Thoughts on Tunisia: where it all began

I was in Tunisia for two weeks and had a chance to compare how things are moving there to the situation in Egypt. I like Tunisia and I like the Tunisian dialect, which is getting more comprehensible to me on each trip! This time I realized that a ‘y’ is added to the plural form of many verbs, so that ‘we build’ becomes nibnyu. Little realizations like that suddenly open up a lot of what you’re hearing. They don’t have the ‘k’ as a marker of the present tense that you find in Moroccan and Algerian Arabic, which eases things a bit if you’re a Mashreq Arabic speaker. Who can’t love famma and mafammash (from Classical Arabic’s thammata with the connective fa- in front) from ‘there is/isn’t’, which are just as logical, if not more so, as the feeh/mafeehfeeh/mafeesh and aku/maku of dialects to the east. 

I wrote these pieces below on the state of political debate right now. The diplomat I quote was clearly quite happy with the situation right now. Received wisdom has it that the army are detached from politics in Tunisia, since that’s how Ben Ali rigged the game. But it was the army who forced him to stand down in January and it was army chief Rachid Ammar who addressed protesters on the street some days later. Posters for a Jeune Afrique edition back in February on the subject of “L’homme qui a dit non” remain conspicuously placed around the capital. My feeling is that Western governments are satisified that the army is playing a smart long game to limit Ennahda party gains. I sensed similar satisfaction from someone considered “old guard” when I met a World Bank economist. This army exhibit in Tunis – extolling its role in creating independence in 1956, performing services such as preventing immigration to Europe, and in protecting “the youth revolution” this year – aims to reinforce the sense that the fundamentals of Tunisia’s “orientation” will not change.

TUNIS (Reuters) – – Tunisians are debating what kind of relationship they will have with Europe and the United States after an uprising this year unmasked the police state behind what was once touted in the West as an “economic miracle.” Islamists, leftists and nationalists from the major political parties agree that Tunisia should push for relations on a more equal footing with the West, for better trade arrangements and avoiding debt.

One sign of progress is an offer to Tunisia from the European Union of an enhanced partnership status which only Morocco among Arab countries so far has which is the subject of internal EU discussions.

EU reluctance to reduce tariffs on Moroccan agricultural products and its raising political and rights issues indicate the hurdles that process could face. Yet Tunisia’s democratic transition should strengthen its position, said Rachid Kchena, a prominent commentator.

“The key for our new relationships abroad is to be equal with the EU. We can bargain, which the Ben Ali government did not do.”

Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year-rule came to an abrupt end when he fled on January 24 in the face of widespread protests over unemployment, corruption and oppression. “Perhaps we will be more integrated with the Arab countries and North Africa in particular than under Ben Ali, but I don’t think that should contradict a good relationship with the West,” said Kchena.

A Western diplomat said the EU was moving ahead with plans to upgrade its trade relationship with Tunisia.

“I think the EU will happily move it in that direction. A lot of it is being hammered out in the EU itself,” he said, adding that most Western governments didn’t realize how much of a house of cards Ben Ali’s Tunisia was. “We knew it was a mess but we didn’t expect it to snap when it did. We comfort ourselves that Ben Ali’s security people who spend more money on knowing these things didn’t manage to see it coming either,” he said.

On first impression, the North African country of 10 million people was a haven of stability and progress, with the alluring Islamic and French colonial architecture of its capital and a president who, with his high-profile wife, presented himself as a champion of Arab secularism and emancipator of women.

Former French president Jacques Chirac was once so impressed with the country, as it followed prescriptions to privatize firms and eased foreign investment, that he proclaimed Tunisia a neo-liberal success story, an economic miracle.

His successor Nicolas Sarkozyonce claimed Ben Ali’s rule was preventing the emergence of a Taliban state. And the World Bank last year praised Tunisia’s “remarkable progress” in “equitable growth, fighting poverty and achieving good social indicators.” Yet Tunisian political analysts say there was a growing sense that the country was being duped by Ben Ali and his backers.

“Ben Ali represented the policeman of the region, on the edge of Africa, where he could help stop illegal immigration, drugs and weapons going to Europe,” says Salah Attia, a prominent writer at the Assabah daily.

“He played with numbers and sold them to the West so that he could say he was at least a soft dictator. Meanwhile the state of poverty grew, and now it’s clear.”

