Travel “WARNING”
How realistic are State Department Travel “Warnings”?

Travel Warning
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Tunisia

How realistic are State Department Travel Warnings? Do they create fear?  Are they exaggerated? Are they also a means to avoid possible litigation in the event of a problem?

Let’s look at the case of Tunisia…

On September 11th, 2012, the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya was attacked and there was the tragic loss of life of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other State Department employees. On September 14th, 2012, the U.S. Embassy in Tunis and the American Cooperative School across the street were attacked, doing extensive damage to both facilities. The Tunis attack was by demonstrators who claimed they were protesting the same film that was said to have provoked the demonstrations elsewhere in the Muslim world.
Certainly, there is no justification for the actions that took place in Benghazi and in Tunis and the hope is that those responsible are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and that authorities in both Libya and Tunisia vow never to allow the security lapses that allowed for these attacks to take place.
Following these attacks, the US Embassy in both countries sent home all non-essential American employees (see the Warning for Tunisia on this link)
and issued a “Warning” on September 15th stating:
The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all travel to Tunisia at this time. On September 14, 2012 the Department of State ordered the departure of all non-emergency U.S. government personnel from Tunisia, following the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. The airport in Tunis is open and U.S. citizens are encouraged to depart by commercial air.”

While Americans represent a very small number of the travelers who come to Tunisia, such “WARNING”s resulted in nearly every university and affinity organization with plans on coming to Tunisia to cancel their plans, as well as thousands of other Americans, as well as American cruise ships who had port days scheduled in Tunis. The “WARNING” was subsequently moderated in October 2012 and again in March 2013, yet the “WARNING” (as opposed to an “ALERT”…which represents a lower level of security concern) still remains.
The United States has been very supportive in Tunisia’s drive for democratization since their January 2011 Revolution, but extending such a WARNING has been very costly in terms of Americans coming to Tunisia; spending money here on holidays, learning about Tunisia and more. No other country has a similar warning.
It is long overdue that such a warning be lifted and/or, downgraded to an “alert”. As a tour operator with operations in Tunisia and the only American company that has remained in Tunisia since the Revolution, we have always placed great importance on our clients’ security and are very well positioned to monitor security throughout the country.  We have American clients traveling around Tunisia at this moment and have been having Americans traveling…all of whom have been unanimous in their expressions of feeling secure. Embassies do not provide security as travelers go around a country, rather, this is a role ground operators play…and WE exercise this role with the utmost concern. All of which begs the question…are State Department “Warning”s exaggerated?
We want to share with you some of the activities that have been taking place in Tunisia during these last seven days…all of them in an atmosphere of security and without incident and all representing the real “normalcy” of life in Tunisia.

See if this looks like a dangerous country to you?  These photos are of activities within the last week…

Photos credited to “Les Foules du Megara”
Photos credited to “Les Foules du Megara”

Photos credited to "Les Foules du Megara"

Members of Tunisia’s Jewish community celebrating the holiday of Passover/Pesach

Members of Tunisia’s Jewish community celebrating the holiday of Passover/Pesach

COOKS, where Tunisians enjoy dinners, coffee and socializing, Facebook.com/cooksfood

COOKS, where Tunisians enjoy dinners, coffee and socializing, Facebook.com/cooksfood

 

"Le Plug" in La Marsa

World Social Forum in Tunisia, where more than 7000 people from several nationalities are here to speak about solutions for a better world

At TunisUSA, we always maintain vigilance when it comes to security, maintaining
a close watch on all activities in the countries where we operate. We wish to reassure our
clients that our programs are continuing in Tunisia, as you read this blog post and
we are here on the ground to answer any questions or concerns that you may have!

Helping Tunisia’s tourism rebound…an industry that employs over 500,000 people and represents over 7% of the country’s GNP, is one of the most helpful steps the United States can take at this time in Tunisia’s road to democratization.

Let’s remove the “WARNING” and stop frightening people who might otherwise wish to come to Tunisia!

 

Jerry Sorkin
Founder, TunisUSA
writing from Tunisia!

http://www.cntraveler.com/travel-tips/travel-specialists/jerry-sorkin

 

Words and Images Can Be Very Powerful!!!

Jerry Sorkin, speaking at The Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvania. February 2013

 

The images and words the media chooses to use to describe a situation can create fear, distort and take a situation completely out of context. In today’s world of blogs, Facebook, experienced journalism and the many services that encourage “I-Reports”, there is no way to control how images posted from around the world at the push of a button convey reality amidst this myriad of stimuli.

