Tunisians Must Speak Up

Tunisian Army protecting American Embassy

In 2008, my husband and I visited my cousin and her husband, a petroleum engineer, who lived in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia.  They often ate at the American Embassy on Friday nights and asked if that sounded good.  It did, of course.  Carolyn had to get the numbers of our passports and provide them to the Embassy before we could be cleared to come.

The American Embassy in Tunis lies on a large tract of  flat land between the old walled town and the modern suburb of La Marsa.  A major boulevard passes in front and the airport is close.  It is encircled by a ten foot wall.  When approaching, drivers must slowly maneuver the switchbacks deliberately placed before the entrance gate as concrete bunkers  buffer each curve.  An embassy officer compared our passports with his list of approved visitors. We were waved forward and allowed to park near the canteen.

It was a beautiful evening.  Some families brought their children to swim and play on the swing set.  All were there to enjoy the familiar tastes from home – hamburgers,  hot dogs and the Marines’ favorite,  Bud Light.  Carolyn introduced us to some of their new friends.  I looked up as a tall, fit man in casual dress approached our table.  It was Ambassador Robert Godec.  He shook hands all around and welcomed us.  I remember thinking he was lucky to get this post.

The United States’s history with this North African country is long, having been recognized by Tunisia in 1795.  When President Thomas Jefferson invited its envoy to the White House in 1805, he learned it was Ramadan and moved the state dinner to sundown, thus respecting Islam’s  prohibition of eating during daylight hours.  Fast forward 200 years and the most recent American Ambassador to Tunisia, Jacob Waller, arrived in July of this year.  One of his first appearances was to Sidi Bouzid where he announced a university-to-university linkage program with the University of Colorado  promoting modern management in the agricultural sector.  In another encouraging move, the United States agreed to guarantee some Tunisian bonds to help open up international financing. Tunisia’s move to real democracy 20 months ago appeared to be on target.

Last week, however, that same American Embassy and the adjoining American School were attacked by members of the ultraconservative Muslim sect  known as Salafis who are small in number but quite disruptive of the democratic process.   They were furious over the film produced in the U.S. criticizing Mohammed.  Walls were breached, 68 cars vandalized and burned and three Tunisians died.  The country’s President Marzouki soon apologized saying “… acts of destruction, burning, and attempted attacks on the representatives of a friendly nation are not tolerated. These groups have crossed a red line.”

Tunisia has the best chance of the Middle Eastern countries to succeed in the transition from dictatorship to democracy.  Its modern history includes universal education for boys and girls, investment in infrastructure, and a political independence that kept ties with the PLO and France.  On its beautiful beaches, a successful tourist industry developed.  Much of Europe vacations here just as Americans do in Cancun.  Whole resorts are dedicated to the Germans or English. And its new president is a member of  the once-banned Islamist party, Ennahda, but has vowed “to protect the rights of women and free worship, while building a robust democracy.”

It’s hard to watch the violence and anger directed at the United States.  After visiting there, all I could think of were the friendly Tunisians we met – my cousin’s next door neighbor who invited us to her apartment, the rug salesman who insisted we sit for tea, our driver who had never met an American but was thrilled with the Paris, Texas pin we gave him, and the young woman attorney who worked for the stock exchange and was grateful for the career.  These are the Tunisians who must keep their country moving forward in its democratic quest.  They will have to use their majority to stand up to the radical Islamists who have hijacked their religion.  Whether they will…. we can only hope.

2 Responses to “Tunisians Must Speak Up”

  1. Unknown

    Mary…I enjoyed this article very much and learned some interesting things about this country. Like you, I hope the country can find its way and not let the radical conservatives hijack the move to democracy. Thanks for a great personal insight into a critical part of the world.


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