Tunisia: A Postscript

November 1999


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It was nearly four weeks later when I returned to Tunis on my way home from Morocco. I was just stopping in the city for two nights over the weekend. I arrived on Friday afternoon and left again on a flight back to London via Paris on Sunday morning. I walked to the youth hostel, but it was full with a party of school children. When I left last time the manager did say he thought that he would be fully booked this weekend. Knowing what the other cheap alternatives were like in the city, I thought it was worth the walk into the medina to check, just in case. As I was at the end of this six-week journey I decided that my last two nights would be spent in the relative comfort of a middle range hotel. So I checked into the Hotel Salammbo on Rue de Grece for 14D per night. I was still recovering from an illness I picked up in Morocco during the last week and needed to relax in comfortable surroundings.

While I had been travelling around Morocco the Presidential and Parliamentary elections took place on 24th October. The results were as expected with President Ben Ali winning with 99.44% of the votes cast on a turnout of approximately 90%. Meanwhile the ruling Constitutional Democratic Party won 148 out of the 182 parliamentary seats. The opposition parties won 34 seats; the 20% guaranteed to them under the new electoral reforms. In interviews after the election the two other presidential candidates admitted that their participation in this democratic process had been largely symbolic. Mohamed Beljah Amor of the Popular Unity Party was quoted saying that he, 'wanted to break the mould of single candidate elections, but regretted the absence of democratic debate.' Abderrahmen Tlili of the Unionist Democratic Union said that he had wanted to, 'contribute to the maturity of the democratic process' and that he was not a candidate 'against Ben Ali, but with him.' It appears that the incumbent president had managed to reinvent his winning formula.

On the Saturday I was left in a predicament. England was due to play Scotland in the first leg of the Euro 2000 qualifying clash at Wembley and I was sitting in a hotel in Africa. Technology has not caught on much in Tunisia not even in Tunis. I could not find a satellite TV in any of the cafes, bars or hotels in the city centre. I even wandered down to the British Council Library and the Embassy, but they couldn't (or wouldn't) help me. It wasn't a complete disaster though, as I still had my short-wave radio and at four I tuned into the BBC World Service to listen to the live commentary while sitting on the balcony of my hotel room.

Tunisia had felt like a European Mediterranean country rather than a North African Arab country. I think the colonial layout of many of the 'new' cities add to this impression. I found it an easy country to travel around. The transport generally worked, taxis and buses seemed well maintained; the only delay I experienced was the train ride from El-Jem. Travelling by road you didn't feel that your life was in the hands of Allah, as drivers obeyed the road rules and even speed limits. You could debate the pros and cons of the modern mass tourism industry for hours, but it was one thing it was difficult to avoid while travelling, except in the far west of the country. I was disappointed that many of the more interesting and cultural places in the country had sold out to the tourism industry and were little more than theme parks. For me the highlights of the trip were Bulla Regia, with its unique Roman architecture, the Bardo museum in Tunis, wandering around the medinas of Sfax and Tunis and staying at the youth hostel in Hount Souq, which was the best accommodation I found in the country.

On Sunday morning I made an early start returning back to the airport as the sun rose for another full days travelling back to London and home. I was at last on the final leg of this journey.