Tunisia’s Democratic Transition. Can it be a lesson to House Republicans?

Too often the words used in the media to describe a political situation are loaded with their own bias; in their interpretation of political events, particularly in how the stories have captured the different pace of events in the Middle East and North Africa since the start of the so called “Arab Spring” in January 2011.

As an American who has been living and traveling within this region for years and meets with Tunisians of all political and socio-economic stripes, I have always been troubled by reports filed after a particularly negative event in this country; a provocative demonstration staged by religious extremists, the assassinations of two leftist political leaders in February and July 2013, and the September 2012 attacks on the US Consul in Benghazi, Libya that resulted in the loss of four American lives, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens, followed three days later with an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis and the neighboring American Cooperative School.

As troubling as these incidents are, anyone who lives in Tunisia and spends time here can tell you that three streets away from where these events took place, life is normal; transportation runs, shops and cafes are open, schools operate and families meet for family gatherings to celebrate lifecycle events. However, this is not what the media captures, rather too often the parachuting in of journalists to cover the event itself, speak to the same circle of politicos in the capital and then make judgments about the entire Revolutionary transition in Tunisia is simply not an objective approach to capturing events on the ground.

During these past days, Tunisian political leaders from across the spectrum have been sitting and negotiating the next stage of the democratization process. Among the discussants include the head of the Islamic party Ennahda, the current holder of plurality in the Constituent Assembly with approximately 42% of the vote, a series of other parties representing either leftist union orientated and also centrist secularists. The purpose of these meetings which are taking place in a spirit not of brotherly love or without some rancor, but in the spirit of trying to find a political process that is healthiest for Tunisia as a country. In that spirit, all members have been voicing their opinions, including some on an argumentative level, but together, find themselves standing and singing Tunisia’s national anthem in an honest show of what they all hold in their hearts…a sense of Tunisian pride.

True, the roadmap to democratization is not easy. When one looks at all the other countries that followed Tunisia’s January 2011 Revolution and were inspired to launch their own revolutions, not one country has been able to retain a path that is showing optimistic signs of peace and democratic freedom. The one exception is the country where it all began, but is seldom covered properly by the media who fly in and then fly out!

The subsequent weeks will still hold out the hope that a peaceful transition, a political process that brings all the actors together will lead to this country’s second free and transparent elections since January 2011. Is this “turmoil”, a word so often used, or, simply the difficult process of democratization in a nascent democracy?

Tunisia deserves special attention. It can still serve as a potential model for new democracies…assuredly, not a process that will be without many ups and downs to come. Imagine how Tunisians might view the U.S. Congress where a small, but extremist elected group of officials chose to bring an economic shutdown to the US government this week, rather than accept democratically negotiated and elected political platforms.

Regardless of what Tunisia’s newest round of political negotiations brings, Tunisians can be proud that they are sitting together and talking, as this is what lies at the heart of democracy. Let’s give Tunisia our support in continuing this process!

Jerry Sorkin is a longtime political observer, based in Tunis, Tunisia. He is Founder and President of TunisUSA, as well as a tourism consultant to organizations including The World Bank, The European Community and George Washington University program in Tourism Studies.

Mr. Sorkin was recently the featured speaker at the Commonwealth Club of CA on September 11, 2013

PAST EVENT:

The Tunisian Model of Revolution and the Challenges of Democracy:

http://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/2013-09-11/tunisian-model-revolution-and-challenges-democracy

When is safe…safe enough?

WARNINGS” in the travel industry can have a dramatic impact on bringing down a country’s travel image. As NBC’s longtime Travel Editor, Peter Greenberg notes,  FEAR is a 4 – Letter Word!

Americans in particular, would be shocked to read how many countries that the U.S. State Department has posted “WARNINGS”! (NOTE: In State Department speak, a “WARNING” is more severe than an “ALERT”!)

