviser on international affairs to the powerful minister of agriculture, Hassan Belkhoja, one of Bourguiba's oldest companions. As Fadhel rose through the ranks to become governor of El Kef in 1980, director of the Sfax Gafsa phosphate company, governor of Sfax, minister and ambassador, I was able to indulge in full my desire to understand "le pays profond". He and his wife Zohra proved to be unfailing and extremely well-informed guides to the inner workings of Tunisian society. Zohra's friendship also led me to appreciate the key role women played in north Africa, often behind the scenes but no less essential for that. North African women have often provided me with the most acute analysis of political and cultural events in the region, not to mention wonderful gossip.

Tunisia may be a small country but it is no less complex for that. After spending a few days in Tunis, I would usually travel to where Fadhel was governor at the time and stay with him. In El Kef, Metlaoui, Jendouba and Sfax, I would get up at 7.30 or 8am, have a quick breakfast and report to his office where he was already hard at work. He always had a busy schedule arranged for me and I would soon be off visiting farms, factories, and major public works until the evening. The officials I met were simply told - a British journalist is coming, explain all you can to him, he can be trusted. Before dinner and over a large whisky, a thorough debriefing would take place; the ins and outs of Tunisian local politics and economic development were discussed and noted by me.

Fadhel was always good on the subtle subplots of Tunisian local and national life and his wife would fill me in on the family background of many officials and ministers. Their friendship and support helped me understand how arduous developing and modernising a country like Tunisia was. The governor was respected, indeed loved wherever he served: not a penny went missing from the budgets he managed; he helped thousands of young people find a job, brought World Bank specialists to the remoter villages in Tunisia and had a sense of PR beyond the dreams of any of those who held the post of minister of information. To counter the tunisois' sheer ignorance of the southern Chott el Djerid region where his family roots were, Fadhel and Zohra would organise Sunday picnics in the barren mountains above the phosphate mines of Metlaoui: friends would drive down from Tunis and turn up equipped as if they were entering the far west, and indeed looked upon the locals with a barely concealed disdain worthy of the former colonial overlords or a Parisian bourgeois in the deepest Limousin.

Back in Tunis, ministers and senior officials would puzzle as to why I found Jendouba, Gafsa, Midès and El Kef so compelling. They were more interested in boasting of their latest visit to Paris or commenting on a recent editorial in Le Monde. Such people were deeply convinced that Tunisians were way more sophisticated than neighbouring Algerians and Moroccans, let alone Libyans (who they felt were rather infra dig). The look of contempt displayed by so many Tunisian - indeed north African officials generally - when they had to deal faced with ordinary people, especially in poorer region, was deeply resented. That contempt grew far worse during the Ben Ali years which explain why so many slogans in Tunisia's poorer uplands in 2011 sought to reclaim that lost dignity: the same slogans and shouts can be heard today in Algeria and Morocco, indeed across the Arab lands.

The Bourguiba delusion

The great years of Habib Bourguiba were already behind him when I started reporting on Tunisia. One of his former senior ministers who headed the interim government after the revolution in 2011, Beji Caid Essebsi, told me that with the death or casting aside of major figures such as Bahi Laghdam and Taieb M'hiri, he personally felt by the early 1970s “that something was missing”. The feeling was to grow steadily until 1987. In 1981 Bourguiba ordered multiparty elections and an opposition Mouvement des Démocrates Socialistes (MDS) led by a former minister, Ahmed Mestiri, was allowed to campaign despite a lot of harassment from thugs paid by the ruling Parti Socialiste Destourien. A unique opportunity to open up an ageing on- party system was lost, sowing the seeds of the Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique which would later change its name to En Nahda.

Bourguiba suffered from the common delusion among Arab leaders that he was Allah's gift to his people. By 1981, Tunisia was a much better educated country than in 1956, its women played a growing role in public life; it had avoided the worse excesses of socialism a decade earlier when the US government sent a severe warning to Bourguiba in the form of a toughly worded mise en garde by the World Bank; it also boasted the oldest trades-union movement in Africa, the UGTT, founded in March 1946. Some key factors on which a more modern form of government could have been built were thus at hand.

The opportunity to move towards a more plural and free system was lost on 1 November 1981. On that night the governor of El Kef sent the minister of the interior Driss Guiga the “true” results (in private) of the poll in El Kef. He was promptly asked from Tunis why he had not cooked the results. Came the answer: “because that is not my job”.