As one who lives much of the year in Tunisia, where the so-called “Arab Spring” Revolution began, and also travels widely in the Middle East and North Africa, I am constantly amazed at the way Tunisia is described in the U.S. media. It is not featured frequently, but when it is, there is seldom the effort to explain the differences of what is taking place in Tunisia’s “Revolution” compared to the “revolutions” in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. Such distinctions are particularly lacking when it comes to daily life in Tunisia and how it is described.

When a demonstration with thousands of attendees takes place against the government on the main street in Tunis, two blocks away, Tunisians can be sitting in cafes, shopping in Zara or simply continuing their daily activities. Think about it?  If you are going to hold a demonstration to protest against some government policy (which Tunisia’s newfound freedoms since January 2011 have allowed!), would you hold your demonstration on some quiet suburban street, or on the main street of the Prime Minister or Ministry of Interior where protests will be heard and media will gather?

“Safety” and “security” are issues that determine whether foreign investment will come to a country. Tourism will decline if perceptions are that “safety” and “security” or lacking! Foreign investment likes to see tourism, as it suggests a level of security that foreign investment welcomes. So, as many countries in the Middle East and North Africa continue to suffer from dramatic declines in tourism and Americans continue to read September and October 2012 “Warnings” from the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, it is important that information still be communicated to people to give them a more realistic sense of what is “safe” and what is “secure”.

We decided to let you see images that have been used in recent media to describe “revolution”. You decide if “revolution” and the fear factor that words and images can bring, are commensurate with all the photos we are posting, herein. Perhaps even more important, is the report “from an American family on the front lines” of Tunisia a barometer of reality!

One has to decide if using words such as “revolution” vary from place to place and if images and other powerful words can create their own distortion?

An American Family in Tunisia…

Jerry Sorkin’s involvement with Tunisia dates back three decades. He lives much of the year in Tunis, Tunisia. Since July 2010, he has served as President of the American Tunisian Association (www.americantunisianassociation.com) . The views expressed are his own.

The Resignation of Tunisia’s Prime Minister Jebali and what it says about democracy in Tunisia…

Photo Source: http://www.metrofrance.com

Two nights ago Tunisians heard their Prime Minister, Hammadi Jebali resign. The following morning, I saw a major English language television channel refer to the resignation as “again” throwing Tunisia into “turmoil”. The visuals showed film footage of a demonstration with tear gas…from a previous time!

Unfortunately, this is yet one more example of the media not understanding the process of democratic transition in Tunisia. Using past film footage in itself, was visually misleading, as are loaded words such as “turmoil” to describe Tunisia’s political happenings.

Tunisians have for the most part seen a rather peaceful political process take place. The February 6th killing of Chokri Belaid, a lawyer and political activist representing secular views from Tunisia’s political left was a shock for all Tunisians! The relatively peaceful transition since the January 2011 Revolution was now marked by an assassination and the use of a gun, two shocking symbols in Tunisia. Tunisia has never seen the violence that has marked Syria, Libya, Lebanon, or even the level of protests that have been seen in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The killing of Belaid, implicitly, pointed a finger at Ennahda, the Islamic political party that holds a plurality of roughly 41% in Tunisia’s freely elected Constituent Assembly. Why is the finger being pointed at Ennahda?  There was no one other than the Islamic political movement that would have wanted Belaid silenced, as it was against Ennahda that Belaid voiced his opposition. The assumed is that it was Ennahda or their sympathizers who would want him out of the picture.

Hammadi Jebali was appointed Prime Minister by Ennadha, as their plurality based on the democratic and transparent elections of October 23, 2011 permitted them to choose the Prime Minister position. Jabali has been a long time Ennahda member and served more than a decade and half in prison during the dictatorial years of Ben Ali. Today, many in Tunisia have seen Jebali as a puppet to Rachid Ghannouchi, one of the founders and the undisputable leader of Ennahda.

Since Belaid’s death, Jebali felt the stink of the taint that has been cast over Ennahda. Perhaps to deflect himself from this stink, a week ago he called for a government of technocrats, rather than the present political leaders who by all Tunisians’ accounts, have accomplished nothing. The idea of bringing back technocrats met with favor from many Tunisians, except Ennahda’s Ghannouchi and his followers, who said it was unacceptable that technocrats should replace people who were in their positions due to the political will of voters. Jebali said he would work behind the scenes to try and make it a policy change, but if he could not accomplish this, he would resign.

Jebali’s resignation did just that! No one, but Jebali, knows what was really behind his decision to resign. His actions are most likely motivated by one of several possibilities:

1) He is acting to uphold his word, acting as a result of Ennahda’s decision not to consider technocrats.

