* By Oussama Romdhani. — — —
The village of Metouia, in the Tunisian southeast, in an unlikely late summer destination. Chemical pollution on the nearby coast and continued neglect of its date tree oases, since the 1970’s, have led to a steady decline of its appeal to outsiders. Throughout the years, it has been visited mainly by its native sons, who have emigrated to the capital, Tunis, and to foreign lands such as France. Revisiting my birthplace for the first time in three decades, I was personally uncertain of what to expect.
Getting there involved a 140 kilometer drive on a one-lane-road. Along the way towards Gabes, Metouia’s province capital, one has to watch for speeding tanker-trucks and luggage-laden cars of Tunisians returning from abroad all in a hurry to reach their destinations before nightfall. A seemingly endless string of lamb-roasting restaurants and smuggled gasoline stations compete for the attention of drivers on both sides of the road.
It seems that security patrols gave up cracking down on smuggled gasoline merchants long ago. Even before the 2011 uprisings, jerrycans of gasoline smuggled from across the Libyan and Algerian borders used to be on display in many of the road intersections throughout the Tunisian south. For the discerning minds, they constituted early warning signs of inadequate socioeconomic policies breeding unemployment and marginalization. Since the fall of Qaddafi, traffickers have taken advantage of the growing anarchy in Libya as well as the fraying of security in Tunisia to boost revenue from smuggled goods and hard currency trafficking. Now, the conspicuous rows of canister stands are creeping up much further north and now include makeshift pumps to accommodate the heavier flow of customers. As you cross into the border of the Gabes province, the sale of smuggled gasoline mingles cozily with various legal and illegal commercial activities. “Molokhia, Henna, gasoline and currency exchange available,” reads a sign twenty miles north of the province capital.
Many of the cars on the road bear Libyan license plates, a reflection of the growing number of travelers from south of the border. But conversations in Metouia show the degree to which the relationship between the region’s population and its Libyan guests has changed since the heydays of the uprisings in both countries. Bedouin-like hospitality towards Libyans right one saw after the fall of the Qaddafi regime has given way to a more cautious attitude. “Now they have to pay first,” says Salem, a Metouia dweller reflecting the disappointment of the locals over what they describe as the unreciprocated generosity by Libyans once they went back home.
Added source of concern
Recent developments in Libya itself are an added source of concern for many in Metouia, who fear a spillover of armed conflict from their neighbor’s territory. In some instances, villagers’ minds wander off even further east, finding reason to fret over ISIS advances across Syria and Iraq. The heavy toll suffered by the Tunisian army last July, after terrorist ambushes in the western mountains, seems somehow to heighten the fear of ISIS-like scenarios. “Trust me, we might be a brave people but we are peaceful and would be no match for them,” says Abdelhamid, a civil society activist, alluding to ISIS fighters. With wide access to the internet and satellite stations, he and others think they know whom to blame. “The U.S. has created this monster. Hillary Clinton has confessed to this in her memoir,” they volunteer to tell you, quoting widely-circulating media reports.
In Metouia, home to a population of less than 10,000, not much goes on in the hot days of summer with the exception of coffee-shop chats and nighttime weddings. Both venues offer a view of the paradoxical social conditions that women continue to face more than five decades after the introduction Personal Status Code by Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba. Marriage celebrations can be misleading at first to outside observers. As if by some unspoken license, young ladies can be seen strutting their stuff in miniskirts and modern hairdos till the wee hours of the night. But in daytime, conservative decorum reigns supreme. Women do not venture much out into the streets, and almost never into the men-only coffee-shops. And in spite of the undeniable popularity of both fermented and unfermented “Legmi” (a local drink made from date palm sap), social life is still punctuated by mosque attendance. Religious conservatism has given the whole Tunisian southeast the reputation of being an “Ennahdha-land,” a reference to the country’s main Islamist party. Indeed, many of Ennahdha’s leaders hail from small villages around Gabes. During the October 2011 National Constituent Assembly elections, the party swept the province’s vote. Today, the Islamist formation does not seem to have lost its appeal among its hardcore loyalists. But coffee-shop chats offer an insight into the disenchantment of villagers who have not seen their lives improve since 2011, a period which included two years of Islamist-led rule. Some of the locals say they resent being taken for granted by Ennahdha because of their religiosity; and seem to be looking for greener political pastures outside Islamist lines. “Nida Tounes,” the main secularist party, is mentioned as an alternative even though it is criticized for failing to reach out to them like most other non-Islamist parties. Budget-strapped political formations have been generally reluctant to work the vote in the smaller communities of the southeast, not sure of the electoral yield from their investment. They will have to wait till next month’s elections to be able to draw a clearer political map of the country.
Much more than interest in party politics, it is the fierce commitment to the independence of civil society that is perhaps the most striking feature of the new social order in Metouia. No less than 50 associations, active in such fields as local development, protection of the environment and protection of the handicapped, compete for funding and other support. They do not see themselves as beholden to any political party and are determined to keep it that way. “Don’t worry,” Abdelhamid reassures me. “We know how to fend off for ourselves.”
The relationship with the state is a bit more complex. NGO leaders are no longer wary of possible meddling by the state. Sometimes, much like other village dwellers, they even seem to bemoan the weakness of public authorities and their inability to help. They also seem to express less critical views of the pre-2011 regime. But I could not really tell however whether their views constituted a sober assessment of the post-revolutionary governments’ performance or an uncalled-for deference to a member of the former regime to whom they were talking.
A few weeks before the start of the electoral campaign, Metouia is not unique in the ambiguities it offers. Unfettered discussions are not a clear predictor of the way elections will go. With the common man in the street not necessarily swayed by party narratives and the political establishment’s disconnect from many parts of the land, uncertainty about voter intentions will continue to reign supreme until Election Day.
*Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country’s international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. A recipient of the U.S. Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst. Official blog page: www.oussama-romdhani.com