It was just before three o’clock on Sunday morning in Tunisia when the 18-year-old swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui won a gold medal in the 400 metre freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics. But it seemed as if the whole of Tunisia had stayed up to watch. Videos of his coach’s celebration dance and his cheering family went viral. Hafnaoui wasn’t expected to win. He had barely qualified for the race and was competing in an outside lane, which may put swimmers at a slight physical disadvantage (from the waves splashing off the wall) as well as a psychological one. He also comes from a country of empty swimming pools.
In Tunisia in the early 1980s a standard loaf of white bread cost 80 millimes (0.08 dinars). But the price was set to more than double in 1984: the government had decided to cut wheat subsidies to meet loan conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund. The town of Douz on the edge of the Sahara was the first to rise up against the decision in late December 1983, in what would become a national revolt. ‘It was a big difference!’ Mohamed Fekih Chedly told me. ‘We acted impulsively, we didn’t have twenty millimes and they were going to make the bread 170.’
The road to Tataouine from the phosphate-producing region of Gafsa was blocked by young people protesting for jobs and development. I made a U-turn and headed back towards the west. When I got to Douz, people were cooking their dinner on open fires: the region had no gas because of protests two hours away in Gabès; they were demanding the same thing. The road from Douz to Tataouine was clear, though the petrol stations were empty because of other roadblocks towards the coast.
When I walked into a polling station in Algiers last Thursday morning, rows of people peered down at me from three floors of balconies. They all wore lanyards and were there to officiate at Algeria’s presidential election. But there weren’t any voters. The election was a third attempt at going to the polls. The first two scheduled ballots, in April and July, had been aborted under pressure from the mass movement that has been filling Algeria’s streets every Friday since 22 February, when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika – frail and rarely seen – announced he would run for a fifth term. He stepped down in April. But the Hirak (‘movement’), not content with seeing Bouteflika gone, is demanding that ‘all of them go’.
A child hoisted a Tunisian flag up a pole beside a palm tree in the concrete courtyard of her school in Tunis. The national anthem blared and gardening gloves were handed out to the watching crowd of environmentalists, local politicians and call-centre employees, who were on a corporate responsibility outing and wearing matching T-shirts printed for the occasion. The Eid al Shajara (‘tree festival’) has taken place annually on the second Sunday in November since 1958. Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, said he wanted to ‘awaken in the nation a lively interest for trees, an appreciation for their aesthetic and economic value’.