Conde Nast Traveler’s Wendy Perrin notes, she is receiving many queries from readers asking about whether to travel in Muslim countries, in the event that there is an American strike on Syria.  As she notes…”These are places where, yes, pockets of anti-American/anti-Western sentiment do exist and where there could possibly be some sort of incident over the next few months. Of course, the same is true of certain neighborhoods in London and Paris. And New York City too, for that matter.” How-to-stay-safe-abroad in uncertain times?

Following a recent lecture I gave in the US two weeks ago about the democratization efforts in Tunisia and how Tunisia’s path has been very different from that of countries like Libya, Syria and even Egypt. I noted that despite Tunisia’s political quagmires within their elected Constitutional Assembly and two political assassinations this past year, attacks on foreigners are extremely rare, cafes are full and outdoor concerts have been taking place throughout the summer in Tunisia. A prospective traveler asked would we cancel tour programs to Tunisia if the US attacked Syria?  One might ask, should the constant reports of gangland killings and decapitations in some northern Mexican border towns keep foreigners from visiting the country to the north…the United States???

The U.S. stands alone in maintaining a “WARNING” on Tunisia, so much so that Embassy personnel are under great restrictions as to their own travel freedom within the country. The many American travelers we see in Tunisia, who travel throughout the country, repeatedly tell us that they felt safe throughout their travels and always greeted warmly. Of course, when Embassy personnel are in a locked down mode and maintain a “WARNING” for over a year, it is hard for them to gather a realistic pulse for the feeling of security for the average traveler.  Fortunately for Tunisia, the US “WARNING” stands in contrast to other countries who do maintain travel advisories, but do not discourage their citizens from traveling, as evidenced in these recent reports in travel industry publications. Tunisia Starts to Win Over Tourists and Is Tunisia on the way to attract tourists again?

I have received inquiries from numerous friends within the Arab and Muslim world asking about safety concerns in the US, citing the senseless rampage in downtown Washington, DC this past week that resulted in 12 people being killed, or the multiple attacks with assault weapons that have taken place in American schools, shopping centers and movie theaters in the US over the last year. This past summer, a Tunisian teenager expressed fear about his family’s upcoming trip to the United States, citing the countless news broadcasts from the U.S. involving gun violence.  My response to him was that these are very isolated incidents and the media reports on what creates news…not the normalcy on everyday life!  This advise made much sense to the Tunisian teen, who has no hesitation going out to cafes and visiting his friends late into the night. Fortunately, he joined his family in the US for his first trip ever and had a wonderful time.

Echoing the advise of some of the travel specialists noted above, the best way to approach travel is to make yourself aware of your surroundings, avoid wearing jewelry or ostentatious clothing that may bring unwanted attention and maintain ongoing communication with people who are literally, on the ground in the country your are planning to visit. Then pack your bags and enjoy your travels!

Advise for Tunisia’s Tourism Ministry and Tourism Office…

Advise for Tunisia’s Tourism Ministry and Tourism Office…

Tunisia Tourists’ First Impressions?

Image source: www.nawaat.org

While authorities in the tourism ministry and the ONTT may temporary revel in the fact that Sousse and Hammamet hotels are full, the fall and winter seasons will be upon us soon.
Both before and since the Revolution, Tunisia’s tourism authorities have been talking about “cultural” and “alternative” tourism. For the most part, their lack of action showed these were only empty words. In fact, at a recent World Bank meeting about cultural tourism and a Bizerte conference on new business opportunities, tourism authorities showed up late, read their prepared speeches and left. These events would have been perfect opportunities for them to hear from people who have been investing time and money in alternative tourism projects, away from “sun & sea”… people who are actually putting their “money where their mouth is”.

Earlier this month, Toronto’s Globe & Mail had a cover page story in their travel section about travel to the island of Jerba. That could have been great news for Tunisia’s tourism industry! Unfortunately, the reporter’s first impressions were the same that most tourists see today…”garbage”!

