The many headlines and bulletins about Arabic-speaking peoples routinely herald problems and crises facing the outside world. Iraq stands at the head of the line, followed not far behind by Libya, the Palestinian Authority, Sudan, and Syria.
It would, however, be a mistake to assume that behind the headlines lies nothing but trouble. Tunisia, for example, has quietly and successfully developed in recent years. Problems exist, to be sure, but Tunisia's political stability, Western-Arab synthesis, and economic vision could well serve as a paradigm for other Middle Eastern states. It is a story worth telling.
In one of the quietest coup d'états in all history, Zine el-Abidine Ben ‘Ali took power in Tunisia on November 7, 1987. He had been prime minister and intelligence chief under the previous ruler, Habib Bourguiba, the grand figure of Tunisia's independence movement and Tunisia's president since he had led the country to independence in 1956. But by 1987, Bourguiba was in poor health (he subsequently lived on until April 2000) and the transition was remarkably unremarkable. The daily political operations of the country hardly missed a beat. Symbolic of Ben ‘Ali's deftness, he continued to honor Bourguiba in a host of ways (for example, the "Avenues Bourguiba" that are the main streets in almost every Tunisian city, continue to be called by that name to this day—an exceedingly rare act of political generosity).
This quiet, bloodless takeover was indicative of the way Ben ‘Ali would rule Tunisia over the next decade plus. The country not only maintained a basic stability in the economic, political, and social arenas but continued the progress. As a result of this moderation and continuity, Tunisia stands as one of the few countries in the Middle East and North Africa with such achievements to its credit.
Economics. Ben ‘Ali has instituted many economic reforms in the attempt, mostly successful, to rid the country of its socialistic legacy. These have contributed to greatly increasing the pace of economic progress. In particular, privatization initiatives have permitted a gradual loosening of economic controls. In 1995, Tunisia concluded an association agreement with the European Union which provides extensive trade liberalization and cooperation in a variety of sectors. The decision to join the European Economic Association is the latest economic step to be evaluated, something which might lead to yet greater trading opportunities with Europe (as well as, of course, new competitors). Pessimists fear greater unemployment, which officially stands at less than 20 percent, while optimists feel that short-term pain will lead to long-term gain.
Under Ben ‘Ali, Tunisia has evolved into a regional model of economic modernization. Having made the transition from a Third World to a developing country, it is a darling of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. With little natural resources, as opposed to its oil-endowed neighbors Algeria and Libya, Tunisia has encouraged its private sector to carry the banner of economic progress, while offering investment benefits to the tourism and manufacturing industries as a means to bolster economic growth and encourage foreign investment.
To its credit, unlike so many leaderships in developing countries, Tunisia's has refrained from squandering precious resources on weapons and arms. Ben ‘Ali has continued Bourguiba's policies and goals of prioritizing education, improving national healthcare, and eradicating poverty. Ben ‘Ali's vision is that a healthier and more educated society will result in a more stable and productive nation, and Tunisia has made real strides. Literacy rates are nearly 70 percent, with education and health services available throughout the country, and in general, with continually improving standards.
Culture. Tunisia has struck what appears to be a balance between a pro-Western vision and its identity as an Arab country. The result is that Tunisian society reflects a progressiveness that equals, if not exceeds, that of any other Arab country. The growing importance and respect for women is evident; for example, they represent a high proportion of the students in law and medical schools. Additionally, women play a prominent role in the country's parliament, education, and the arts. And in family matters, women have equal rights, at least in theory (but also increasingly in practice), when it comes to family planning, divorce, and freedom of travel.
Politics. Ben ‘Ali may have left the "Avenues Bourguiba" in peace, but he has hardly foregone his own cult of personality. Quite the contrary, his picture graces virtually every office and store, while the absence of such invites suspicion of non-support and possibly, of being a critic of Ben ‘Ali. Despite democratic reforms, in other words, despite efforts to show Tunisia enjoying a democracy, Ben ‘Ali's ubiquitous posters are not-so-subtle reminders to every Tunisian of who is calling Tunisia's shots.
