Sunday, 30 January - I notice that the UK media, in particular the BBC, are making the same regrettable mistake in their coverage of Egypt as they did
on Tunisia. They call the neighbourhood 'vigilance' committee 'vigilantes', who set up 'roadblocks' and 'armed' with, erm, sticks. I suppose it takes a
little bit too much care and time to report the story correctly; that these are small, static groups of mild-mannered neighbours banding together to protect
their families and property in the absence of the usual law and order.
Instead, the British public have images of marauding bands of crazed Arabic Charles Bronsons, striking terror into people's hearts wherever they roam.
Monday, 31 January - Today I simply repeat what Louis XIV wrote in his diary when the French Revolution broke out in July, 1789 - "Rien".
Tuesday, 1 February - I will say a little more than 'rien' today, but not much as I am still overwhelmed with work and have not really ventured out on
to the streets the last couple of days. Life goes on normally, and it is hard to believe there is still a curfew. Today was the first time since I came back I
went further than Zephyr and pottered down to the drycleaners and the other Monoprix in La Marsa, the one that sells beer and wine to the expats and
the few, but notoriously blotto, Tunisians who imbibe.
At Monoprix, I saw the only damage I have ever witnessed here since the revolution. All its front windows had been smashed and are now taped up. I
wonder if it was the work of revolutionaries or the blotto Tunisians looking to have a party.
Wednesday, 2 February - First time I took a trip to the Carrefour hypermarket and shopping mall about 5 kilometres down the road on the way to
Tunis. The military have scout armoured cars at the perimeter, and another within a cordon sanitaire in front of the mall, which takes up about a third
of the car park. (It's hard enough to get a space at the best of times).
When I returned last week, I had been warned to stay away from Carrefour for fear of drive-by shootings.
Traffic situation remains in its uncanny, civilised state. Some drivers still try to cut you up at junctions and roundabouts, but now they smile and wave,
as if asking permission, when they do so.
The police are officially back on duty on the streets today. Wonder if that might mean a return to the bad old days on the roads. They are seldom
happy to let traffic lights do the job they were intended for, and hold up lines of traffic at will, with loud angry whistles. Let's hope they don't provoke
the Tunisian motorists to return to their bad old habits.
As I was able to hire a car for tomorrow at last (no doubt because all the hundreds of foreign hacks have decamped to Egypt), I shall be able to find out
at first hand. I never bought a car here simply because of the horrendous driving habits. The next week will see whether I change my mind.
Friday, 4 March - Returning to this diary after more than a month, having made a couple of trips to the UK, plus the fact that nothing much has been
happening here in terms of Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution.
A few flare-ups here and there, no doubt partly caused by feelings of anti-climax. The renewed unrest resulted in the replacement of Prime Minister
Ghannouchi because of his association with the ruling RCD party with veteran politician, Béji Caïd Essebsi. Highly likely to be more unrest in the long
run-up to elections scheduled for July.
Ben Ali may have gone, but jobs aren't suddenly created because of a revolution. Quite the opposite, probably. Tourism is down. London flights in
and out of Tunis appear less than a third-full. Seem to be more Tunisians on those flights than holidaying Europeans. (Note to British Airways, not a
good idea to serve a ham and mustard sandwich on a flight from a Muslim country).
Normally at this time of year, the flights would be full of groups coming out for a bargain two weeks in the sun in four and five star hotels with all food
and wine included. Not that there is much sun - rainy and cold, unusual for this time of year.
Another revolution has finally arrived here. The internet revolution, in its complete, uncensored form. Under the old regime, it was impossible even to
access YouTube. Now anything goes, even internet porn, something almost unthinkable in a country like Tunisia whatever its politics.
Army still on the streets, but a more limited presence. Curfew was extended till midnight a few weeks ago, and has now been lifted all together.
Wednesday, 28 September - Returning to this diary in the run-up to the elections to choose a constitutional assembly on Sunday, 23 October.
