5 Things You Should Know About Tunisia

- January 26th, 2011

I know the North African country of Tunisia and the current turmoil there seem far, far away but what happens in Tunisia does have an impact on Canada, so I thought I should fill in a few gaps that seem to be left by daily news coverage of the situation.

Besides, I have all this interesting information about Tunisa that will probably be useless in a week or two. I should have posted it last week but was on the road.

1. Is Ben Ali coming to Canada?

Forget the new round of  reports out of the Middle East saying  runaway Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali still wants to settle in Canada when his Saudi Arabian quarantine is over. Ain´t gonna happen, so don´t fret about it. With relatively few other French-speaking, non-Arabic destinations to choose from — St. Pierre, Martinique, Tahiti and some other beautiful but remote islands — Ben Ali will almost certainly end up in the French part of Switzerland around Geneva and Montreux. After all, a big chunk of his swindled fortune is already there and the Swiss (after a certain amount of strutting and preening) aren´t going to turn that gold bullion over to the next government of Tunisa. Ben Ali could end up a neighbour of Shania Twain, who also lives most of the time in that neck of the Alps.

2. Who is Rachid Ammar?

He´s keeping a semi-low profile right now, but the real hero of the Tunisian revolution is Tunisian Army Chief of Staff Rachid Ammar, who refused to obey Ben Ali´s command to order his troops to shoot protesters. In fact, Ammar´s soldiers intervened to protect protesters from police.

That was on Thursday, Jan. 13. Ben Ali fired Ammar and placed him under house arrest, but Ammar had already ordered his soldiers back to their barracks and that´s where they stayed while Ben Ali sweated out the night as fires burned around him and curfew-breaking protesters called for his overthrow.

The next day (Friday, Jan. 14) Ben Ali and his entourage hopped a plane and fled the country – but not before his wife, the former hairdresser Leila Trabelsi Ben Ali, dropped by Tunisa´s central bank with her private militia to pick $60 million in gold bullion as travelling cash. Ammar was reinstated as army chief of staff as soon as the wheels of Ben Ali´s plane left the ground.

To understand how heroic Army Corps General Ammar was, you have to understand the Tunisian military´s place in the Ben Ali dictatorship. Most dictatorships are based on military power; not in Tunisia. Ben Ali´s power base was the police, with the hated security police of the Interior Ministry as his personal Gestapo. Ben Ali had started out as a secret policeman himself (trained in the U.S.) before seizing power from the previous dictator, Habib Bourguiba, in a palace coup in 1987. At that time, Tunisa had a police force of about 150,000. Over the next two decades, Ben Ali quadrupled that number so that about 600,000 Tunisians were employed as either police, secret police, police stooges or auxiliary thugs. That´s a huge number for a country with a population of little more than 10 million people. I think Tunisia definitely qualified as a police state under Ben Ali.

Tunisa´s real military, on the other hand, was kept small, under-equipped and isolated.

 Under Ben Ali, one year of military service was compulsory for young men and women when they hit age 20, but those 200,000 potential conscripts a year never counted: only about 50,000 of the poorest actually did their compulsory military service each year, with the rest able to buy their way out (all official and above-board, of course). The buyouts, in effect, subsidized a large chunk of the Tuisian military´s operating budget.

The poor saps who were too poor to buy their way out were barely trained and strung out along Tunisia´s desert borders more or less as a frontier patrol to fend off unwanted incursions by neighbouring Algeria and Libya, various Algerian and Libyan rebel groups, Islamic fundamentalist militants and smugglers.

Tunisia´s professional military consists of only about 35,000 personnel, including the 28,000 in the army.  According to one French newspaper report last week the Tunisian military has a grand total of 12 helicopters. (It doesn´t — the  army alone has more than 60 helicopters, although I don´t know how many are working at any one time. The Canadian Armed Forces, for comparison sake, have just over twice as many helicopters as the Tunisians although Canada has  three times the population, 15 times the Gross Domestic Product and about 80 times the landmass to cover.)

