Tunisia

Lingering spring

Print edition : June 12, 2015

President Beji Caid Essebsi in Tunis on May 12. Photo: FETHI BELAID/AFP

Rashid al Ghannushi, leader of the Ennahda movement. Photo: REUTERS

Protesters holding a poster of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunis on January 28, 2011. Bouazizi, 26, a vendor of fruits who was harassed and humiliated by petty officials, attempted self-immolation on December 17, 2010. He succumbed to his injuries and set off a cause-and-effect chain that brought an end to Ben Ali's regime. Photo: AP

It is reasonable to hope that the North African country is moving towards democracy undeterred by the reverses the Arab political revolution has suffered in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

The Arab Spring reminds one of the lines spoken by Proteus in Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona:

“O, how this spring of love resembleth

The uncertain glory of an April day;

Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,

And by and by a cloud takes all away.”

The brief spring has been replaced by winter, cruel, dark, and seemingly endless. Egypt is firmly under military rule, with hardly any facade of democracy; Libya has at least two governments, two parliaments, and any number of militias clashing with one another; Yemen is prey to a civil war fuelled by neighbouring Saudi Arabia; Syria’s toll has crossed 220,000 with no end in sight to the senseless bloodletting; and the Islamic State in Iraq/Syria boasts of beheadings, destruction of human heritage from bygone civilisations, and crucifixions of the innocent if they refuse to be converted to the “only true religion”. The sole exception is tiny Tunisia with a population of 11 million, where the sun of democracy is still shining, though not in a cloudless sky.

To understand Tunisia’s success in moving decisively towards a democratic destiny undeterred by the reverses in the rest of the region, it is necessary to accept the truth that there was no Arab Spring if that phrase means that Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen underwent a political revolution of the same type. Each country underwent a turmoil specific to itself.

Let us look at Tunisia in its specificity. Tunisia reminds one of Hannibal, Carthage and St. Augustine. Students of sociology might recall Ibn Khaldhun (1332-1406), the founder of the discipline. The city of Carthage, according to legend, was founded by the Phoenician Princess Dido from the famous city of Tyre in southern Lebanon, 72 years before the foundation of Rome. After its conquest by Rome, Tunisia prospered and Christianity came in the 4th century. There were three popes from Tunisia before Islam, starting from the 7th century, replaced Christianity. The Fatimid Empire, named after Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, based in Tunisia conquered Egypt and founded Cairo in the 10th century. Later, Tunisia came under the Ottomans, with the Bey in charge of Tunisia holding considerable autonomy. The French held Tunisia as their colony from 1881 to 1956.

Tunisians fought for independence from France under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba, known as the Supreme Warrior. He overthrew the Bey and declared a republic in 1957. Bourguiba was a charismatic leader who was innocent of any urge to establish democracy. He identified Tunisia with himself completely. He made sure that his statue adorned every town and village. The national day was not the day Tunisia got independence but the day he returned from exile in 1955.

Tunisia had a window of opportunity to march towards a normal democratic destination when it gained independence had Bourguiba set his mind on it. His approach is best illustrated by a story in circulation among older Tunisians. Bourguiba and Leopold Senghor of Senegal were close friends, having known each other in France in their youth. Senghor voluntarily gave up office after 20 years as President and later he came to Tunisia to meet his friend. Senghor told Bourguiba that it was time for their generation to retire and pass the baton to the next generation. We do not know what response Bourguiba gave to Senghor. But, we do know what Bourguiba told his Prime Minister after the visitor left: “That black man has funny ideas.”

Jasmine revolution

Bourguiba got himself declared as President for Life in 1975, and his senility made it difficult for him to discharge his functions. Once, he asked his Prime Minister to appoint someone to the Cabinet, and later when the Prime Minister told him that the new Minister was there to see him, Bourguiba refused to see him, denying that he had ever wanted the man to be made a Minister. It was found necessary to get rid of Bourguiba, and a clause in the Constitution that provides for the removal of the President if he is medically unfit to discharge his functions was invoked. Carefully chosen doctors examined Bourguiba and declared him unfit. That was in November 1987, when Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took over. That coup was called the Jasmine Revolution, jasmine being the national flower.

The takeover by Ben Ali was a blessing in disguise for a few Ennahda leaders who were to be executed under orders signed by Bourguiba, whether sane or not. One such leader, who holds a high position in the party, told me that he escaped execution narrowly.

Ben Ali promised restoration of democracy and got a piece of legislation passed to limit the President’s tenure to three terms. However, he tightened the control and surveillance of the people by the security establishment, partly because he himself was head of security for many years. In 2002, he tried to perpetuate his rule by trying to amend the Constitution to remove the cap on presidential terms. Ben Ali was applauded by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the West, governments and the media, as the hero of LPG (liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation). In essence, the family of Ben Ali’s second wife, Leila Trabelsi, benefited immensely from crony capitalism of the worst kind. If a variety of cheese was not available for dinner, a plane was sent to France. Unemployment levels rose, especially among the educated. It was easier for an uneducated young man to find a job than for his educated counterpart. Ben Ali gladly cooperated with President George W. Bush’s GWOT (Global War on Terrorism), and “terrorists” caught anywhere could be sent to Tunisia for “appropriate torture”.

The world remembers the attempted self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, a vendor of fruits who was harassed and humiliated by petty officials. That was on December 17, 2010. Subsequently, he succumbed to his injuries and set a cause-and- effect chain that brought an end to Ben Ali’s regime. However, Bouazizi was not the first to try and succeed in killing himself. Obviously, he lit a match in a room with a lot of inflammable materials.