2) He wants to not carry the taint which now follows the killing of Belaid and thus, as he said in his closing resignation speech…he wants to be the Prime Minister of all Tunisia, not of Ennahda.

3) The theory favored by conspiracy theorists that the entire process since the killing of Belaid, including Jebali’s resignation, is that of a charade being orchestrated by Ennahda.

Most people can see this as an honorable move on his part, even among those who had little high regard for Jebali. The small Constitution now called for President Moncef Marzouki to call on Ennahda to appoint a Prime Minister, as they are the party holding the plurality and thus, entitled to carry the PM post. Their chosen appointee to the Prime Minister post is Ali Laareyedh, a longtime Ennahdha activist and until this appointment, the Minister of Interior. Political watchers would likely say that Laareydeh was the less controversial candidate from Ennahda’s short list, which also included Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri and Health Minister Abdellatif Mekki. Ennadha also knows that polls show they are no longer the political front runner, but rather, in a dead heat with Nida Tounes, the umbrella organization founded by Bourguiba era, Beji Caid Essebsi in an attempt to form a political block of centrist democrats.

 

All of this political wrangling is unfairly cast by the media as “turmoil”. Our United States Congress plays with brinksmanship regarding the “fiscal cliff”, name calling among politicians, debating whether all Americans should have access to healthcare and most recently, debates on whether automatic weapons are an entitled right based on our Second Amendment right to bear arms. All of this which is viewed by the political eyes of the rest of the world as politically puzzling. Could this also be called “political turmoil”?

What will evolve in Tunisia’s political process in the days and weeks ahead is any pundit’s guess. However, for a young democracy that went from decades under dictatorships, “turmoil” and “violence” are not adjectives that aptly describe Tunisia’s political process. Rather, democratic political transition, which includes ups and downs, is the more appropriate description of what is taking place.

Hopefully, the United States and other democratic countries can continue providing their support to Tunisia to help them through this process of their very new democracy. The West must stop looking at all of the Middle East and North Africa with the same brush and let Tunisia’s democratic actions let it stand above its neighbors in its path to democracy.

Photo courtesy of Middle East Institute, Washington, DC

 

Jerry Sorkin’s involvement with Tunisia dates back three decades. He lives much of the year in Tunis, Tunisia. Since July 2010, he has served as President of the American Tunisian Association (www.americantunisianassociation.com) . The views expressed are his own.

Why do we travel?

If you are reading this blog, then you are reading it because you have already proven to be a traveler…

Some of us have to travel for work, some travel for family needs, but aside from those reasons, tell us WHY do YOU travel?

Where are 3 destinations you have particularly enjoyed?

What 3 destinations (countries, cities, regions, places, etc.) are on your travel list?

Please share your thoughts with us on the comments section of the Blog,

Thank you !

Inspiration through Travel

The experience of travel can bring all types of rewards. Perhaps one of the most beneficial rewards is that of being inspired to do something good!

On a post-Revolution study tour to Tunisia in the spring of 2011, Mary Tiryak of the Philadelphia area was impressed by many things and many people during this first trip of hers to Tunisia. The growth of civil society in Tunisia has been explosive since the January 2011 Revolution and ouster of former president Ben Ali.

A former professor of English at Temple University in Philadelphia, Mary was photographing throughout the country. One element of her photographs that came through over and over again were the smiles and the warmth of the people of Tunisia. These many faces are captured in what will now become a month long photo exhibit in the Philadelphia area throughout the month of June…”The Face of Tunisia”

Mary is presently back in Tunisia, having been so taken by her experience in 2011, preparing additional photos for the exhibition. An announcement of the exhibit is attached. Mary will be donating the proceeds from the exhibit to a Tunisian NGO (non-governmental organization) whose on-the-ground work was also inspiring to her. Proceeds of all photos sold will be donated to the Tunisian Association for Management and Sociabilitywww.taamstn.org

Thank you Mary, for sharing your inspiring visit to Tunisia with so many people!

Overcoming Diplomatic Hurdles Requires Dialogue!

The other day here in Tunis, where I live much of the year, I attended an event that brought out many families from the Tunis international community of business and diplomatic expats.

Having traveled quite a bit in Iran and knowing many Iranians, I spotted someone who clearly looked Iranian and took advantage of the festive atmosphere to ask the question of a total stranger…”are you from Iran?”  My hunch was correct and he responded in perfect English, expressing interest in my familiarity with Iran. When I told him that I not only have studied Persian culture for years, but have traveled and led tours to Iran, there was even greater surprise.