It took Driss Guiga three days to “cook” the results, as he had agreed with Bourguiba that the opposition MDS would not get more than 8% of the vote. As I discovered years later, the MDS list headed by Ahmed Mestiri had polled a majority of the votes in Tunis, where the ruling party list was led by Beji Caid Essebsi, and in some provincial towns such as Jendouba, but only 17% in El Kef. The patronising words the minister used when he faced the press the following Wednesday morning, when he lectured Tunisian and foreign journalists alike on the quality of Tunisian democracy, ruined the little reputation he had and severely tarnished that of his ailing president and his ever more powerful second wife, Wassila Ben Amar.

I had followed the polling early in the day in El Kef, but before the polls closed in Tunis that fateful night I was taken to a polling station near the railway station in Tunis by Chawki Aloui, a junior official at the information ministry. He passed me off as a Tunisian official and we went backstage to witness ballots boxes being stuffed. I duly reported what I had witnessed on the BBC World Service at dawn the following day. Five minutes later, the minister of information, the liberal Tahar Belkhoja, rang up to congratulate me on a job well done. I "passed" as a local official on more than one occasion, notably in Algiers, helped by my name and its proper Berber enunciation: ighiles means panther in Berber and, apparently, I looked the part.

In December 1977, when I was still working as capital-markets correspondent for the FT, I took a short break in Tunisia. Sensing that trouble was brewing I convinced the fatuous minister of information Mustafa Masmoudi to provide me with a car and a driver to travel down to a famous beauty spot in the south, Mides, which was close to the phosphate mines of Metlaoui. With the help of a wonderful Tunisian-English journalist, Myriam Badri, and the complicity of the driver we visited the headquarters of the UGTT and met with regional union leaders in a phosphate-mine gallery. What I heard then convinced me that the confrontation between the government led by Hedi Nouira and the UGTT led by the veteran Habib Achour were headed for a clash. Upon returning to London, I said as much on the BBC: on 26 January violent clashes between the UGTT and the security forces left scores of dead in the streets of Tunis.

Six years later, another wave of riots starting in the far southern town of Douz swept up the country to engulf Tunis. They badly shook the rule of an ageing and increasingly erratic president. Habib Bourguiba had got himself elected as president for life in 1975 and pushed aside the few people who had the stature to succeed him, such as Ahmed Mestiri. The fight for succession waged between two important Neo-Destour Party barons, Driss Guiga and Mohamed Sayah, had turned the government into an increasingly irrational exercise as the prime minister, Mohammed M'Zali was increasingly stripped of his powers (la genaria [artichoke], ordinary Tunisians called him) and Bourguiba's wife, Wassila Ben Ammar, gained ever more power.

In December 1984, Bourguiba decided to double the price of bread at a stroke when he was informed by the mayor of Tunis that a lot of heavily subsidised bread was ending up in the dustbins of the capital. There was a world of difference, however, between the baguette available to the middle classes and the khoubs tabouna, the traditional unleavened bread which was the staple food of poorer Tunisians. Bourguiba's decision was strongly opposed by the minister of economic affairs, Azouz Lasram who dared tell the head of state that such a decision would be akin to “planting a bomb under his chair”. The decision was announced by Driss Guiga, the interior minister, on new-year's eve, the weekly market day in Douz, in the country's deep south. During the December 2011 revolt which was to topple Ben Ali, the same towns as in 1984 provided the lightning-rods.

Le Monde promptly carried an editorial lambasting the World Bank for allegedly supporting the decision to double the price of bread. I wrote an article saying that infighting among the powerful barons of the Neo-Destour was the cause but my foreign editor, Nicolas Colchester, had his doubts and rang a senior World Bank official who told him to trust his north Africa correspondent's analysis. I had been briefed a few months before by a trusted member of Azouz Lasram's cabinet, Malek Kaddour. A few days later I wrote an article in which I argued that Bourguiba was facing a case of jamais deux sans trois: if he had recourse to the security forces to prop up his regime a third time, they would take it over. Mohammed M'Zali was furious, and even my father told me I understood nothing of Tunisia; but that is exactly what happened less than four years later.

On 7 November 1987 a very sick Habib Bourguiba was ousted in a “medical coup” and became a virtual prisoner in his home town of Monastir, until he died in April 2000. President Ben Ali refused to give the founder of modern Tunisia a proper state funeral, added insult to injury by flying back the body of Bourguiba from the Tunis clinic where he had died to Monastir in a plane called 7 November 1987 - and dared not appear publicly at the funeral for fear of being shouted down.

