Skip to main content

Something is rotten in the state of Tunisia

In Gabes, people risk their lives by merely existing at the mercy of unprotected air and water supplies

An hour or so after arriving in the southern Tunisian coastal city of Gabes, my throat was overtaken by an unfamiliar agitation, causing me to assume that I had either suddenly acquired asthma or inadvertently swallowed a swarm of mosquitoes.

I apologised to my companions for disrupting our stroll along the promenade with graceless coughing convulsions. Habib Ayeb - a Tunisian academic and documentary filmmaker based at the University of Paris VIII in France - quickly debunked my auto-diagnosis. “It’s the pollution.”

Gabes, which boasts the world’s only coastal oasis, unfortunately also has several other distinguishing characteristics, including comprehensive contamination.

Since the 1970s, the city has hosted an industrial zone that presently comprises phosphate refineries and other poisonous for-export operations primarily under the command of the state-owned Tunisian Chemical Group. The area has now attained the distinction of being Tunisia’s cancer capital and a general hub for human and animal afflictions.

Of course, the powers-that-be do their best to obscure this obvious cause-and-effect sequence. After all, what connection could ecosystemic malaise and rampant illness possibly have to “clouds of rotten-smelling yellow gas” emitted from smokestacks and tonnes of radioactive waste dumped into the sea?

As often happens these days in the face of existential concerns, the trusty narrative of “development” is trotted out. Factories mean jobs, so the story goes, and are thus necessary for survival - never mind if you can’t breathe.

Ayeb’s 2014 film - the ironically titled Gabes Labess (All Is Well in Gabes) - documents the predicament in which the region finds itself, particularly in regard to its once-magnificent oasis, which has now dwindled considerably now that water is being diverted for industrial uses and traditional irrigation techniques are being disrupted.

You might call it a model for killer development.

Human welfare? In short supply

Mohamed Ben Youssef, a retired teacher and native of the oasis who appears in the film, aptly observes that “development at the expense of everything else… is not development.”

Another interviewee is a small farmer who, despairing about the effects of pollution on his land, admits that he and his family were initially “happy” at the opening of the Gabes chemical plants and the idea that “the country would prosper and develop”.

But then they quickly reached the conclusion that “human welfare should always come first”.

The challenges to daily existence are now somehow even greater than they were under former Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali

It wasn't difficult to detect during my own very brief visit to Gabes that human welfare was in short supply both physically and economically - although hospitality was not. 

Ayeb accompanied me to a home shared by several brothers and their families, who graciously set up cushions for us on the cement floor and served a mound of couscous.

One of the children, a beautiful girl not yet two-years-old, was covered from head to toe in splotchy rashes. Her parents said they taken her to four different doctors: in each case, the verdict was that her condition was “normal”.

When another of the children recently fell ill, the salaries of three employed men were insufficient to cover the cost of the medication. One of the wives has a law degree, but, unable to find work, has resigned herself to the art of reproduction.

In the end, the consensus was that the challenges to daily existence are now somehow even greater than they were under former Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Existing at the mercy of unprotected air

If recurring protests are any indication, something is indeed rotten in the state of Tunisia. At the moment, state security forces are viciously repressing protesters in the southern province of Tataouine, where residents have risen up against poverty, unemployment and other conditions that point to an inherent lack of national “development”.

In an email, activist-scholar Corinna Mullin, the visiting assistant professor at the University of Tunis, told me that colonial legacies are “at the heart of grievances expressed by social movements across Tunisia today.”

The country’s post-colonial period, Mullin wrote, “saw many structural continuities with the forms of accumulation and dispossession that characterised French colonial rule,” which ended in 1956.

The president has put a creative spin on the resource issue, justifying the deployment of the army against anti-poverty protests to “protect the resources of the Tunisian people

Now, she said, continuity is “manifested in ongoing forms of extractivism” that have - surprise, surprise - been encouraged and facilitated “by international financial institutions [IFIs], the EU, the US and other prominent (neo)colonial-capitalist actors.”

As Mullin explains, the “neoliberal ‘development’ promoted by IFIs for the benefit of international and a segment of local capital” has unleashed “previously muzzled demands for the nationalisation of the country’s natural resources” as well as a redistribution of national wealth and an end to foreign corporate exploitation.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi has put a more creative spin on the resource issue, justifying the deployment of the army against anti-poverty protests in order to “protect the resources of the Tunisian people”.

The people themselves apparently don’t deserve such protection, and protests have already turned deadly.

Meanwhile, back in Gabes, people continue to risk their lives by merely existing at the mercy of unprotected air and water supplies, as the oasis and surrounding lands are assaulted in a seemingly unstoppable worldwide war on the environment and sustainable agricultural practices.

Near the end of Ayeb’s documentary, an older Tunisian man with a small plot of land in what remains of the oasis laments that, “for the capitalists, the future of farming is labess [all is well]… For the little people, the future is not labess.”

In the current desert of “development,” we sure could use more oases.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Tunisian protesters comfront security forces outside the El Kamour oil and gas pumping station, in the southern state of Tataouine, on May 22, 2017 (AFP)