Ennahda, a cousin of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in 1981 by Rashid al Ghannushi. The two cousins have considerable differences in their approach to the question of the place of Islam in society. Ennahda is much more moderate and understands that politics is the art of the possible. The general election held in October 2011 led to a government of a coalition of parties, with Ennahda at the head with 89 seats in a House of 217. The other parties were more “secular” than Ennahda. The new government relaxed the tight hold of the security system, and some elements who wanted to put an end to the experiment in democracy carried out two assassinations, of Chokri Belaid in February 2013 and of Mohammed Brahmi in August 2013. The government was unable to carry out the necessary investigations and bring the culprits to justice. The inability of the government was interpreted by some Tunisians as its unwillingness to act and “collusion” with the killers. Watching the manner in which Mohamed Morsi, the first freely elected President of Egypt, was kidnapped by the Egyptian Army following a wave of huge street demonstrations, some Tunisians were tempted to believe that they could have a similar counter-revolution in Tunisia. However, there were two obstacles. The Tunisian Army was not interested in grabbing power and Rashid al Ghannushi proved to be adroit in playing the game of politics, unlike his Egyptian cousins. He agreed to the establishment of a Cabinet of technocrats once the Constitution under drafting was completed and adopted.

Tunisia’s new Constitution was promulgated on January 27, 2014. It is easily the most progressive and balanced Constitution in the Arab world, reflecting the political maturity of the Tunisians and their genius for reasoned compromise. The balance between the pull of Islam and the need to be open to the rest of the world is best summed up in the following excerpt from the preamble:

“Expressing our people’s commitment to the teachings of Islam, to their spirit of openness and tolerance, to human values and the highest principles of human rights, inspired by the heritage of our civilisation. Accumulated over the travails of our history, from our enlightened reformist movements that are based on the foundations of our Islamic-Arab identity and on the acquisitions of human civilisation and adhering to the national gains achieved by our people...”

In the election that followed the adoption of the Constitution, Ennahda suffered a setback. A new party, Nidaa Tounis (Call of Tunisia), founded in 2012 and headed by Beji Caid Essebsi, a former Prime Minister, won the highest number of seats, short of a majority. Finally, instead of sulking, Ennahda agreed to join the ruling coalition as a junior party. It is easy to see here the guiding hand of al Ghannushi. It is believed by some Tunisians that Ennahda is playing a smart game as it expects Nidaa Tounis to implode owing to its own internal contradictions as it consists of those who are nostalgic for Bourguiba, others nostalgic for Ben Ali, the big business, the trade unions, and some leftists. Moreover, given the age of the President, 89, it is likely that the war of succession has already started or may start soon.

Obstacles in the way of democracy

We spoke of the clouds around. Let us deal with the obstacles in the way to democracy one by one. First, the creation of jobs. The level of unemployment has moved up from 11 per cent under Ben Ali to 15 per cent. However, the official figures do not reflect the pain, anger and frustration of the young. Twenty unemployed youths have been on a hunger strike for over two months in Gabes and Jbeniam, two small towns. In other parts, the young hold up placards with the words “Dignity” and “Work” written on them. One placard says: “We buy and sell University Diplomas”. At one place, the protests stopped the rail shipment of phosphates, an important export from Tunisia. The industry employs 300,000 people and has accumulated a loss of $2 billion in the last four years. Tunisia’s budget is $16.9 billion.

One of the principal reasons for the decline in the production and export of phosphates is the cancerous growth of irresponsible trade unionism. There was recently a case of a school run by nuns from India. The nuns do not take any salary and the teachers are paid from the fees collected. The teachers wanted a hike in salary. The nuns asked the teachers to look at the accounts and to find the money for the raise as it was not feasible to raise the fees since the parents would object. Instead of seeing reason, the teachers complained to their trade union and days later a few tough-looking men landed up to confront the nuns. They approached the ambassador, who met the Governor, and the harassment stopped. In short, the trade union movement has to be brought back to sanity if the economy is to be restored to health and jobs are to be created. The government alone cannot do it.

Bardo attack

Secondly, after the terrorist attack on the Bardo Museum (March 18, 2015) that killed 22 and injured 50, Tunisia finds itself on the horns of a dilemma: how to fight and prevent terrorism without losing civil liberties and reviving the dreaded security establishment under Ben Ali. A Bill under consideration is draconian. It has provisions such as five years in prison for “insulting the morale of security forces”; two years in prison for passing on “information on operations”; and 10 years for getting hold of security documents. Neji Bghouri, president of the Journalists Union, has said that the law under consideration will establish a “police state” and a “dictatorship”. There is opposition from Members of Parliament, too. It appears that though there is no deep state in Tunisia similar to the powerful one in Egypt, there is a strong security establishment that has been able to make out a case for its reincarnation primarily because of the Bardo incident.

A question that has not been asked seriously is whether Tunisia overreacted to Bardo. Essentially, the attack was carried out by two Tunisians who came back from Libya. But, it was the utterly culpable lack of diligence by the security contingent deployed at the museum that led to the success of the terrorists. If Tunisia abridges freedom to strengthen security, it can have unintended consequences, including increased attacks by terrorists. On the broader question of the revival of the economy, Tunisia is facing a dilemma. It badly needs foreign investment and loans. The IMF-World Bank donors insist on the cutting down of subsidies, a rather risky step as the government might not be able to handle the anger of the people. All told, despite the clouds, at times darkening, it is reasonable to hope that Tunisia will march towards a democratic destination though there can be setbacks from time to time. The Tunisian exception is under test and not yet demonstrated convincingly. But Tunisia deserves the goodwill of all of us and deserves more economic support from the West if the latter is keen on supporting democracy in the Arab world as it claims to be.

Ambassador K.P. Fabian was recently in Tunisia to collect material for his book The Arab Spring That Was And Wasn’t , sponsored by the Indian Council of World Affairs.

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