Socially Responsible Investing: The Arab revolution for economic integrity

PITAPOLICY kicks off August with the theme: Socially Responsible Organizing and Investing.  Last week, our first post was by a new contributor, Zena F. Itani, who attended AIDS Conference Week in Washington, DC.   On Sunday, PITAPOLICY ‘s second post reshared a piece for the EgyptSource & Huffington Post Blogs.  If you would like to add to the discussion, or address another subtheme within socially responsible organizing or SRI (Socially Responsible Investments), ping info@pitapolicyconsulting.com.

This week, PITAPOLICY is excited to welcome new contributor, but not new to the MENA writing scene, Massoud Hayoun.  Hayoun tweeted an excellent point regarding the disadvantages of focusing on tourism to rebuild economically.  Here’s a background piece by The Daily Star if you want to read more about Hayoun’s point. Although the views expressed in this article are his alone, PITAPOLICY supports the discussion Hayoun initiated and welcomes posting a rebuttal or varying viewpoint on the subject of tourism pitfalls and local employment in Tunisia.  Social responsibility must be considered regarding which sectors governments must focus on in the short to long term. 

The Arab Revolution for Economic Integrity Won’t Start at a Beach Resort

By: Massoud Hayoun

European tourists can still wear bikinis and gorge themselves on liquor at Tunisian beaches — That’s newly elected Islamist Party Ennahda’s perennial promise to the international community.

Europeans are as welcome to take a load off in Tunisia as they were, not only under ousted dictator Zine Abidine Ben Ali’s last 23 years of rule, but under imperialism, when the oft-audacious, oft-occupied North African nation was a French protectorate.

Back then, mostly naked French women, sunning themselves in Sousse were one of the more sightly reminders that Tunisia was a colony for a century — a kind of amusement park novelty for visitors from the Metropole up North. Practicing Muslim Tunisian women cooled themselves at their Mediterranean beaches at night.

Tunisian authorities are keen to see tourism figures restored to Ben Ali – and yes, colonial era – levels. With the exception of a few agricultural exports, tourism has been the nation’s cash cow in the contemporary era, after a long history as a regional trading hub.

Last month, officials lauded a 36-percent increase in tourism figures in the first quarter of 2012 as a sign that the post-revolutionary economy is recovering.

“Our objective is to recover the figures of 2010,” head of Tunisian tourism office, Habib Ammar, told AFP.

Tunisia needs money and jobs. The unemployment rate continues to hover around 20 percent. But after a revolution that started long before 2011, in the brutal crackdown and exile of political dissidents, there are no measures to welcome revolutionary developments for economic integrity.

Immediately after the revolution, the interim government worked together with international advertising company Memac Ogilvy to produce a series of absurd and embarrassing ads in Europe.

“They say that in Tunisia, some people receive heavy-handed treatment,” read a racy ad plastered on European busses, with a photo of a topless woman getting a massage.

More recently, an article in British newspaper The Sun promised, “Tunisia keeps kids busier.” The photographs associated with the piece offer a stark reminder that while people in Sidi Bouzid, the hometown of revolutionary martyr Mohammed Bouazizi, continue to struggle to make ends meet, European children practice archery, wet their backsides on waterslides and sleep in beds big enough for five average-sized Tunisians.

Tunisia is still an amusement park for Europeans, even after a clear and profound expression that Tunisian popular will favors integrity over the bad money of the corrupt Ben Ali era.

Farther East, Egypt’s revolution for integrity has not yet addressed the fact that Egyptian nationals are still barred from many resorts in tourist hot spots like Sharm El Sheikh, where tourists don’t appreciate anything about the Egyptian people or their contemporary culture.

As blogger Zeinobia points out, the fact that there are parts of Egypt where Egyptians are not welcome is a holdover, not only from ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade reign of terror, but the pre-Nasser colonial era, when the Nile was dotted with clubs for Europeans only.

An anonymous reader responded to Zeinobia’s blog, writing, “You have to understand that foreigners are not used to hassle when they are on holidays. As a foreigner we are hassled relentlessly from the moment we get up to the moment we leave.”

The user explained that the resort is a safe haven for the tourist to Egypt who fears Egyptians trying to make money off of the tourism industry with a perhaps unnerving, quintessentially Egyptian doggedness.

Although I am not especially fond of the average Parisian’s misplaced hauteur and infamously poor customer service, that does not mean there’s any place in the city that should be barred to its indigenous inhabitants.

A few times, I’ve expressed my frustration wwith the region’s chronic dependence on tourism on Twitter, to which users often respond: That’s the way it is. Tourism reigns supreme, from Marrakesh to Sharm El Sheikh.

But why? Certainly not for lack of a better option.

In an effort to bring Tunisians new enterprise — not dependent on tourists’ capricious whims and expendable incomes — Tunisian-American eBay executive Sami Ben Romdhane has famously tried to turn Tunisia into a regional Silicon Valley, drawing on the over-educated, under-employed Tunisian youth’s blossoming interest in IT.  After all, young Tunisians fueled a revolution with Twitter and Facebook.

Earlier this year, I spoke with Ben Romdhane, who said that he was originally in talks with the North African nation’s interim economic leadership, but since Ennahda came to power late last year, no one has responded to his push for an IT industry.

Ben Romdhane noted there is no policy platform for venture capital in Tunisia. Tunisian youths risk losing an entire investment if they want to start a business that could employ other young Tunisians.

Unemployment is a statistic in Tunisia, just as it is in the United States. It’s hard to see the young and hopeless faces behind it, who have studied for roughly two decades, only to graduate into a grim economy.

I recently met a young Tunisian woman, working at a Washington restaurant to support her studies in the US. She wants to be an engineer, but says there are no opportunities for her and her friends in Tunisia.

It’s disheartening to think that some governments, after such a whopper of a political movement, aren’t doing all they can to give their youth a future. If it weren’t for Tunisian youth, the long-time exiles that now run the country would be as physically removed from their country as they are in their policy-making.

Note: Massoud Hayoun is a 24-year-old North African-American writer and speaker on Middle East, North African and Chinese affairs. He has written for The Atlantic, TIME Magazine, Egypt Independent, The National Interest, AFP and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.  Follow him on Twitter @mhayoun


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