I DON'T OFTEN revisit countries, not least because there are too many to set foot in a first time let alone a second. “In travel, as in many other experiences in life,” observed the writer Paul Theroux, “once is usually enough.” But rules are there to be broken, so when I was offered the chance to rediscover Tunis and Cairo, albeit briefly, I couldn’t really say no.
I was first in Tunisia more than a decade ago on a press trip while working on an evening newspaper in Edinburgh. I hated it. After three days of visiting beach resorts, fine dining in all the best restaurants and rather contrived sightseeing, I reached the conclusion that I’d just stumbled across one of the most boring countries on the planet.
The political context barely impinged upon my consciousness. I was aware, of course, that Tunisia was only ostensibly democratic and that Ben Ali, only the country’s second leader following independence from France, was not exactly Nelson Mandela. I also remember my guide referring to “the ruling party”, which sort of implied that another stood a chance of forming the government.
I was first in Cairo only last year, arriving on Coptic Christmas Day and not long after several Coptic Christians had been blown up in the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria. There was therefore heightened security in the Coptic Quarter, but little indication that the country was about to erupt in revolution, as it did a few weeks after I left.
Cairo was captivating. How could a sprawling city of 22 million inhabitants not be? I stayed at a dilapidated hotel called the Windsor which looked as if it had last been decorated at the tail end of the British Protectorate. I got ripped off by taxi drivers; ripped off at Giza; in fact just generally ripped off. But I didn’t really mind – Cairo was everything I reckoned a city should be.
Revisiting Egypt last week little seemed to have changed: the traffic in Cairo was still crazy, and I still got ripped off by taxi drivers (though prices seemed to have risen in the past year-and-a-half). I made it up to Alexandria for half a day (where, fittingly, my grandfather had briefly been stationed during the war) and found the same general chaos. And yes, the taxi drivers ripped me off there too.
The day I arrived Mohammed Morsi, whom the Guardian has dubbed Egypt’s “wonderfully unpredictable” new president, was in Teheran rebuking the Iranian government by labelling the Syrian government “oppressive” and arguing that the region had a moral imperative to prevent any further bloodshed. Following, as it did, Morsi’s apparent sidelining of the Egyptian military, he increasingly gave the impression of a talented and principled politician.
Of course it might not last. When I asked one taxi driver if Morsi was doing a good job, he snorted with laughter. “After Mubarak,” he joked, “anyone would be better.” Yet others I spoke to were more charitable. Not only were they genuinely impressed by Morsi, they believed he was beginning to get a grip on a country that everyone agreed needed the smack of firm (and of course democratic) government.
The same was not really true in Tunis, where I caught up with a local journalist. She was alarmed by recent indications that the country’s “transitional” government (elected last year by a constituent assembly) was going to last a lot longer than planned. She also highlighted the presence of several figures once loyal to Ben Ali who had suddenly become zealous democrats. Ultimately, she feared the development by stealth of another “soft” dictatorship.
There were also concerns of a religious clash before democratic government had time to bed down, between ardent secularists and equally ardent Islamists, or Salafists, neither of whom represent majority opinion in Tunisia but get most of the media’s attention. There’s a similar tension in Egypt and indeed across the region (not least in Syria), although Morsi (a member of the Muslim Brotherhood) appears sincere in his efforts to bridge the gap.
Tunis itself was much as I remembered it, a mix of French colonial boulevards and the more cramped Medina in the old city. Again, prices had risen, something that clearly agitated local taxi drivers much more than the drafting of a new constitution.
I couldn’t help finding the experience humbling. While we in Scotland and the UK obsess about one or two referendum questions, in northern Africa politicos are wondering whether their nascent democracies will survive another year or two of “transitional” revolution.