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JEAN-JACQUES CORNISH: Tunisia, no longer the African success story?

OPINION

The bustling capital of this country that chooses at will whether to be Arab, African or Mediterranean has changed hearteningly.

Even under the dictator Ben Ali, Tunis had an indubitable buoyancy.

But that is because the man who deposed the aging independence President Habib Bourgiba in what was called a medical coup wanted Tunisia be different from its bigger, problematic neighbours - Algeria to the west and Libya to the east.

So much so, in fact that he put policemen at every motorway exit and on every train and bus to ensure order.

He wielded an iron rod over the media, which was placed 146th out 172 countries on the Press Freedom Index, making it report only sunshine and progress in Tunisia.

Ben Ali’s police state could not withstand the Arab Spring which began in Tunis in 2011 when a fruit seller, Mohammed Bouzizi, immolated himself after being bullied by the police.

That revolution brought change to Egypt, Syria ,Iraq, Bahrain and Libya, among others.

But only Tunisia emerged as a democracy. It ranks 72nd on the latest Press Freedom Index.

Ben Ali’s departure caused a difficult transition as Islamist fought secularists.

A non-governmental organisation that sought to negotiate an end to this conflict won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.

Beji Caid Essebsi won the first democratic election in 2014. At 92, he wasn’t going to stand again in elections scheduled for November.

That presidential poll has been expedited following Essebsi’s death in July.

No fewer than 26 candidates have emerged. Only two of them are women. Two others appear on the billboards vying for public attention, but not at the hustings.

Television mogul Nabil Karoui is in jail awaiting trial on tax evasion and money laundering charges. Salim Riahi is in exile.

Essebsi’s Nabil Tounes coalition, set up to oppose the Islamist Ennahda Party, has disintegrated.

Sunday’s election is by all measures too close to call.

Young people say the candidates do not represent their aspirations for a country they maintain is no long the African success story.

Unemployment has dropped slightly to 15.3%.

There are several stoppages and strikes about rising prices.

In the capital Tunis, most of the shops advertise dramatic sales to keep their doors open.

The state of the nation becomes more apparent travelling south to the industrial port city of Gabes where I will be observing the voting on Sunday.

Heading south along the coastal highway from Tunis one passes Sousse where 38 British holiday makers were killed in a 2015 terror attack that took Tunisia off the tourist map for the next three years.

Security is tighter, but there were two suicide bombing in June and there have been recent terrorist attacks on Tunisia's western border with Algeria.

Visitors have started returning to this country within sight of Europe - but not yet enough to return tourism to its place as Tunisia’s second most lucrative foreign currency earner.

Top place remains agriculture as one sees endless kilometres of olive trees around Sfax.

But as one approaches the Libyan border, the profusion of clandestine petrol sellers is evidence of the desperate need to make a quick buck.

Five-litre plastic containers carrying the potentially explosive liquid, purloined from tankers crossing from Libya, line the roadside.

Lethal accidents abound. The authorities appear unable to stop it.

Jean-Jacques Cornish is an Africa correspondent at Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @jjcornish

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