My house in Tunis happens to be a short walk from where the event was taking place, so I walked home and shortly thereafter, returned with some of the TunisUSA brochures about our tours to Iran and brought them to him. The brochures include numerous photos, as well as quotes from Americans on how warm and welcoming they found Iran and its people. He was clearly pleased!

He noted that he has a brother living in the United States and after chatting a bit more about how cultural travel and engagement brings out the reality of the fact that Americans are quite beloved in Iran, he added that it is true, Iranians love Americans. It is unfortunately, only the people who represent our two governments where there is a lack of communication and trust…he added!

This conversation may have been simply one more of the frequent interactions I have with people from Iran, though in this case, as it turns out, I was speaking with an Iranian diplomat!!!

Travel is one of the best forms of diplomacy. The Stanford University Alumni Association has a trip to Iran this month, with over twenty participants and a wait list! Better understanding and improved relations only come from dialogue! Both sides of political debates must continue to work at dialogues, as there are often more possibilities than we know when we make the effort to dig a bit deeper and know one another better!

Are you a GLOBAL CITIZEN ?

I had the pleasure of attending the Global Citizen Forum this past weekend in the United Kingdom, attended by approximately forty delegates from various countries. Participants were from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Uganda, Saudia Arabia, Tunisia, Palestine, Australia, Pakistan, Botswana, the UK, the United States, Argentina, Mexico and more. It was two and half days of dialogue and discussions on being a Global Citizen. While differences were expressed among the delegates on the definition of “Global Citizens”, the underlying common denominator among all delegates was the desire and belief of each of us that we have a responsibility to look beyond our own needs and find a way to utilize our individual talents to make the world a more connected and peaceful world.

Among the delegates and also one of the keynote speakers was former American Ambassador John K. Menzies, who served as US Ambassador to Bosnia from 1994-1996, a deathly and gruesome period in world history. Ambassador Menzies also participated in the Dayton Peace Talks and oversaw U.S. post-war assistance in Bosnia. Truly a task for the ultimate diplomat…which he is!

In his keynote address to our group, he reminded us of the old adage that one does not make peace with friends, but with one’s enemies.

I had the opportunity to have some discussions with Ambassador Menzies during the days of the forum. As one who has always believed that cultural engagement was an integral tool in overcoming stereotypes and even more so, in overcoming adversity among perceived enemies, I wanted to know what he would like to see taking place, vis-à-vis, the thundering talk circulating about a possible attack on Iran, and US – Iranian relations. His answer did not surprise me!  He said he felt we (the U.S.) should be continually trying to dialogue and communicate on every level, from constant diplomatic exchanges, both openly and back channel, as well as encouraging cultural exchanges on every level.

Certainly, in organizing both adult and student groups through our programs in Tunisia, Iran, the Middle East and elsewhere, one can see the positive results that can come from these exchanges. Ambassador Menzies noted that while both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton initiated such attempts early in their Administration, he was disappointed that they had allowed the lack of enthusiastic response from Iran at the time,to discourage them from continuing active efforts.

I very much share these viewpoints and have yet to find any negative results result from cultural exchanges and dialogue. The level of progress is not always predictable, but who would have ever thought that ping-pong could bring years of Chinese isolation to renew relations with the United States and much of the world?

Citizen diplomacy takes many forms and cultural travel and educational exchanges are certainly an important path. We will continue our efforts in the most creative forums.

We welcome your input!!!

 

Travel for free with TunisUSA

Travel for free… with TunisUSA !

Yes…starting March 6th with Facebook/tunisusa

You can follow Villanova University’s program in Tunisia…virtually!

Follow us on Twitter: @Tunis_USA #TunisUSA

Villanova University from Villanova, Pennsylvania (a suburb of Philadelphia) is currently in Tunisia as part of a program through their Center for Arab and Islamic Studies. The program was designed and coordinated by Villanova Professor Marwan Kreidie and Lowell Gustafson,  Professor of Political Science and Associate Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences in conjunction with TunisUSA’s academic programming specialist.

This March 5th lecture was by Ahmed Hamza, of Kairouan, a 24 year old entrepreneur and Social Media specialist who played an active role in the early days of the Tunisian Revolution, both as one who was actively using the Social Media tools of tweeting and blogging, as well as being one of the founders of an NGO (non-governmental organization) that was helping to provide housing, medical needs and assistance to the thousands of refugees who came to Libya in February 2011, while Tunisia was still dealing with their own domestic changes resulting from the Revolution.

As part of this 3 credit course, students are meeting with people who have been involved with Tunisia’s Revolution and the democratization process taking place. Leading the program is Hatem Bourial, one of Tunisia’s noted writers and a specialist in culture, history, and the political scene.