Tunisia has a parliamentary system, which includes representation by opposition parties, but these espouse platforms not radically different from that of the president's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party. Candidates truly in the opposition, holding strongly dissenting opinions on key issues, would not dare declare themselves openly as candidates for fear of the personal consequences that may invite from the police. Yes, Ben ‘Ali has released former political opposition members from prison as a sign of his willingness to run Tunisia in a democratic fashion, though at the same time, critics of the president have been jailed, had passports revoked, phone lines disconnected, as well as been subjected to other forms of harassment. Tunisia's exercises in democracy at the highest level also leave something to be desired; Ben ‘Ali has twice won the ostensible support of over 99 percent of the electorate—and this despite the decision to permit opposition elements to run for president. These extravagant numbers are intended to show the Tunisian people's nearly unanimous love for Ben ‘Ali but foreign observers read something else into them. The U.S. Department of State's report on the elections diplomatically noted that "while observers agree that the outcome of the elections generally reflected the will of the electorate, the campaign and election processes greatly favored the ruling party and there was wide disregard for the secrecy of the vote."1
Islamism. Tunisia under Ben ‘Ali has arguably been the most successful Middle East country in neutralizing the potential threat of Islamism. After witnessing the chaos that resulted from neighboring Algeria's experience with Islamist political parties (as well as the influence of Islamists in such countries as Egypt, Turkey, and Iran), the leaders in Tunis adopted a tough stance on separation of religion and state. Enforcement of the constitutional prohibition on political parties formed along religious lines is swift and silent, as are crackdowns on individuals suspected of the slightest inclination of advancing Islamic political movements. This helps explain why men with Islamist-style beards are a rarity in Tunisia. The authorities quelled the leading Islamist organization, An-Nahda ("Renaissance" in Arabic) Movement, under the leadership of the renown exegete Rashid al-Ghannushi.
Ghannushi, living in a London exile, is Tunisia's most notable dissident. A Sorbonne-educated philosophy teacher, his prominence goes back to the late 1970s when he formed what was to become An-Nahda, a political party that claimed to blend Islamism with democracy. Imprisoned under Bourguiba, Ghannushi was released by Ben ‘Ali in 1988 in a political amnesty, only to be rearrested and imprisoned again as his political activities and his politicized beliefs made him into the president's nemesis. In addition, associates of Ghannushi or An-Nahda are in many cases imprisoned or routinely harassed through travel restrictions or cut telephone and fax lines.
Human rights. To his critics, Ben ‘Ali remains basically a dictator and police chief as shown by his human rights records and the heavily censored press. Freedom House ranks Tunisia extremely poorly in terms of political rights (6, where 7 is the bottom rank) and civil liberties (5). In more muted language, the U.S. Department of State's human rights report echoes these criticisms: Harold Hongju Koh, U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor has generally praised Tunisia for its "impressive progress" in "economic development, in education, in advancing the status of women, in protecting workers rights and preventing child labor," but he did note that based on his visit to the country, "how much more there is to be done, particularly in the key areas of human rights and democratization."2
To its credit in 2000, Tunisia formed a new Ministry of Human Rights. Its head, Slaheddine Maaoui, appointed minister of human rights in February 2001, noted in an interview, "We are absolutely opposed to any form of harassment of human rights activists."3 Human rights spokespersons are urging that these words be put into action; given Maaoui's proven ability to lead and his close relationship with President Ben ‘Ali, they might well get what they seek.
Censorship. Tunisia's press remains under tight and perhaps increasing control. Daily news coverage in the domestic media consists of predictable images of the president greeting guests at his residence or visiting a school or hospital and reading from a script. Extensive unrehearsed and unrestricted interviews with Ben ‘Ali are extremely rare. Political and business elites confide that they must look outside of Tunisia's press for a realistic perspective of the news, something made increasingly possible by the advent of cable television and Internet access. Censorship is not overt, for it need not be, as journalists understand the implicit rules. Journalists who cross the line find themselves punished in some form, as in the high profile case of journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, a Tunisian journalist who published articles critical of the government in the French newspaper La Croix. In April 2000, his passport was seized as he was about to fly out of the country and was subsequently detained, interrogated, and beaten, as well as having his property vandalized.4 Despite Ben ‘Ali's decree in late 2000, which called upon the press to speak openly and without intimidation, this has yet to be tested by any Tunisian journalist. While the elite rues this situation, some of it accepts limits on the assumption that this will help safeguard Tunisia from the instability that plagues neighboring Algeria.
