x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Tunisians make most of revolutionary economic opportunities

From a cafe called Facebook, named for the social media site that helped bring down former Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, to revolutionary tourism via bookshops selling formerly banned books, Tunisians are making money from their revolt.

Women walk past the Facebook Cafe in the centre of Tunis.
Women walk past the Facebook Cafe in the centre of Tunis.

TUNIS // When Tunisia's January revolution toppled the former president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Ahmed Baccar sniffed opportunity.

"We put up some posts on Facebook saying we were the official partners of the revolution," said Mr Baccar, who had some justification for claiming a bond with the wildly popular social networking website: the cafe that he and a business partner opened last July in Tunis is fortuitously named after it.

"The revolution definitely helped the idea of the Facebook cafe," he said as he tended the cash register in his bustling coffee bar that, unsurprisingly, features blue-and-white decor.

Mr Baccar is one of a growing group of businessmen and entrepreneurs trying to turn the emotion and goodwill of Tunisia's revolution into commercial success.

Signs in French reading "Facebook: the official partner of the revolution" and "Keyword: release date 14 January 2011" hang on the walls. The narrow cafe is lit in neon blue, and Facebook's logo is everywhere.

"It has prestige," said Namouche Ben Hazzen, a student at a nearby high school who was at the cafe chatting with friends. "Facebook, it's a brand name, and everyone knows about it. If it wasn't called Facebook, maybe not everyone would come here."

Facebook played a critical role in the protests that led to Mr Ben Ali's fall, helping young people organise, debate and assemble for mass demonstrations. Tunisians exchanged information on police thuggery and posted videos of the mayhem.

Given that role, the Facebook brand in Tunisia now appears almost universally beloved.

"We don't have points to debate and express ourselves," Mr Baccar said. "It was Facebook that brought everyone together, all the young people. Almost 80 per cent of the Tunisian population are young people, and in Tunisia you don't have places to talk, to express yourself."

"We're profiting from the opportunity," he said, though he admitted he was not a heavy Facebook user. The café's name was a suggestion from his fiancée.

Other businesses are also latching on to revolution fever.

Tour groups in Tunis have been seen stopping at sites of mass protests, such as the heavily guarded interior ministry building on Bourguiba Street.

Bookstores have enjoyed a nice windfall, too, openly selling previously banned copies of books about corruption in the Ben Ali regime.

People crowded around the windows of two bookstores on Bourguiba Street yesterday to gaze at the new titles on display, including The Regent of Carthage, a book about Mr Ben Ali's wife Leila Trabelsi, Our Friend Ben Ali and Ben Ali le ripou, which means, loosely translated, "Ben Ali the Corrupt".

Jameela Ben Ammar, a manager at Al Kitab bookstore, said: "Of course, when we were in a dictatorial system, we couldn't sell just any book. All books that talked about politics and attacked the politics of the regime were banned. After the revolution, right away we started selling books that were censored."

Many bookstores had copies of banned books even before Mr Ben Ali's fall, but they had to hide their stocks and circulate them among like-minded people. When the regime crumbled, the back-room stashes went on display almost immediately.

"These titles are so popular," Ms Ben Ammar said. "It has been an enormous success."

The most popular books on the regime, she said, have been The Regent of Carthage and Our Friend Ben Ali, which she described as an old book but one that was still relevant. The Regent of Carthage has already sold more than 1,500 copies, she said. "Everyone knew the truth that you can find in these books," she said. "There were a couple details that escaped, but maybe now people want to come see what was the real style of the old regime."

Still other types of businesses, from merchants selling souvenirs of the revolution and street vendors setting up near the sites of protests, are looking to take advantage of the upheaval that has put a huge dent in Tunisia's economy. The unrest has shaved $5 billion to $8 billion off its GDP as tourists stay away and investors get antsy, according to a transitional government official last month.

Mostly, though, regular Tunisian businessmen are just happy to be back in business after being forced to shut down in the days preceding and after the protests. Zoubeir Bouallegoe's family has run a jewellery store in Tunisia's medina, near the site of the protests, since 1925.

During the protests, Mr Bouallegoe was forced to close for three weeks. "Last month it was difficult, but now it's calm," he said.

afitch@thenational.ae