By Adel Dajani.
Tripoli, 23 September:
Tunisian children went back to school last week – it was la rentrée scolaire – after a . . .[restrict]long, hot summer punctuated by a scorching Ramadan and the country grappling with the after-effects of its own revolution.
Tunisia has one of the highest literacy rates in the Arab world and compulsory schooling up to the age of 16. However one set of about 650 students in Tunisia could not go back to school as theirs was scorched; their library of 10,000 books destroyed and more than 300 computers stolen.
The school in question was the American School of Tunis (ACST), which happened to be in front of the American Embassy that fateful Friday when marauding mobs had taken such offence to an obscure but highly inflammatory film denigrating the Prophet Mohammed.
I had arrived the day before from Tripoli, numbed, shocked and angry at the murder of Christopher Stevens, the US Ambassador and his three colleagues by another mob in Benghazi.
The next day, amidst the black smoke of smouldering cars on a beautiful sunny day, the rampaging rabble had now struck at the US Embassy in Tunis and the school. For over 50 years ACST had educated generations of free-thinking and cosmopolitan Arab and international students including my two boys.
I suddenly felt extremely vulnerable as both the country of my birth and the country in which my children were brought up were victims of acts of intolerance and extremism in the space of two days.
Now that the black smoke has cleared in Tunis and Benghazi, and in the midst of a massive cleaning up of the school by well wishing volunteers of all nationalities including young Tunisian students , what are the lessons that we need to draw on in order to move forward?
First, the vast majority of Libyans and Tunisians are opposed not only to these random acts of violence but more significantly cannot relate to this portrayal of Islam – our Islam is one of tolerance, dialogue and moderation and not intolerance and extremism.
We condemn not only these attacks but also the attacks that have taken place in both Libya and Tunisia on our traditional shrines which are a rich part of our history.
We must not allow the Islam of the silent majority to be hijacked by political and religious fundamentalism and we must be prepared to make our voice heard.
Demonstrations in both countries condemning these acts have and will continue to take place but unfortunately these don’t get the press mileage that they deserve. We are proud of our religion and are secure in our value systems and we need to counter any inflammatory attacks in the Western media by either ignoring them or by using any legal redress that may exist in the country of publication.
Second, a strong message to the ruling interim political parties in both Libya and Tunisia: we elected you to impose law and order. We want to feel safe in our houses and on the streets and all our foreign guests should have the same sense of security as us.
A response time of over three hours from the Tunisian police to the SOS sent by ACST is just not acceptable and the arrival of the fire brigade with one leaky hose is an insult to the country.
The storming of the consulate in Benghazi and the killing of any diplomat or foreigner let alone an ambassador who was a true friend of the new Libya is a stain on country that we want to emerge from the ashes of the Qaddafi dictatorship. We need to have a firm leadership to impose law and order and the rule of law and this is one of the mandates on which these interim governments were elected.
Don’t let us hark back to the era when security was only synonymous with dictatorships – democracies can deliver on security and we expect our politicians to deliver or otherwise get out in the next round of elections. That choice was what the Arab Spring was all about.
Third, the preoccupation of the majority of Libyans and Tunisians is just the same as any other electorate: it’s the economy, stupid! Don’t make the mistake, as many do in the Western media, that we are obsessed by religious dogma to the exclusion of the money in our pockets.
We have suffered the consequences of the bad management of our economies from decades of state socialism, mad-cap economic and political models so loved by dictators to crony capitalism that rewarded the elites and had no trickle-down effect. This inefficient management by our dictators led to structural unemployment of both the educated and uneducated youth and frustrated the ambitions of our middle classes.
We elected the interim governments to fix and galvanise the economy, to create the proper legal and investment environment for new jobs for our youth and for our burgeoning middle classes. The re-election of these politicians will be based on their economic track record and not on their religious dogma.
Fourth, for those foreign policy makers and governments – and in fact anyone who wants to genuinely help us during this difficult and painful transition – please don’t get distracted by doom press mongers heralding the slide into anarchy, Al-Qaeda and religious theocracy.
Help us instead to reform our banking systems so that banks can start lending and play a meaningful role in the economy. Help us to dynamise our nascent capital markets so that our private sector can start issuing corporate bonds to fund expansion and create new jobs.
Help us to train our judges, strengthen the rule of law and create a legal system that is clear and transparent for both locals and foreign investors.
Help us to kick-start a regional Maghreb economic integration so that the Maghreb can finally emerge as a strong and integrated economic bloc on the doorstep of Europe and Africa.
With this combination of self-help and pragmatic international assistance we can all counter this kind of extremism.
A meaningfully employed Libyan or Tunisian youth secure in his job and prospects with a strong value belief in a tolerant religion and way of life will not be swayed by the arguments of any bigot.
The staff of ACST have vowed to reopen the school next week and the reopening itself is one of several symbols of hope and resilience for the majority of Libyans and Tunisians who have been silent for too long.
Adel Dajani is a Libyan investment banker.