Western praise ignored not only the authoritarianism of a textbook police state but also airbrushed from view the economic deprivation in southern and central regions, seat of the revolt which finally brought down Ben Ali, as well as the amassing of wealth by an elite close to his extended family and security apparatus.

U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks late last year singled out France and Italy among Western powers as reluctant to push Tunisia on rights abuse and regime corruption.

Former colonial power France was Tunisia’s biggest trading partner and top foreign investor outside the oil sector, and almost half of the 3,000 foreign firms in the country were French.

But Washington also valued security cooperation with Ben Ali. A U.N. rights report this year said the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency worked closely with Tunisian security, transporting militant suspects through the country. Ben Ali’s openings toward Israel also endeared him to U.S. administrations.

SOME POLICIES STAY Analysts say there is broad agreement among politicians on a liberal economy, with more decentralization to help the regions while maintaining state subsidies and control of some key sectors — a source of potential conflict with foreign lenders.

“What is worrying now is that we are not solving social and economic problems or fixing unemployment and the problem of development in the deprived regions,” said Noureddin Beheiri, a politbureau member of the Islamist Ennahda group, whose potential to emerge as the strongest party in post-Ben Ali Tunisia unnerves many in the West.

The interim government — overseeing a slow transition to democracy that has raised fears of a political and security vacuum — has indicated that fiscal policy will not change and some Tunisians, who opposition groups duban old guard of “counter-revolutionaries,” are happy with this. Parliamentary and presidential elections are some way off, dependent upon a vote in October for a body that will first write a new constitution. “I’m sure the fundamentals will be the same. We need to work with the international community, the European Union, World Bank, etc.,” said economist Marouane Abassi, adding he did not think Ennahda, if it forms a government, would alter those ties.

“Tunisia could have been an economic miracle, if not for the bad governance of the last 10 years,” he said. “I left the country in 2006 because I was disappointed by the government… It will take time now to have good governance, change the mentality and improve the administration.”

Abassi said the team running economic policy was essentially the same, despite a change in faces at the top. The central bank governor has said Tunisia will meet its debt obligations for 2011, and finance minister Jalloul Ayed has ruled out rescheduling debt while seeking $4 billion in foreign loans, including a $500 million budget loan from the World Bank.

Ayed spoke of plans for public and financial sector reforms at a meeting of Group of Eight nation leaders in France in May that agreed to offer Egypt and Tunisia a $40 billion package of bank loans and direct aid following this year’s upheavals.

Faced with ratings downgrades during the uprising, the government shelved plans to go to international debt markets.

Abassi defended lender prescriptions of loosening regulation, more privatization and reducing subsidies in strategic sectors such as fuel, basic commodities and transport.

“(Ben Ali) chose not to reform transport because it was very profitable for ‘The Family’,” he said, referring to the family of Ben Ali and his wife. “We need to understand how the Tunisian government should liberalize these sectors.” Abassi said Tunisia could not bet on recovering Ben Ali family assets, despite the promises of many governments to help.

“Forget about this money,” he said. “If you can get it, it’s good. But I’m not sure how much it is, and getting it back is very difficult. They can hire the best lawyers in the world.”

But Kchena said the middle class were alarmed at the country’s financial situation and the thought of more debt, and the strife had the potential to produce a new brand of political leader not necessarily to the liking of international players eager for continuity.

“In the media, unions and political parties, we can hear the voice of the middle class which is scared by the new economic choices that the World Bank, for example, is trying to impose on Tunisia,” Kchena said. “With new media, all Tunisians know everything about these negotiations, with the G8 and the EU,” he said. “If the World Bank and other institutions push our government to take difficult and severe measures, they will produce new leaders.”


Secularists hope Tunisia’s gradual approach for moving to an open political system from a police state will help box in Islamists but it has created a political and security vacuum that could end up helping them.

Tunisians forced out president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali via street protests in December and January, and over 90 political parties have sprung up in the newly freed public space.

Secular parties, policy-makers and Western powers are preparing for a future where the leading Islamist party Ennahda, driven abroad and underground by Ben Ali, is a key force in the North African country but working out how to limit its impact.

“There are colossal suspicions about Ennahda. No one believes their commitment to democracy and pluralism. Their discourse in Arabic is very different to their discourse in French, particularly in rural areas,” said George Joffe, a politics professor at Cambridge University.

He said the fear was not just of its Islamist platform but of a gradual slip into the one-party authoritarianism of the previous era if one better-organized group dominates.