Normally when you think of military and police facing off, the military would have a big advantage. In Tunisa, the roles are reversed — you have 28,000 soldiers against 600,000 police and auxiliaries. Fortunately, the core Tunisian army (unlike the conscripts) is well-trained  and disciplined with a well-educated (militarily in France and the U.S. as well as in Tunisian army, navy and air force academies), non-political officer cadre more loyal to the army itself than to the political regime of Ben Ali.

Army chief of staff Corps Gen. Ammar, 63, is a bit of a cypher — after all, he was a nobody (relatively speaking) in the Tunisia of Ben Ali. But he commands a high degree of respect among his troops and officers. The Tunisian military´s work is almost exclusively border control, disaster relief and UN peacekeeping missions, so the army was not seen by the public as an arm of government oppression.

Ammar became chief of staff  in 2002 because of a helicopter. That particular helicopter was carrying the current army chief of staff and nine other of the most senior Tunisian army officers when it crashed during a border inspection. In effect, the entire upper echelon of the Tunisian army was wiped out at one time, leading to rampant speculation at the time that Ben Ali engineered the accident to thwart a perceived threat to his power from the armed forces. I find that a bit extreme even for Ben Ali, but the results certainly shored up his control of the country.

So Ammar went from colonel to army chief of staff, jumping up about six army grades in five minutes, and quietly, amicably built up the Tunisian army as a small, professional force until Ben Ali ordered him to shoot Tunisian farmers, students, doctors and carpet salesmen a few weeks ago. Ammar stood firm and tall, Ben Ali sputtered and fizzled like the witch in Wizard of Oz, and the rest is history.

There have been French newspaper reports that Ammar was in close contact with the American Embassy in Tunis, that American generals close to Ammar were in constant telephone contact with him throughout the crisis and that, in fact, the entire play of events in the Tunisian revolution was orchestrated by the CIA.

I do not doubt that there was some contact between Ammar and  American officials, but the Tunisian revolt was not “orchestrated” by anyone except perhaps by the greed,  oppression and arrogance of Ben Ali himself and his gangster inlaws. More to the point, the events in Tunisia caught the French government (Tunisia´s old colonial ruler and current leading economic partner) and its agents completely offguard: The French have a tendency to blame other people at times like that, thus the American conspiracy theory. And don´t forget the same sources also claimed Tunisia´s army only has 12 helicopters.

So what´s next for Rachid Ammar?

The army is still keeping a fragile peace in the country and is seen as a great unifying force while various political factions try to sort themselves out. On Monday, Ammar told a crowd outside his headquarters that the army “will uphold the revolution.”

Ammar is portrayed in some quarters as the new Tunisian strongman, pulling strings in the shadows. He is being actively urged to run for president in new elections two months from now. He may well run. Or he may remain as army chief of staff, keeping a close protective watch on the fragile democracy that is trying to emerge in Tunisia. I really don´t think he wants the big job but I may once again be wrong. Interesting times ahead.

3. Am I eating Tunisian olive oil?

If you like olive oil, you love Tunisian olive oil — or, at least, you eat lots of it.

What the heck am I talking about (you ask)? You´ve never even seen Tunisian olive oil at your grocery store, let alone tasted it (you say).

Wrong, bucko. Tunisia is the world´s No. 2 olive oil exporter, right after Spain. Much of the olive oil we consume in Canada — whatever the bottle says its country of origin is — probably features a significant amount of Tunisian oil.

Until very recently, the European Union´s complex agribusiness structure allowed any EU country to claim that a bottle of olive olive was made in … oh, say … Italy … if even a dollop of the oil in said bottle was grown in that country. The required local content is now higher, but you still have to read between the lines on the label.

You can have a bottle of olive oil that says “Imported from Italy” or “Made in Italy” or “Packed in Italy” or “Produced in Italy” or “Bottled in Italy” and its actual content may just be a whiff of Tuscany and a whole lot of Tunisia. Even if the bottle says “Grown in Italy” you´re  taking that provenance on faith.

Considering that twice as much “Italian” olive oil is exported as is grown in the country (and also considering that a large amount of the domestic olive oil production stays in Italy to begin with), you understand that the rest of the oil in the bottle has to come from somewhere. If you´re lucky, it comes from Tunisia, which has very good olive oil.

