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Tunisia – Three Years After Bouazizi…

December 26, 2013
2011 - 12 - 16 - Sidi Bou Said - Amilcar 7

Amilcar, Tunisia

(note: This piece, edited and improved, appeared at Foreign Policy In Focus and Fair Observer in the UK)

by Rob Prince

1.

About a year ago, in Los Angeles, I asked a Tunisian-Jewish friend, Jaco, his thoughts on the post-Ben Ali Tunisian political situation. He thought about it for a second and summed up the Tunisian reality in two sentences. “Things will get worse. And then they’ll get better”. Nicely put but harder to see the bright future at the end of the rainbow at the moment!

Three years ago, on December 17, 2013, Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself in Sidi Bouzid, an impoverished town in the Tunisian interior, setting off a social explosion that would first force Zine Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi from power before expanding to the entire Middle East.

Three years later, the prospects for “a new Tunisia” are somber enough. The talk of Tunisia being “the only successful democratic transition” in the Arab World, or the like, is, unfortunately, more wishful thinking than fact. Democracy – if that is what one can call the tumultuous process of the past three years, hangs on, but only by a thread.

The country is in full crisis. Like the other countries in the Arab World, the Tunisian revolt was triggered by economic stagnation, massive corruption and repressive dictatorship. The demands of the revolution, hardly addressed, were essentially secular: for far-reaching socio-economic change, greater democracy. It was not about what variety of Islam the country might embrace..

True enough, the Arab Spring in Tunisia has not deteriorated to the levels of civil war as in Syria or Egypt, but three years after Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself in Sidi Bouzid, the path Tunisians have traveled has been a rocky one, a fair amount of the suffering, much of it self-inflicted. Three years on, Tunisia slides from one crisis to another. Despite formal progress (elections, some regime facelifts), Tunisia is caught in a downward spiral that could easily sink much further. As the economic continues to tank and jobs are scarce for youth, more young people are amenable to “the Salafist call.”.

While outside influences – the corroding influence of Qatari and Saudi money – are at place here, much of the responsibility for Tunisia’s current plight must be placed at the feet of the three party ruling coalition, in which the Ennahdha Party, essentially the Tunisian wing of the Muslim Brotherhoods, bears much of the weight for the current drift towards the abyss. Without foreign economic and political aid (the United States, Europe), the current government would not have a leg to stand upon, the Tunisian political reality would collapse.

Ennahdha, and particularly its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi bear a great deal of responsibility for the growing polarization of which the country suffers. Like its sister organization in Egypt, Ennahdha’s rule has been characterized by ineptness, factionalism and growing repressiveness. Ennahdha gave a free hand to more radical Islamic elements, permitting Salafists to gain control over the country’s mosques, to bully and threaten more secular figures, intimidate women in an effort to undermine women’s rights,  to attempt to gut “Islamicize” the country’s educational system, etc., the moderates of the past having been unceremoniously pushed aside.

The Ennahdha led government has been characterized by an almost complete absence of an economic program or vision that might begin to address the country’s economic and social ills. It has limped along on IMF handouts, with the usual harsh structural adjustment criteria. Its program was essentially cultural – to increase its own particular version of Islam on Tunisia’s long secular-oriented post-colonial government. Add to the absence of any new economic program a new intolerant religious sectarianism fueled and funded with Saudi and Qatari money, to  appreciate a toxic cocktail is in the making.

Now for the forth time since the overthrow of the Ben Ali-Trabelsi dictatorship, the Tunisian ruling elite has had to ‘shuffle the deck” in response to widespread public outrage. Unending  mass protests combined with pressure from both the Obama Administration and the European Union have forced a leadership change. Past changes have been little more than political musical chairs, with the ruling troika – in which Ennahdha (the Islamic Party) holds most of the power – simply changing one Ennahdha leader with another.

This time, fearing that it might suffer the same fate as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahdha reluctantly began a more serious process. The fundamental question is whether the new leadership actually offers the country a way out of the crisis, or whether it is once again an exercise of “all the change necessary to maintain the status quo.’ Time will tell.

