Tunisia shooting: It was clear from my recent visit where country's problems lay

Tunisia is stuck somewhere between a developed and developing country, with some of the worst features of both

When the first reports broke of the attack in Tunis, the news had particular resonance. My first response was sheer selfish horror. Had the shootings taken place a few weeks earlier, my husband or I could have been among the casualties.

We had spent a week in Tunisia after new year and had, of course, visited the Bardo. You could imagine all too vividly what might happen if gunmen were on the loose. The museum occupies a vast 15th-century palace with an expanse of parking at the front. The interior is enormous and not well routed. One bare brick corridor looks very like the next; we got lost several times. Finding an exit in an emergency would not be easy.

My second response was more mundane and wider-reaching: there goes what remains of the Tunisian economy. It can be argued that winter is not the best time to gauge the strength or otherwise of a Mediterranean economy. And Tunisia, being farther north than most of North Africa, probably always attracted fewer tourists in January than, say, Morocco, or Egypt used to.

That said, Tunisia’s coastal hotels and restaurants were nigh deserted, despite in some places almost giveaway discounting. Once the French families had left to return to school, we seemed almost alone in a vast sea-front hotel until a pharmaceutical conference moved in a few days later. Group tourism had pretty much closed down. If you wanted to see the sights, you had to make private arrangements with one of the few agencies still open. We had even Carthage mostly to ourselves.

Over the past 30 years or so, Tunisia has invested heavily in tourism, and the climate, the beaches and the antiquities all argued for a promising future. Swathes of the coastline have been intensively developed. Before 2011, tourism was on track to account for around 10 per cent of GDP, and provided one in 10 of all jobs.

 

But although Tunisia was the first, and arguably the most successful, country to pass through the Arab Spring in 2011 – protests were mostly peaceful, the old regime departed with commendable dispatch, and both parliamentary and presidential elections passed off benignly at the turn of the year – it has not been rewarded with any upsurge in foreign tourism.

On the contrary, would-be visitors seem to have been deterred by the chaos in neighbouring Libya and the sporadic unrest in next-door Egypt. It is indicative that most of the tourists killed and injured at the Bardo this week were not spending much time in Tunisia; they were dropping in from a cruise.

It matters little whether those who mounted the attack this week made for the Bardo as Plan B, having failed to penetrate the country’s Parliament, or whether they had always had foreigners in their sights. The result is the same: any hope that tourism will pick up very soon must be written off. Poor Tunisia – and pity the region. It is as though the Arab Spring has unravelled in reverse order.

While an upsurge in tourism would have been a help, it was clear, even from a week driving around sites ancient and modern, that Tunisia’s difficulties go far deeper than empty hotels. Impoverished stall-holders may experience marginally less harassment since Mohamed Bouazizi became a martyr to corruption and oppression, but – as in so many of the countries in the region – sheer demography calls for radical solutions that are simply not there.

Some 40 per cent of the population is under 30, and you can see that – from the numbers of young men (you see fewer young women) standing around doing not very much. Tunisia might be among the more secular states in the region, but more young people have gone from Tunisia to fight for Islamic State than from any other country in the region.

There was praise for the conduct of recent elections, but it is difficult to see how democracy, as in free and fair elections, is going to change things for the better by itself. At the risk of sounding simplistic, what might have helped immediately after the revolution was an accelerated, and compulsory, national jobs programme that capitalised on the fresh sense of national purpose. But, short of dictatorship, fierce martial law, or conscription in the cause of war, how could such a draconian, top-down, scheme be implemented?

To my eyes, back in January, Tunisia seemed to epitomise those countries that are stuck somewhere between developed and not, with some of the worst features of both. The ways of the countryside – the use of natural materials, indigenous agriculture, markets, traditional hygiene and the like – have been largely superseded, as young people have moved to the towns, and new machinery, electricity, and television have brought change.

In towns and cities, there are areas (often literally or metaphorically "gated"), where the affluent live to advanced Western standards. Elsewhere, the sewage system has not been started and not completed; the streets are half-paved; houses are half-built or tumbling down, but they are equipped just enough for human habitation. Families have fridges, and even washing machines, that may or may not work; ditto cars. Corruption, of one sort or another, is a fact of life, and it has grown relatively worse, according to Transparency International, since 2011.

What drives countries across that last threshold, from random appurtenances of modern life to full development? To the stage where all children go to school until they are at least 15, where most building is planned and completed to a recognisable standard; where there is a working public transport system and civic rules of whatever kind are mostly observed?

One curiosity sums up this marooned state. Tunisia, I suspect, is not alone in being a country that has been sold hundreds of colour-coded recycling bins, before it has even the most elementary refuse collection system in place. Until such basics are sorted out, young jobless Tunisians can be understood for nurturing thoughts of a new revolution at home or setting off in pursuit of jihad abroad.

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