In this, the last week of the Sousse international festival, an annual music event that’s reached venerable middle age, it’s hard to find much reason to be lyrical about Tunisia’s immediate future. Rap – hard-edged, subversive and with a huge following in this predominantly young country – is not on the festival’s playlist and, by extrapolation, neither is its message being properly heard by those in authority.
In Sousse, which is now known worldwide for the June 26 massacre of tourists, locals fear the consequences of so profound a disconnect. “Young people without jobs are angry young people and they go where there seems to be some hope, mostly to the radical imams,” popular Sousse rapper Redstar Radi tells me.
There are no official charts but social media presence and the graffiti in rundown localities generally indicates rappers’ popularity. So, in Sousse it is Radi. In Tunis, there are Zone 5 and Klay BBJ. As a concession to the craze, the capital recently got its first hip-hop venue. All the rappers sing about “broken promises and a weak economy”, wrote Sam Kimball, who recently completed a thesis on the subject.
The rap is composed, recorded and put online for free by artists in poor neighbourhoods some distance away from the beaches and the big resort hotels of Sousse. It forms the soundtrack to the lives of the poor and dispossessed four years after the 2011 Jasmine revolution that toppled the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The lyrics rail at privilege and the lack of opportunity for those who live in the ghettos. The songs ask tough questions, not least why getting an education in Tunisia still does not mean a fair chance of getting a good job.
There won’t be solutions any time soon. The government’s warnings may be pointed, but its strategy seems blunt. It is tackling the discontent as if it were a straightforward security issue. It is trying to close troublesome mosques and has extended the state of emergency – as well as its own extraordinary powers – imposed after the Sousse attack. It has rushed through a counter-terrorism law that controversially allows suspects to be detained without a court order or legal assistance for up to a fortnight. The prime minister has come up with a grand idea – a wall of sand along the porous border with Libya. And the president, Beji Caid Essebsi, has cautioned that everything depends on preventing another terrorist attack, otherwise the state itself might collapse.
The despair at this is reflected in the popularity of the post-revolution rap. If only that were all. Liberation hip-hop was a distinctive feature of the Arab Spring uprising, but it has since evolved and now serves as a key sociological snapshot of a country in transition. Though the music offers frustrated young Tunisians the chance to let off steam, this is perilously short-term therapy for a country afflicted with bigger problems. Unemployment hovers above 15 per cent, higher than the levels before the revolution. There appears to be no firm nationwide plan to create jobs or the space for start-ups. Bank loans are still largely a privilege enjoyed by those who do not need them. In business, as in politics, paternalism still rules.
The tourism slowdown after the Sousse attack is just one part of a larger story of economic woe. Four years after the revolution, the red tape and corruption remain relatively unchanged. It is this, not the pall cast by the Sousse beach gunman, that is scaring away potential investors. And it is this that has hobbled the economy, which seems unable to grow out ofthe low-to-mid two per cent range and is hard pressed to create the jobs those rap fans want.
Why? The saga of the fast-food company McDonald’s may be illustrative. The story goes it was unable to enter Mr Ben Ali’s Tunisia because it consistently failed to pick the “right” partner, a euphemism for a well-connected crony who would receive and portion out the pickings along that other food chain. Interestingly, there are still no golden arches in Tunisia. Global food franchises may be one way of measuring a country’s perceived prospects. While their presence can hardly be said to signify that all’s well with an economy, their absence could be an indicator of profound problems. In this context, there has been some movement recently with one American and one French chain opening limited outlets and there is talk of the arrival of two other US brands.
But the coalition government is not advertising any big changes or even the likely direction, speed and thrust of economic reform. The one concrete proposal, which has been agreed by the cabinet but is yet to be voted on by the legislature, is a controversial national economic reconciliation bill. It would grant amnesty for economic and financial offences committed under the Ben Ali regime and on the watch of the coalition government that took office after his removal, and it has pleased no one except the business community. There are fears that if passed it could serve as a template for a broader plan that would excuse decades of political excesses as well.
At least some of this could be dismissed as the teething problems of an unfamiliar new democratic structure had there not been a larger, more urgent issue that Mr Essebsi himself identified after he won the election in December. Linking the parlous state of the economy with young Tunisians’ strong presence in ISIL, he wrote: “We must … confront the fact that poverty is producing terrorism, a new phenomenon for Tunisia.” And he promised an aggressive programme of “training for new jobs in the digital economy and service sector”.
There has been no evidence of this so far. Instead, the real growth has been in the receptiveness to rap and, more troublingly, to radical sermons. The government would do better to heed the rap. At least it calls for the fulfilment of the promised new Tunisia; the radical preachers demand its destruction.