Italy has just come through another of its many olive oil scandals where counterfeit “cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil made in Italy” was found to primarily contain soya and sunflower oil, not even olive oil.

The New York Times last year estimated that only about 5% of Italian-labelled olive oil sold in the U.S. is pure Italian.

Back in 2000, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency tested 100 imported olive oils and found 80 of them were adulterated with vegetable oils other than olive. Even the other 20 probably contained olive oil from a country other than that specified on the label, although  CFIA didn´t test for that (I´m not really sure how you would do that test, but there is obviously a way since that kind of testing has been done elsewhere.)

It´s no surprise that the Tunisian olive oil industry has been trying to build a brand name for itself for the past couple of years, since so many people are already eating — and apparently enjoying — their product. But it has been a tough sell. It´s an uphill battle against the cachet of “Made in Italy” despite the scandals.

Just remember that Tunisia´s 56 million olive trees make up about 20% of all the olive trees in the world and Tunisia´s oil generally gets good marks from olive savants for its lightness, texture and taste. So enjoy your Tunisian olive oil, no matter what the bottle says.

4. What about that other kind of oil?

Glad you mentioned it. Compared to neighbours like Libya and Algeria, Tunisia got the short end of the stick when it comes to petroleum resources. However there is some major offshore oil exploration now going on — with significant Canadian investment and hands-on involvement — in Tunisia´s Mediterranean territorial waters.

There is a bit of an oil riddle about Tunisia, however.

The country produces about the same amount of oil that it consumes (roughly 90,000 barrels a day) yet it manages to export about 28 million barrels of oil a year to places like Canada.

How do you pull off a magic trick like that? It works this way: If you´re Tunisia, you get the family discount rate for oil produced by other, oil-rich North African and Arab countries. Then you turn around and sell that oil at the going market rate to European and North American buyers who like the “stability” and “West-friendly” former status of Tunisia and who may not be publicly acceptable customers for the countries that pumped the oil in the first place. So Tunisia picks up some nice cash as a convenient middle man.

Canada, by the way, is the 10th largest foreign investor in Tunisia, with about $350 million tied up there. Much of that investment is in the oil and gas sector (where Canada ranks even higher as the No. 2 international investor) but we´re also big into Tunisia´s agribiz. Canadians also have a strong presence there in engineering consulting and education, largely because French is widely used for commercial and scholastic purposes.

5. Why is Tunisia like Mexico or Cuba?

The political turmoil in Tunisia was frontpage news in Europe weeks and weeks before it became part of North America´s consciousness.

Part of that has to do with general proximity (the nearest part of Europe is less than 150 km from the Tunisian coast).

But more of it has to do with the fact that Tunisia and Morocco are to European winter vacationers what Mexico and Cuba are to Canadians — affordable, mass-market sun spots by the sea.

So, when protests started breaking out in seaside resort towns along the Gulf of Tunis and Gulf of Hammamet, Europeans were more more focused on their friends and family vacationing in the vicinity than they were on the politics behind the protests.

The Europeans just wanted to know that the Wolfenbüttels and Marceaus were not hurt and could make it out of the country before all hell broke loose.

It´s much the same way you would react if there were beachfront protests and car burnings going on in Varadero or Cancun.

Depending on how you look at it, Tunisia´s tourism disruption has an upside: The sister of a German friend of mine is quietly happy that her family´s annual winter vacation to Tunisia has been cancelled this year. Her husband and kids love the sand and sea and buffet meals there but she finds the whole thing a ghastly bore.

Another navel-gazing impact of the Tunisian revolution on Europe was a disruption of business on the north side of the Mediterranean.

Many French companies, led by Teleperformance, have migrated their calls centres to cheaper-but-still-French-speaking Tunisia, much as North American companies have shipped their call centre activities to cheaper-but-still-English-speaking India.

So when commerce and daily life was disrupted in Tunisian towns and cities, the call centres there just shut down — and left companies across Europe without telephonic customer service.

Speaking of the proximity of Tunisia to Europe, there has been talk for decades of building a rail and/or road tunnel under the Med from Tunisia to Sicily — a shorter distance than from Toronto to Kingston. That´s not going happen any more than Bel Ali is going to be granted refugee status in Canada, but there are already undersea natural gas pipelines following that route and more connectors for electrical transmission and other power flows are planned.

