Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Back to the Future?

Last week I attended a reception at the U.S. Ambassador's residence to honor the Director of the Peace Corps, Aaron Williams. He used the event to announce that the program would be returning to Tunisia after a long absence. Although it used to have a presence here, the Peace Corps was not welcome during the years when the country was a police state. The revolution of January 2011 changed all that.

Fulbright Researcher Katie Larson, Sami Saaid of the US Embassy,
Me, and Fulbright Scholar Andrea Calabretta
The reception was the first gathering of the three Fulbrighters who are currently in Tunisia. (A fourth Fulbrighter will be arriving later this month.) Each of us owes a debt of gratitude to Sami Saaid, who coordinates the program at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. Sami also attended the event and went out of his way to introduce me to a number of key guests.

Many of the people I met worked with the Peace Corps in Tunisia before it had to shut down. In fact, the reception doubled as a reunion of sorts for them. Although each one had a different story to tell, all of the guests I met pursued very interesting careers following their tenure with the program, and I have already made plans to catch up with most of them very soon.

The return of the Peace Corps might be a step forward for Tunisia. But the country may also be taking a few steps back as well. Yesterday and over the weekend, demonstrations on the main boulevard downtown turned violent when the police used clubs and tear gas to disperse the crowd. People have compared it to the way the police responded when the masses flocked downtown during last year's revolution against the former regime.

Up to now, demonstrations have been largely peaceful and have not led to clashes between the people and the police. This weekend was different because there is a new rule that makes it illegal to demonstrate on the main boulevard. This weekend's protests were a direct challenge to this new rule and set the stage for a response from the government. But no one expected the violence that ensued.

The main student union at my campus cancelled classes today so that students would be free to participate in another demonstration downtown later in the day. This one is supposed to be a protest against the police response to the recent demonstrations. I can sympathize with the students' desire to speak out. I only hope that the police do not again employ the tactics that everyone associates with the old regime.