Tunisia: Where is Your Jasmine Revolution Going?

TUNIS, TUNISIA - JANUARY 20:  Tunisians protes...January 20 2011 Protests in front of the RCD party HQImage by Getty Images via @daylife
When the long-time autocratic President of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled Tunisia last week after weeks of riotous street protests and one hundred dead, everybody was surprised. First, at how quickly Ben Ali vanished - and still no one tells us where he's gone to. France? Probably not, the French denied him entry. But then where?  For the moment, his assets are frozen and there aren't probably too many places for him to go to, except the usual ones for people like him...

The other ground for surprise was Tunisia's image as a quiet country where tourists are safe to enjoy sun, sea and golf. A sort of peaceful Muslim version of the Spanish coast, with a nice, growing economy.

How could anything go wrong here? All went well until 2009 when Italy and Spain - both Tunisia's main markets - were hit by the Great Recession. Then the recession ricocheted back to Tunisia, and economic woes, particularly in the poorer areas in the centre of the country, set the stage for the insurrection. The classic spark that set fire to the whole place.

But the fire has been long simmering underneath a false appearance of peace. This was a revolution some 20 years in the making, stoked by a highly repressive and corrupt government that hadn't hesitated to ban the only serious opposition party, the islamist al Nahda movement or Renaissance party, back in...1991 - mainly because it had gained some 20 percent of the votes in the 1989 elections that had confirmed Ben Ali in power: too much for comfort. Ben Ali has always used fear of religious extremism, especially after 9/11, and in particular militant Islam, as his main excuse to crack down on opposition parties.

An excuse French and American diplomacy pretended to believe in, while they closed an eye on the repression which increased when a new anti-terror law was passed in 2003. According to a 2006 Human Rights Watch report, while some 1700 political prisoners were released that year, they were given a particularly hard time once outside, with the police closely monitoring them. They were denied passports and most jobs, and those who dared to speak out against the repression were threatened with re-arrest: the definition of terrorism under the 2003 law was so broad that it could be used to prosecute even when people merely exercised their right to dissent. In short, what awaited any dissenter was civilian death.

So I was wondering when the international press would come to grips with the central issue here: the freedom of expression. It happened today with an excellent article in the New York Times, entitled "Opposition in Tunisia Finds Chance for Rebirth", which tries to assess the chances for the banned Al Nahda party to make a comeback.

You might have expected that assessment to have come from Al Jazeera, but no. So far, the Qatar-financed TV has been true to its anti-authoritarian image and its reporting has focussed on violent protest, particularly "if it bleeds, it leads" but has been short on analysis. That, of course, is actually normal for TV as a news medium: there are always more images than analysis - which, in this particular case, makes Al Jazeera a potentially dangerous conduit to spread anger and protest among Arab states similar to Tunisia, or who see themselves as similar. But that's another question for another post.

What I'd like to address here is: what are the chances that Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" (or Palm Date revolution as some have called it) will lay the ground for democracy?

The chances are slim: opposition parties are weak and Al Nahda was decapitated and hunted down for so long that no one really knows how much of a solid following it has. Or even how democratic and liberal it is, though there are claims that it is at least as, or more liberal than the Justice and Development party, the Turkish Islamist party now ruling Turkey.

The idea of a liberal, democratic Al Nahda doesn't convince everybody. There's general agreement that Al Qaeda - although it is trying hard these days - will not succeed in recruiting much of Tunisia's youth in its ranks because of the country's cultural tradition of peace and respect for human life. But islamic extremism cannot be entirely ruled out. At least some form of it. It is worth recalling in this connection that Al Nahda was the brain child of intellectual radicals back in the 1950s and 1960s, men who felt close to the Egyptian Islamic Brotherhood. Initially established as Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique (MTI) in 1981, with the objective to give a role to Islam in Tunisian politics and obtain an Islamic constitution, it became more moderate over time. Particularly when it changed its name to the current one in 1988 and signed with Ben Ali a "National Pact" which sought to separate religion from politics, in preparation to the 1989 elections. So it denied its MTI origins, but for how long? The fact that Ben Ali banned it after the elections, jailed its historic leader (Rached Ghannouchi) and sent him into exile (he's now in London, waiting to return) must have had a negative fallout: one possible outcome would have been a return of Al Nahda to its radical origins. Current militants interviewed by the NYT claim that is not the case, but who knows...

Yet, without a vigorous opposition and one that is respectful of democratic rules, it is difficult to see how Tunisia can progress towards a full democracy. Ben Ali's party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), is hopeless and should probably be dismantled. To be replaced by what? There's no easy answer, as demonstrated by the wobbly "unity government" hastily put in place by RCD politicians once Ben Ali had fled. Within hours, the three opposition leaders co-opted in this government (to unimportant ministerial jobs, that is true), had resigned. The objective of this new government is to "help the transition" and "prepare new elections". So far 1800 political prisoners have been released, so it is moving in the right direction. But an amnesty law still needs to be passed before Al Nahda can be re-instated as an operational party.

All this however are details. The fundamental problem is that most of the political class has been tainted by the RCD. Other forces in society are the trade unions and the military. Indeed, if the new government fails in its task of ferrying the country to democracy, the military are likely to move in - basically, following the Turkish model, that has only recently been upended by Mr. Erdogan's Justice and Development party. What about the trade unions? I'll admit my ignorance: if anyone has information, please make comments!

What I am convinced of is that Tunisia is to a large extent a case apart. There's much enthusiasm in Arab countries - and several people have set themselves on fire, hoping to emulate Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution which is supposed to have started with just such a self-immolation. But in fact, Tunisia had what practically no other country in the region has: a large, well-educated middle class, thorougly familiar with French liberal ideas.

So the Jasmine Revolution is not easily exportable. And my hope is that Tunisian cultural traditions, deeply rooted in liberalism as they are, will carry the day and make a real democracy possible.

Post-scriptum: In case you're wondering why I have followed the Tunisian case in so much depth, the explanation is that I happen to be finishing a novel where the protagonist, the rich, fat and bored wife of an expat banker living in Rome, has a wild affair with a fascinating Tunisian. Naturally I had to have Al Nahda enter the picture - fiction is fun only if it is way out, right? So I did a lot of research, and when the rioting broke out in Tunisia, I watched TV, fascinated, wondering when Al Nahda would come out of the woodwork...

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