Bonus:  Hannibal, Dido and all that

Remember Hannibal, the guy who attacked ancient Rome with elephants over the Alps?

He was one of the greatest generals of Carthage, a land and sea power that ruled North Africa, Sicily and Spain in the 400-200 B.C. period, challenging  Rome for Med supremacy at that time.

Hannibal, though outnumbered, beat all comers in northern Italy after he snuck his Spanish troops and African elephants  through France (Gaul) to attack Rome from the rear. Rome counterattacked by invading Carthage, forcing Hannibal to return to North Africa, where he was ultimately defeated and Carthage ground into relative oblivion as a vassel state of Rome.

That lasted for about 600 years until various central European tribes (most notoriously the Goths, Visigoths and Vandals) completed the dismemberment of the Roman Empire.

The Vandals (who really did get a bad rap) crossed the Med and formed a very nice little kingdom in Carthage that lasted a hundred years before later waves of Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans and French took their turn running the joint.

Dido, by the way, was the Phoenician queen and adventuress, sister of the king of Tyre in present-day Lebanon, who led an armada of settlers to found the far-west trading settlement of Carthage in 814 B.C. (best guess, although there are competing dates floating around out there.)

And where is Carthage on a modern-day map?

Of course, you knew all along — it´s Tunisia. The ruins of old Carthage are now found in the suburbs of Tunis, current capital of Tunisia.

Tunis, during the time of nominal Ottoman control,  was one of the three main centres of the Barbary Coast of North Africa, from which raiding corsairs sailed out to wreak havoc, take plunder and enslave Europeans for centuries, right up until the  mid-1800s.

Bonus Bonus: Why do we think Bruno Picard is a great guy?

Bruno Picard was Canada´s ambassador to Tunisia a couple of years ago, since replaced by Ariel Delouya.

When the U.S. was trying to unload the population of “war on terror” prisoners held at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, U.S. officials were trying to ship a couple of Tunisians back to prisons in Tunisia. In a series of meetings, Ambassador Picard insisted that the Ben Ali regime was torturing prisoners accused of terrorism. When the Ben Ali regime denied the accusation, Picard replied bluntly — and I quote directly from WikiLeaks releases of U.S. diplomatic cables — “Bullshit.” What a guy. I don´t  favour terrorists or dictators over each other, but I like a diplomat who sees things and tells things the way they really are.

Bonus Bonus Bonus: I don´t think we´re in Kansas anymore, R2-D2

The Tunisian desert filled in for Tatooine, home planet of Luke Skywalker, in the original Star Wars trilogy. George Lucas originally called the planet something else but changed the name to Tatooine after the town of Tataouine near filming locations in the Tunisian desert.

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8 comments

  1. Marilyn says:

    AS usual, all the salient points set out clearly and concisely so that I and others can have some clear notion of exactly what’s going on there. Thanks!

  2. Zain says:

    Beautiful blog about Tunisia.

    Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    Thanks.

  3. Dan says:

    Well done Mr Parker.

    If you deside to set your knowlege of North African Countries (Tunisia) to a Historical hardcover, I would be honered to peruse your writings.

    Dan M

  4. Nagla says:

    Thank you for this blog, very interesting history of a small but beautiful country with friendly and generous people
    Tunisia needs our support and I pray that true democracy prevails.

  5. Excellent blog…thanks for the info. Wonder why I didn’t hear about this in the mainstream media.

  6. molly cruz says:

    Just lovely! Rarely do I not want a blog to end. I was sorry when it was over.

  7. khaled khunaifer says:

    I’m going to travel to Tunisia, Sousa .. in 2011 April 9, as an author in ICITeS’11 conference…

    So, do you think things will settle by April from now ..???

  8. alan.parker says:

    Sorry, pal, I’m not a fortune teller so I can’t guarantee your safety.. But I do know I would go to Tunisia right now if I had the opportunity. How often do you get the chance to be in the middle of a national transformation of historical proportions? My vote: Go to your conference … if it’s not cancelled.

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