“Alas, my first impressions were not positive…. the roads and fields of olive and date trees were covered in garbage, mostly blue plastic bags.”
Eric Reguly, The Globe & Mail. July 6, 2013

Instead of attending every tourism fair for which that they can get per diem stipends, or give speeches and then ignore the comments and initiatives of people truly trying to be creative in developing new tourism programs for Tunisia, government authorities should start a campaign to clean up Tunisia’s tourism sites. Sorry to say, that “qabla al thawra” (before the Revolution), visitors would often comment on how clean Tunisia was. “Ba’ada al thawra” (after the Revolution), first impressions are made by the great heaps of trash and extensive graffiti.

If people in positions of authority in Tunisia truly want to help Tunisia’s tourism return to Tunisia at levels that go beyond the summer season, the cost of implementing a “CLEAN UP” campaign would be relatively inexpensive . Its implementation should not be that difficult. But I worry even about suggesting this…

At a December 2012 World Bank conference, the-then Minister of Tourism proudly announced that the Ministry “has been studying” improvements in the promotion of the sector and was in the process of implementing parts of a 2016 strategy that would include Tunisia having a tourism website. That was hardly reassuring!

In a country whose Revolution was mobilized by tech-savvy 20-something young people impatient with the former regime’s lack of common sense, the Ministry of Tourism and the ONTT should probably spend less time going to trade fairs and more time trying to listen to professionals who have already been investing time and money in efforts aimed at improving Tunisia’s tourism image. That’s a fact that no one in Tunisia should need to spend too much time studying.

Jerry Sorkin
Founder & President
www.TunisUSA.com

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

 

How to Maximize Your Frequent Flyer Miles?

If you are like lot of travelers, you have frequent flyer miles you have been trying to use and never seem to get the dates you want, or, never get the destinations you want.

I had the opportunity to speak with Gary Leff, the Guru of frequent flyer miles and one who has found the inner secrets of maximizing your miles. Gary not only can help you, but he also generously shares his methods on his blog, www.viewfromthewing.com  and also on his website, http://bookyouraward.com/

I had the pleasure of listening to Gary’s talk at Conde Nast Traveler magazine’s January 2013 Summit for the magazine’s “Top Travel Specialists”.

Gary Leff speaking at the Conde Nast Traveler "Top Specialists" Summit.

Gary was good enough to take some time to speak to us and we are happy to share this brief video with you!  Click below to hear Gary…

We know Gary has been able to help many people. Hopefully, he can turn your miles into more than you might imagine!

Happy Travels!

Jerry Sorkin, Founder of TunisUSA and Iconic Journeys Worldwide

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.

Musical Dialogues

While the political problems in the Middle East may at times seem like they are intractable and dialogue or not to dialogue at the highest governmental levels become political bargaining chips in their own right, there are people who find common ground to overcome their differences. Bringing together musicians who can recognize the talents of one another and the respect for one another’s musicianship has often brought together people who would otherwise, unlikely cross paths. But they find their musical talents become a bridge that greatly outweighs political adversity.

Daniel Barenboim’s East-West Divan Orchestra has been bringing together young Arab and Israeli musicians who perform regularly around the world and have formed close friendships among one another, as well as further success as musicians.
http://www.west-eastern-divan.org/calendar/?items[year]=2013&cHash=fe36880eba9c0f3ab8d9af205214f262

Intercultural Journeys, a Philadelphia based arts group was also founded around the premise of bringing together world-class musicians to not only perform together, but in creating performances that require to collaboration in the music itself, by incorporating instruments that are not often used together, or in blending musical techniques, rhythms or melodies that blend influences of the backgrounds of the diverse musicians.
http://www.interculturaljourneys.org/

Travel can do the same. Think of how your travel experiences can help you find the opportunity to reach new understandings. It can be one of the greatest rewards in travel and greatly transcends the importance of travel in changing hearts and minds.