More pictures are available on our Facebook page !

Waiting for your comments..

“Winning the Arab Spring”

The term the media developed as, “The Arab Spring” started with the sudden and unexpected flight of Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to Saudia Arabia. The media was all over Tunisia, a country that previously, rarely made the news. But following the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi and the flight of Ben Ali, Tunisia was suddenly front page news. Within ten days of Ben Ali’s departure, the media left nearly en masse for Egypt where mass government protests started on January 25th culminating with Mubarak’s stepping down from office on February 11th.

The “Arab Spring” continued to subsequent developments in other Arab countries where pro-democracy movements inspired by events in Tunisia, began their protests against their respective governments’ autocratic ways; Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, as well as far more modest protests in Saudia Arabia, Morocco and Algeria. All of these political uprising shared one thing in common, having been inspired by Tunisia, the country perhaps least known to Americans among these so-called, “Arab Spring” countries.

Of all of these countries, the only one to have achieved a democratic system resulting from their protests is Tunisia. Egypt has the trappings of change, but the reality is that the army is in control, with much of its leadership tied to the former Mubarak regime. The recent arrests of the Western NGO’s who have been in Egypt to help with the democratization and now being prevented from assisting in the transition to democracy, certainly does not bode well for Egypt’s democratization. The stories are well known of Libya and Syria, as the media covers the ongoing stories where daily battles have included shelling, bombing and thousands of deaths. Egypt remains a continued media story as the protests continue in Tahrir Square and more and more arrests seem to take place preventing a democratic process from really taking hold.

In the interim, there seems to not be a day that goes by where I run in to someone or speak on the phone with someone who knows my involvement with Tunisia. This usually leads to comments suggesting that in their mind, Tunisia is probably going through the same chaos as all the other countries of the “Arab Spring”.

That’s unfortunate, as Tunisia is the success story!  Not everything is perfect, to be sure…  However, it is quite amazing to think that after decades of autocratic rule, where prior elections were a charade, little Tunisia went from January 2011’s surprise changes to a ten month transition that included: developing electoral systems, citizens learning about political campaigns and forming political parties, all leading to the October 23rd elections that had Tunisians throughout the country waiting upwards of two to three hours to vote in that country’s first fair, transparent and peaceful elections. In the months since, the process of forming the Constituent Assembly charged with writing a constitution has been taking place. Indeed, discussion and debates have been vigorous, but they take place in an atmosphere of openness that is as open as that of watching C-Span covering the debates in the American Congress. Certainly, not everyone was pleased with the voting outcome, but all Tunisians take pride in the fact that much was accomplished in such a short time and all will admit that the elections were transparent and honest.

The Tunisian economy remains in a precarious state, battered not only by the Revolution, but also due to prior economic activities that were often illegally organized by the former regime and “The Family” around it. Labor strikes continue and their impact on preventing economic growth is clear. But, in a true democracy, strikes and labor unrest are part of the process. One only needs to look at Italy, France and even the US to see where the inspiration for Tunisia’s workers to demonstrate and strike originated. Italy and France are certainly the masters in the art of strikes!

While the US Congress has many members who see no place in the United States for a government administered health plan that ensures medical care to every citizen in the wealthiest country of the industrialized world…Tunisia continues to offer health care to all of its citizens, despite one’s ability to pay.

And as Americans struggle to afford to send their children to colleges and universities due to the highest educational costs in the world, one of Tunisia’s biggest problems, that of unemployment, is a result of that country’s policies of having built too many schools in their attempt to provide free education through university, as a right, for all Tunisians. How ironic?

While Tunisia’s problems since the Revolution began are not behind it, and there are many who are looking forward to the next elections in the hope of seeing different political parties in office, the country continues to move forward peacefully, with the democratic process that Tunisians embarked on, continuing. In many ways, rather than lumping Tunisia in with “The Arab Spring”, a better analogy might be the 1989-1990 fall of the former Soviet Bloc autocratic regimes, who also had a large percentage of well educated youth. In a matter of years, success stories developed about economically successful democracies in what is now, the “free” Eastern Europe.

While Tunisia has fallen to the back pages of the media, it should be held up as a symbol of hope to other emerging democracies and encouragement should be given to all those countries coming forward to help Tunisia in its continued democratic transition…the United States among them.

Hopefully, the West will learn from Tunisia and its people, that the Arab world is not a monolithic bloc and once the West comes to know Tunisia and its  people, it will no longer be a surprise as to why Tunisia not only started the democracy movement of January 2011, but leads in the race for success!