It is partly because of these concerns that Tunisia is taking its time before getting to any elections. Elections for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution have been delayed to October, and there is no timeframe for parliamentary and presidential elections that follow.

“There is a reasonable chance Ennahda will emerge the strongest party but not having a majority. The best guess is there will be a secular-center left majority in parliament,” a Western diplomat said.

The incumbent political class, divided between those who accommodated and those who challenged Ben Ali’s corrupt government, hope Ennahda will not gain more than a quarter of the vote, said economist Marouane Abassi.

“Ennahda could get around 25 percent which is manageable, but more than that would be difficult for Tunisia,” he said.

Though the army has been seen by analysts as a weaker force than in Egypt, it has made an effort to present itself as guiding the transition from above and protecting the secular state established by independence leader Habib Bourguiba.

“The national army is alert to protecting the Tunisian youth revolution, the revolution for freedom, dignity and social justice, and it will remain true to its promise,” proclaims a slogan at an exhibit in central Tunis celebrating the army’s role as protector of the state over the past 55 years.


The work of organizing the mechanisms of transition is split between the interim cabinet and a body with the lofty title of “higher committee for realizing the aims of the revolution, political reform and democratic transition.”

This committee has set up a separate body to organize the October vote and is preparing a political parties law that would introduce transparency and restrictions on funding.

This last is widely perceived to be targeting Ennahda which was able to gather support through Islamist networks while in years of exile in London and other Western capitals.

“The Left is trying to marginalize Ennahda. The idea is to hem them in with laws,” said Salah Attia, a columnist at the daily Assabah.

If Ennahda dominates the constituent assembly it will find much of the country’s political structure already in place.

The committee has also come up with the idea of a “republican charter” for all groups to adhere to, guaranteeing separation of religion and state and key women’s rights that have established Tunisia as a citadel of Arab secularism.

Ennahda says it has no problem with such a charter but has countered that it should include the principle of no relations with Israel. It says these are tricks to delay the vote further.

“There is a fear now that the committee wants to create tension in order to delay the elections,” said Noureddin Beheiri, Ennahda politburo member. “This would mean it is trying to sabotage the revolution not realize its aims.”

He noted it has not yet drawn up a list of Ben Ali-era loyalists from his dissolved RCD party who would not be able to run in October. Without the list, the poll will not be possible.

Ennahda made a play for public opinion last month in pulling out of the committee, saying it was dominated by secularists such as Tajdeed party who refused to put issues to a vote.

Calls are also emerging for a simultaneous vote on October 23 for what kind of political system Tunisians want — limiting the leg room of an elected constituent assembly where Islamists are likely to have more sway than they do now.

A group of around 40 small parties, also concerned about the strength of the major parties such as the leftist Democratic Progressive Party, are campaigning for this.

The question, as in Egypt, is where the balance of power should lie between parliament, government and president.

Political commentator Rachid Kchena said Ennahda was exploiting the situation well, raising fears of the “old guard” continuing to dominate.

“Whether you delay elections or not, it won’t make much difference. The other parties will not have enough time to adapt,” he said. “They are doing well because people see them having these differences with the committee. It is theater.


The security situation has suffered as the political vacuum continues.

Police say they clashed with nine militants described as al Qaeda in north Tunisia in May. Last month Islamists attacked a Tunis cinema for showing a film deemed blasphemous, tribal violence broke out in Metaoui and security forces clashed with police who were on strike in Gabes.

Though the film attack was by puritanical Islamists known as Salafists, some in the secular intelligentsia fear Ennahda is set to benefit by presenting itself as the moderate center.

Police have acted to stop Salafists staging protests in Tunis, yet more than 1,000 people from secular parties and rights groups managed to stage a demonstration against religious extremism on July 7.

“Every few weeks there is a security problem,” said Attia. “The prime minister and the president are in their positions on an interim basis and there is no parliament. There is a lack of legitimacy.”

In Egypt, the army has set the country on a different trajectory. Parliamentary elections are due in September after some changes to the constitution were approved by referendum. Presidential elections will follow after the new parliament engages in a wider review of the constitution.

But Tunisia was the country where the Arab uprisings began, and it has set the standard ever since, in the removal of ancien regime prime ministers and dissolving state security apparatus and ruling parties.

Tunisia has the chance to emerge as the first real democracy from the uprisings sweeping the region, Abassi said: “We have the momentum for it and we need to do it now.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *