“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!

“Beware when visiting the United States… as potentially dangerous protests can erupt!”

Can you envision what would happen to the United State’s travel industry if the many foreign embassies posted such a warning on their websites?  Consider this statement…

Tent camps have been built in the center of cities by angry demonstrators who refuse to respond to police. Use extreme caution when walking in central shopping and business districts in the United States. Demonstrations can potentially erupt into uncontrolled civil disobedience!”

Or this one…

Protestors and demonstrators of the Occupy Wall Street campaign are using parks and business districts in US cities openly as their toilets, refusing to abstain from this action. Beware of the possibility of disease spreading!”

Or even more threatening…

Despite attempts by police with water hoses and horses to stop protestors, loud and emotional demonstrators in dirty clothes are blocking intersections and sidewalks preventing citizens from passing by. Remain vigilant when visiting major United States cities!

The tourism industry within the United States would be facing a major public relations problem and decline in revenues if these were the type of “alerts” that foreign embassies posted about the US on their websites. In fact, the descriptions above are representative of the situations that many of us witnessed in the US during the past months of the Occupy Wall Street protests!

Now, consider the fear that reaches American travelers when they read some of the “alerts”  or “caution” reports on US Embassy webites:

1)      “On both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, currents are swift and dangerous, and there are few lifeguards or signs warning of dangerous beaches. A number of U.S. citizens drown every year… due to riptides or sudden drop-offs while in shallow water…

2)      “Although U.S. citizens have not been specifically targeted in terrorist attack…within the past few years, travelers should remain vigilant.

3)      “…open borders allow for the possibility of terrorist groups entering and exiting the country with anonymity. You are reminded to remain vigilant with regard to your personal security and to exercise caution.

4)      “…The subsequent transition of power has been generally peaceful. However, recent night-time political demonstrations and social unrest have resulted in the police forcibly dispersing crowds. You should exercise caution, and avoid demonstrations and spontaneous gatherings.

5)      “ General elections, which were peaceful and transparent, took place on October 23, 2011 and a new government assumed office on December 23. However, political protests, work stoppages, roadblocks and other public disturbances still occur. Demonstrations have degenerated on several occasions into violent clashes between police and protesters, resulting in deaths, injuries, and extensive property damage. While demonstrations have not been directed toward foreigners, U.S. citizens are urged to remain alert to local security developments and to be vigilant regarding their personal security.


All of the above are currently on US Department of State webites. American travelers frequently consult US Embassy websites and see “alerts”, “warnings” and “caution” reports. While the Department of State has an obligation to warn Americans of potential hazards when traveling, as travelers, we must also distinguish the level of constant threat that comes within a country when we see such words. The listings above, all of which are current are for the following countries: # 1 above is for Costa Rica, #2 is France, # 3 is Denmark, # 4 is The Maldives and # 5 is Tunisia. Without asking questions from other country specialists and doing further research, one might imagine Americans choosing not to travel to any of the above locations.

Having spent much of the past thirteen months in Tunisia since that country’s January 2011 Revolution began, the reports of foreigners or foreign institutions being attacked range from few to none!  Yet the above “alert” is the most recent posting on the US Embassy’s website for Tunisia, dated January 12th, 2012.

We have demonstrations and strikes in the US…which always carry the potential of erupting given the emotions of the disgruntled strikers. Our cities have crime statistics which report levels of gun violence that surpass nearly any industrialized country in the world. Yet, we hope foreign travelers use the same discretion and understanding that we, as Americans use, when we choose to go out at night in our own cities.

US State Department “alerts” and “warnings” are simply that…messages to alert us of possible problems. But these should be considered in proper perspective. Tunisia is NOT Syria!!!

Perhaps to someone who does not have a good pulse for world politics, or for someone who does not know their geography or simply has not taken the time to inquire…hearing about the very real problems that have been taking place in Syria is indeed, frightening and dangerous. We hear daily reports of killings, snipers, Syrian army attacks on local populations and the many, many horrors taking place at the hands of the Assad regime. To the uninformed, the tendency is to equate this problem to the entire Middle East and North African region?

The type of references about “safety” and “security” expressed in this video are a more realistic report of how recent American travelers found Tunisia’s atmosphere for travel.


Tunisia is not Syria…Yemen…or Libya. Tunisia is welcoming travelers from all countries with a  particularly warm welcome for Americans, as are most countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Always be cautious and attentive when traveling…but also, be realistic!  Travel safely!