David Short Tunisian Diary
|Patton M60 Main Battle Tank, La Marsa, Tunisia
Monday, 17 January, 2011 - Only 18 people on the outward-bound British Airways 737 to Tunis,
although I expect it'll be full on the way back! I'm returning after an extended break to a very
different Tunisia to the one I left at Christmas. For one thing, I would not have been writing or
publishing this diary just a few weeks ago.
My usual car rental agency at the airport is reluctant to give me a car despite my living in the safe,
well-off suburb of La Marsa, 12 miles from Tunis centre, because I don't have an off-street garage. I
later learn anyway that a lot of hire cars had been commandeered by the old guard and were being
used in drive-by shootings. (I'd read about this in one of the Brit papers on the way out). So not
really advisable to be riding around in a rental (they are conspicuous by their blue number plates).
Arriving in La Marsa instead by taxi, I'm confronted by an M60 tank outside the neighbourhood
Zephyr shopping mall, built on the site of the old Bey's palace. The first president of independent
Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, had it razed to the ground to make the people forget about monarchy.
I can still see some of the ocean-side remains of the palace from my balcony that looks onto the beach, the same beach where my father embarked in 1943
for Sicily, 80 miles away across the Med..
Now Bourguiba's successor, Ben Ali, has been ousted and is in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali took over from Bourguiba in November 1987 when the president had
become just too ga-ga and incontinent. Reporters knew the coup was confirmed when Ben Ali's portrait replaced Bourguiba's in their hotels overnight.
Now Ben Ali posters have disappeared from shops, businesses and hotels. (If you didn't display one, you'd be sure to get a visit from the fiscal police).
The national curfew is from 6pm to 6am so Tunisian nightlife will be even duller than normal. Profits at the Plaza Corniche hotel up the road will plummet.
It was the favourite hang-out for the free-spending rich kid-adults who'd benefited from the Ben Ali kleptocracy. The neighbourhood vigilance committee
has set up a makeshift chicane roadblock on rue d'Amerique, gateway to the villas and apartments of the Corniche. They're lucky that there's a few
long-abandoned retail outlets alongside to shelter in through the unseasonably cold nights.
Vehicle-free street: Marsa Corniche. Residence of Polish
ambassador is on left of picture.
Tuesday, 18 January - Awake to an eerily quiet neighbourhood. No cars buzzing along at speed,
heading for Tunis. People are only just starting to return to work, and shops beginning to open. I
head up to the Monoprix at Zephyr for 9am opening to begin stockpiling supplies, just in case
things go tits-up again. Neighbours' cars usually parked on the street are absent.
At the newsagents, a novel sight in Tunisia. People actually buying newspapers and discussing
events in public. Prior to the 'evenenments', the media was strictly controlled, and the main paper
La Presse was a daily Ben Ali love-fest. Now, La Presse journalists have ousted the
editor-in-chief and created a committee to manage the paper. Perhaps that's why there's no sign of it.
Le Quotidien declares that calm has returned, after the establishment of a government of unity.
Friends I meet for lunch are not so sure. The Prime Minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, made a
major gaffe in an interview with the France 24 TV station after the press conference announcing the
unity administration. Asked whether he was still in touch with the former president in his exile, he
disingenuously admitted he had been in telephone contact with Ben Ali in Saudi Arabia.
Apparently, Ben Ali had placed a call to Ghannouchi from his Saudi redoubt, and the PM said he was 'just too polite' to refuse to take it. As a result of
"Ghannouchi's Gaffe" and the fact that so many former government ministers are in the new unity government, one friend whose ear is very firmly to the
ground said fresh protests and demos were being planned.
I have lunch with a friend in Berges du Lac, then head back into the centre for coffee with some Tunisian journalists. I linger a little too late in the
afternoon as the streets become quiet and people start heading home early for the 6pm curfew. For many, this means a long, long walk as the buses are
still not running. I only just find a taxi to get me safely back to La Marsa in time (and for the driver to get back to Tunis to beat the curfew).
No-one has a clear idea of the future. It's a power vacuum; there is no strong man to step into power, no Tunisian Nelson Mandela. Things could go in
any direction: democracy, Islamification, military government, or simply chaos.