A “national dialogue’ – somewhat limited in scope – has resulted in the announcement of a new government in which Ennahdha has agreed to share power with Beji Caid Essebsi’s Nida Tounes Party, a party made up largely of prominent business and government elements from the Ben Ali period, including Essebsi himself. Nida Tounes is the old guard’s bid to return to power through the back door.  After several months of political wrangling, Ennahdha agreed to a new transitional government of “technocrats’ to replace the current government led by Ali Larayedh, a former Interior Minister has agreed to step down as prime minister. Under pressure from Paris, Mehdi Jomâa, a Tunisian with ties to the French energy multinational Total was chosen to replace him..

While Ennahdha and Nida Tounes disagree sharply on cultural policies (ie, the Islamization of Tunisian society) both parties are firmly committed to the same neo-liberal economic policies that Tunisia has embraced for the past thirty years, which are at the core of the on-going social crisis facing the country. The new Ennahdha-Nida Tounes power-sharing agreement slightly enlarges the social base of those in power, while splitting the broader Tunisian opposition – which it was meant to do – and weakening it.

Jomâa, a hardly known political figure, is already viewed with mistrust beyond the country’s business community The leftist opposition party, the Popular Front, whose size and influence continues to grow, opposes the selection of a Jomâa-led government noting that his support is narrowly based. Two of the leaders of this party, Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, have been assassinated within the past year. These assassinations were key elements in Ennahdha’s slide from popularity and the narrowing of its base of support.

The new political Tunisian constellation was immediately acknowledged and given strong political support by both Washington and Paris, the two of which seemed to have congealed as a political-security team to defend their interests in Africa, North or Sub-Saharan against a  perceived Chinese challenge. Curiously, among those expressing most hope for the new Tunisian political pact is American neo-conservative, Eliot Abrams, of support-for-the-Nicaraguan-Contra’s fame.  In a blog entry written for the Council of Foreign Relations, entitled “Tunisia: Last Hope For the Arab Spring”, Abrams expressed his support for the Jomâa-led government. He quotes a similar statement issued by the AIPAC, spin-off, Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

2.

After trying to reign in Salafist excesses for three years, the Tunisian government finds that these elements are now ut of control. The government now finds itself in pitched battles with armed Islamic militant radicals in the country’s mountainous western region near the Algerian border and elsewhere. Retired Tunisian General Rachid Ammar, “hero” of the events of January 2012, warned “It is not terrorism, it is a rebellion;…this is one of the stages of the rebellion.”

Three years later, immolation has been replaced by suicide bombing, unknown in Tunisia until recently. In October, one youth managed to blow himself up in Sousse, what used to be a lovely seaside fishing town, since independence turned into a northern European tourist Mecca. The second attempt, by Aymen Saadi, a 17 year old youth, was diffused before its payload could be detonated.

Aymen Saadi’s story is worth telling. A promising student, he left high school a year ago along with hundreds of young Tunisian volunteers, traveled incognito to Libya, where he received military training in Salafist (Islamic radical) camps in and around Bengazi. From Libya he was flown to Turkey, the main entry point for Islamic-trained rebels entering Syria. Saadi and fellow travelers return to Tunisia trained and hardened Islamic guerillas.

Its not just Syria.

Tunisian youth, recruited and radicalized by Salafist elements (“older men and sheiks with cars”) have been reported working with terrorist groups in Mali, Algeria, Iraq and Libya. Once trained and battle hardened, they return home to Tunisia and continue their “jihad”. Although there is no exact figure for the number of Salafist trained youth re-entering the country, the figure thrown around is “hundreds.”

Ennahdha has repeatedly denied that it actively recruits Tunisian youth to fight with Islamic rebels in Syria and Mali. Such the denials ring false. In line with Moslem Brotherhood policy, the Tunisian government supports the Islamicist dominated Syrian rebels politically and militarily. Ennahdha has done little to interfere with Salafist military recruiting which takes place in Tunisia’s mosques and religious schools. Now it faces the inevitable blowback, the result of such policies.

_____________

Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies.

______________

Links:

Mariem Ben Abid. “Comment combattre l’inflation et asphyxier la classe moyenne” from Nawaat.org. (note: will translate main ideas from the French in a few days)

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