Fast food in Tunisia

Julia Simon Oct 25, 2011

Fast food in Tunisia

Julia Simon Oct 25, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: Tunisians are still waiting for the official vote count from this past weekend’s election — the first real taste of democracy that country’s had in decades. As they start to grapple with the messy business of politics, there is the small matter of actual business to tend to: trying to get past the corruption and cronyism that had become the norm under now-deposed President Zine El Abidine ben Ali.

Julia Simon reports the country’s restaurants are gearing up for the challenge.

Julia Simon: On the edge of the old walled city of Tunis there’s a restaurant that’s so good, it doesn’t need its name on the door. Locals just know it. On the table are olives, pumpkin, and Tunisian harissa, full of spicy red peppers. English professor Mounir Khelifa breaks off a piece of baguette for dipping.

Mounir Khelifa: People come sit, they are served, they eat, they leave.

Simon: Fast Food?

Khelifa: Yes. Fast food, a la tunisienne.

Tunisians are proud of their own traditional fast food, and as many Tunisians say with pride, there are no McDonald’s here. One of Tunisia’s few food chains is Baguette and Baguette. The founder Sofienne Ghali says some Tunisians see the lack of McDonald’s as a cultural coup, but the real reason there are no foreign restaurants here goes back to Ben Ali’s regime.

Sofienne Ghali: Back in 1996 there was a Tunisian who was going to open a McDonald’s. But Ben Ali’s son in law wanted to partner with him, and since he refused Ben Ali decided that we don’t need foreigners to make us sandwiches. It was an abuse of power by Ben Ali.

Ghali says this abuse of power affected everyone in the Tunisian economy, him too.

Ghali: Like in 2004 when we opened a stall in the airport, Ben Ali’s son in law had it shut down because he had a competing stall there.

Zekri Nourreddine is the general manager of the Foreign Investment Promotion Agency, part of the Ministry of Planning. He says now that Ben Ali is gone, the corruption in the Tunisian economy has diminished.

Zekri Nourreddine: After the revolution transparency and good governance are being developed. I think that Tunisia is now more competitive, more attractive, than it was before the revolution.

And since January’s revolution many American companies have visited the country and are looking to invest. Gordon Gray is the U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia.

Gordon Gray: There are a number of U.S. franchises — including in the food market but others as well — that have told us they are looking at the market here in Tunisia. I think given the large middle class here and the familiarity with many famous U.S. franchises it would be a real opportunity for U.S. businesses.

And given Tunisia’s high unemployment, Nourreddine says he welcomes foreign business. Especially because…

Nourreddine: Foreign investment in Tunisia is creating 20 to 25 percent of jobs every year.

There are still Tunisians who say “No Merci to Mickey D!” but 22-year-old English student Rania Mkaddem has a different view. She admits she’d be frustrated if U.S. chains dominated the Tunisian food scene, but even so, a cheeseburger now and again would be welcome.

Rania Mkaddem: I just like pluralism, in food even, not just in parties. This is democracy right?

And for her, democracies all come down to the freedom of choice.

In Tunis, I’m Julia Simon for Marketplace.

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