Wednesday, 19 January - The new day brings mixed messages. Our neighbourhood tank has
become a photo-opportunity, with the help of the tank crew, but today the soldiers around it have
bayonets fixed, which could be dangerous for the milling crowds.
Neighbours' cars have reappeared, parked once again on the streets. Traffic is becoming heavier,
but still not the snarling, competing, honking, bumper-to-bumper situation which is the norm.
And as predicted, new demonstrations hit the city centre. But they were not mass demos, and
there was no violence. It looks now as if the military is the power on the streets and is broadly
supported by the people. (The continued absence of buses helps keep the crowds thin). The
police, strongly identified with the old regime and responsible for the shootings and violence of
earlier days, are nowhere to be seen.
Plus several ministers from opposition parties resign from the day-old unity government in protest
against the inclusion of Ghannouchi and his old pals.
|Tunisian supermarket sweep as early closing looms
Long-term exiled politician, Moncef Marzouki, returns to Tunisia.gloating that the people who ran
him out of the country are now themselves exiles. A former presidential candidate, he has been
living in France since 2002.
No particular sign that he is the 'big man' to fill the power vacuum. In such a young country, it's
unlikely that the graduates protesting against unemployment will have heard of, or care about, a
man whose heyday was in the 90s and who has been abroad since they were children.
Even so, a veteran Tunisian journalist explains to me the protests are not just about the young and
unemployed, although he says it's true that the official 13% unemployment rate is a lie. "It's the
middle-class, too. They don't have the money to fill up the car. They are having to walk their
kids to school!". Must be a world first. A government brought low by a pricey school run.
I'm glad I used my sharp elbows once more at the supermarket at opening time this morning.
Shelves were almost completely bare when it closed its doors at 1pm.
Thursday, 20 January - More signs of burgeoning 'normality'. Shops open till 4pm instead 1pm.
Traffic getting even busier and noisier, but still flowing much freer than before. Tunisian driving is
anarchic. Two lane roads cater for four or five lines of cars. One-way streets exist only in theory.
The road death toll is one of world's highest, beaten only by dirt-road countries like the Congo.
But even so drivers seem calmer and more polite. Could be linked to total absence of the worst
drivers in Tunis: the over-privileged, coiffeured wives in wrap-around sunglasses with cellphone
permanently clutched to the ear, imperiously barging their way forward in enormous 4x4's.
Perhaps these wives of the wealthy are keeping a low profile. Perhaps, too, are the
noisy,obnoxious rich, high-spending types of the Ben Ali era who normally crowd the bars and
disco of the Plaza Corniche hotel till the early hours. The 6pm curfew kept them at home. Will
they be reaching for their fat wallets, thin leggy girlfriends and Mercedes keys now the curfew has
been extended till 10pm? The Plaza bar and restaurant staff can only hope so.
Al-Jazeera's Ben Jaddou becomes the news
Saturday, 22 January - I fly today to England for some meetings in London. I'll miss whatever
developments, good or bad, the next few days will bring to Tunisia, but I reflect that, at long last,
I am witnessing a society under change.
I've been to too many countries in the 'After' phase, never seeing the 'Before' I reported from
almost every eastern European country in the 1990s after the collapse of communism, lived and
worked in post-Ceausescu Romania, where I set up a national newspaper, and also lived and
worked in post-apartheid South Africa during the early 2000s.
It'll be interesting to see if change is always for the better. A former British newspaper colleague
once cheerfully remarked to me in the 1990s that life was far preferable in Prague before the
The only response to that, of course, was: "Yes, easy for you to say, chum, with your foreign
currency and western passport!".
Barbary pirate: Jolly Roger flies over HMS David Short
As I cleared up the balcony prior to my trip, I notice my Jolly Roger flag needs replacing with the spare back in the office. After a month or two of
snapping and fluttering in the wild Barbary Coast wind, Roger is looking old, grey and threadbare. You and me both, shipmate, you and me both.
PS Those 300 thirsty hacks in Tunisia should watch out when they go to the airport
looking for a free drink. The AVS business lounge is closed until further notice due to
its connections with the Ben Ali clan. That family really knows how to stop a chap's fun!