The departure of Habib Bourguiba was not an exit worthy of a statesman of such stature. The Tunisians have probably forgiven Bourguiba but they are unlikely ever to forgive Ben Ali and his immensely vulgar and grasping wife, Leila. The result was a twenty-year long nightmare during which the “the shinning light of he who worships god”, otherwise known as Zine el Abidine Ben Ali imposed an Orwellian state in Tunisia. The country was hailed as the model economy in the middle east - lauded for its reforms by the World Bank, the European Union and the United States. French presidents were habitual cheerleaders. In December 2003 in Tunis, Jacques Chirac declared "le premier des droits de l'homme, c'est de manger, d'être soigné, de recevoir une education et d'avoir un habitat. De ce point de vue il faut reconnaitre que la Tunisie est en avance sur beaucoup de pays.” It is hardly what might be expected from the head of a country which saw the French revolution. In an evaluation of Tunisia's economic progress posted on its website on 27 October 2010, the World Bank gushed with enthusiasm for the country's economic performance.

The Tunisian margin

As I walked the streets of Tunis two weeks after the fall of Tunisia's second president, the feeling of freedom and the smile on people's faces were a joy to behold. I walked into the Parc du Belvédère knowing that a few weeks before the dictator's fall, he had ordered that it be privatised (in other words stolen) and parcelled out to members of the Trabelsi clan (his second wife's family) to build private villas. The sad fate of the Belvédère was averted just in time. Years before, the president had built a small residence atop the hill of Sidi Bou Said and resorted to dynamiting an old army bunker in the process, which weakened the whole fabric of the hill; likewise he built a vast mosque on the hill of Carthage. Both areas were designated sites du patrimoine by Unesco: Unesco never protested.

When I interviewed the president for the Financial Times in November 1989 he reminded me, with his shiny costume, well oiled hair and sensuous brutal smile, of a pimp. The last ten years of an increasingly sick Bourguiba and the pathetic court which surrounded him in the palace in Carthage up to 1987, followed by more than two decades of ruthless predation by the Ben Ali mafiosi clans, have inflicted deep psychological and economic wounds. They have also seen the poorer western and southern hinterlands whence the revolt of December 2010 sprang abandoned to their own devices.

Tunisia has changed for the better since independence but had Bourguiba not been a despot and agreed to transfer power to one of his many able younger companions, this small country which boasts no great ethnic or religious faultlines could have become a beacon of more democratic government for the Arab world. Instead, ruthless predation became the norm of the ruling family. When one of Leila's nephews stole the yatch of the CEO of Lazards Frères in the port of Bonifacio in 2004, Jacques Chirac said nothing: the French state was humiliated by a tinpot despot. Amin Maalouf, in his book Disordered World, writes of the west's failure to engage with the modernising elites of the Arab world. The following words ring true about France, Europe and America's attitude to the broader middle east:

“This missed opportunity turns out today to have been very costly. Costly to the west, because it finds itself without its natural intermediaries in the countries of the south; costly for the peoples of the east, because they find themselves without their modernising minorities who could have constructed democratic free societies; costly, above all, for those minorities themselves, those frontier people, those hybrid nations, for all those who in the countries of the south, bear the mark of the west and also for those who emigrated to the north and bear the mark of the south, the very people who in better times could have played the role of go-betweens and are now the first victims.”

To witness the liveliness of debates on state TV since January 2011 is encouraging and, so far the country has accommodated the Islamist parties quite well. If one country deserves to succeed as it seeks to liberalise its economic and political management, it is Tunisia: this bastion of women's rights, the country which boasted the first constitution in the Arab world in 1861, the heir to Carthage as one of the great trading centres of the Mediterranean, an open society indeed. But what my travels in Tunisia have taught me is that the country will stumble if social disparities between different regions remain so acute.

These disparities have got much worse since I left the FT in 1995, and so has corruption. Privatisation has been a sham, akin to highway robbery and endorsed by the EU, the US and the World Bank. Finding employment for the hundreds of thousands of graduates whose degrees are not necessarily tailored to the needs of the economy is a daunting challenge, and En Nahda - like its sister parties such as the Front Islamique du Salut in Algeria twenty years - ago offers no convincing economic programme. Quoting the Qu'ran is not up to the task. Avoiding cultural wars is another must and, beyond domestic politics the observer can only hope that the turmoil brought about by the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gadaffi does not sow too many seeds of resentment and destruction across the Maghreb.

After opening its frontiers to one and a half million refugees in mid-2011, Tunisia deserves a better fate. The new rulers of Tunisia seldom mention universal values or ethical concerns; but the west, not least France in the case of Tunisia, is ubiquitous as it uses such concern selectively - constantly putting it, as Jacques Chirac did, to a political end. The result is that the west's moral credibility is nose diving while its detractors have virtually none.


This text is dedicated to the memory of Dr Hafez Ibrahim (1916 - 2010), who, from Madrid where he settled after 1945, played an key role in helping Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria achieve independence

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