Only 28 and a half passengers on the BA plane back to London, so it looks as if either the exodus
or the panic is over.
Friday, 28 January - Only 30 people on the plane back to Tunis, but then again it's Friday and who flies to Tunis for the weekend? Only two possible
holidaymakers on-board: a couple of late middle-aged ladies of the type who come to the country for some Tunisian toyboy fun.
Situation seems even calmer than last week. No apparent military presence at the airport. Traffic flowing free and quietly. I'm told that since the
events, drivers are much more polite and forgiving, and it certainly seems so on the journey home from the airport. I really hope it lasts - it'll help my
blood pressure and cut my chances of a heart attack when commuting into Tunis.
Our neighbourhood tank is still there. The soldiers are even more relaxed, laughing, joking and playing with the local kids. Tunisians, grateful for the
peace that the army has brought to the streets, constantly bring food and pastries to the soldiers. The local vigilance committee roadblocks have
disappeared. Ambassador's residence nearby, however, now has armed police guards. But they seem even less alert than the soldiers. One of them
allows me to pass directly behind him, not acknowledging or understanding that I might be a threat.
Glad to be back to mild, sunny weather. When you visit as a bit of a stranger to London, you begin to understand why foreigners think it always rains
there. Because it does. And it's always useful to be reminded how crowded and badly-run it is.
Curfew is now 10pm till 4am so night-clubbers need to find a place that doesn't kick out till the wee small hours.
Saturday, 29 January - Unprompted, a Tunisian friend over coffee this morning confirms what I had suspected about local road manners. "Have you
noticed how people here are driving differently?, he asks, "They're no longer aggressive, they're not honking their horns or trying to push in all the time!"
I tell him I surely had noticed it. But his explanation is different to my theory. It's not just the absence of the haughty wives of the former
nomenklatura. He explains that, before, the roads were the only place where Tunisian men could vent their aggression and frustration they felt living
under the former regime.
"They are under the thumb at work. And even at home, they are not the boss. In Tunisia, it's the woman who rules at home".
And sure enough on a journey up the road and back to Gammarth to view some building land, we hear not one car horn on a drive lasting an hour or so,
and not one car tried to cut us up, even on a busy Saturday morning.
It will be fascinating to view the road death and injury statistics in a year's time. I would confidently expect Tunisia's sky-high road fatalities and injuries
to have fallen by at least 50pc. So that's good news for the ambulance crews, hospitals and morgues.
But bad news for the many car body shops that proliferate in Tunisia and were doing a roaring trade.
And our friendly neighbourhood tank disappeared in the middle of the night.
The unity government has been comprehensively revamped with a raft of new ministers: for foreign affairs, defence, the interior, public health, social
affairs, agriculture and environment, employment, and economic and social reform either announced or taking up their posts yesterday. All of them seen
to be non-controversial, safe hands, functionaries (see pen portraits of new ministers here)
|IF YOU ARE HAVING PROBLEMS VIEWING THIS DIARY, PLEASE SWITCH YOUR BROWSER TO INTERNET EXPLORER
Friday, 21 January - Al Jazeera TV journalist and a Tunisian in exile, Ghassen Ben Jaddeu, became the
story rather than the newshound when he landed at Tunis airport today, along with several other TV crews,
here to report the revolution in Tunisia.
To the sound of the Tunisian national anthem, and cries of 'Down with Dictatorship!', Ben Jaddeu was
mobbed by crowds of locals who festooned Al Jazeera's bureau chief with the Tunisian flag, and pressed
bouquets of flowers on him.
Perhaps not knowing he was a colleague of sorts,just here to a job like them, but some kind of returning
hero freedom fighter, the other TV crews started frantically filming him.
Perhaps fittingly for an exile, unwelcome in his native land, he'd come home travelling on a Lebanese
passport, which he brandished at the crowd.
My Tunisian colleague shouted above the din: "You know, the airport used to be one of the most secured
and protected and guarded places in the whole country. Now look at this!"
Once a desert for international media, because of the censorship and the fact that it's a small country where
nothing much happens, Tunisia is now host to an estimated 300 foreign reporters..