Tunisia's domestic challenges are many. While Ben ‘Ali has made laudable progress with regards to the economy and education, there is an underlying and growing sense of discontent due to a feeling that government control is growing, particularly in its controls on freedom of expression.
Until Ben ‘Ali takes a more visible and more open international role, his achievements will remain clouded by his cult of personality, by the corruption of some people around him, by his human rights record, and his censored press. If he changes these ways, he will show the outside world that his policies truly are progressive, as well as leave a legacy that Tunisians will take pride in.
In foreign relations, Ben ‘Ali has maintained a decidedly pro-Western path, particularly in regard to other Arab regimes and vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict, but one grounded in an awareness of the requirements to maintain the country's Arab and Muslim identity. This balance is, to be sure, not always easy, but Ben ‘Ali has had the astuteness to retain respectful relations with Libya's maverick leader Mu‘ammar al-Qadhdhafi while hosting nearly five million European tourists a year. Despite good ties with the West, Tunisia was home to the Arab League and the PLO until late 1993, two institutions which much heightened its international profile.
In 1982-93, those years the PLO was headquartered in Tunis, the government served as a low-key, friendly advisor, encouraging moderation on the part of the Palestinians and offering Israelis the promise of diplomatic recognition. The period 1990-91 was a time of difficult political lessons for Tunisia's leaders. Their (reluctant) alliance with Saddam Husayn during the Kuwait war taught them that blindly supporting Arab causes can result in very heavy economic and political costs for the country's relations with the West. Tunisia suffered a public relations debacle for this stance and economic problems followed due to tourists staying away in droves. Some of this political ground was regained, however, when Ben ‘Ali strongly supported the 1991 Madrid conference and engaged in behind-the-scenes assistance to further Israeli-Arab mutual recognition.
Tunisia has emerged as an accurate barometer of Israeli-Palestinian relations. After the Oslo accords, the establishment of "interest sections" with Israel involved an exchange of (low-level) diplomats between Tunis and Tel Aviv. The chill of the Netanyahu era led to almost non-existent relations. The advent of Ehud Barak warmed relations—until a complete break took place in October 2000 amidst Al-Aqsa intifada. A State Department official closely involved with the matter called this step by Tunis "disappointing" while recognizing that it could not continue a business-as-usual relationship with Israel given the high emotions in the Arab world.
Tunis tries to play an active role in Arab politics—with the usual exchanges of Arab leaders and the support for Palestinians against Israel. However, lacking the wealth of the Persian Gulf states or the political clout of Egypt or Syria, or the dynastic confidence of Jordan or Morocco, its political voice remains rather meek.
Attempts to win Western assistance for development funds shows Ben ‘Ali's willingness to expand his ties to the West, but Tunisia's low profile in the United States limits its ability to gain the recognition that leads to increased trade, tourism, etc. Investors look for political stability in a country and tourism growth is often commensurate with the perceptions of security, stability, and a positive country image. While Tunisia's trade with France and much of Europe continues to grow, Tunisia remains largely unknown in American eyes, thus limiting its ability to attract American foreign investment.
Despite its shortcomings, Tunisia is a rare example of a politically moderate, economically advancing country within a generally hostile region. It is a model of the synthesis between the Arab, the Islamic, and the Western ingredients needed to help Third World countries of the Middle East develop; it is a model for the Arabic-speaking states. Washington might encourage the less democratic, less globally-inclined regimes of the Middle East to learn from Ben ‘Ali's Tunisia. In all, the positive areas of progress outweigh those where opening is too slow. It is a fact of life that trade-offs of this sort must be tolerated.
For its part, Tunisia should place itself in a more visible position by expanding its contacts with America and actively pursuing lobbying and marketing efforts in the United States. By increasing these, it will win expanded opportunities in U.S. trade, tourism, and investment.
In turn, Tunisia deserves a higher priority in American foreign policy. The U.S. government should encourage the pro-Western, pro-peace, and progressive socioeconomic policies of Tunisia under Ben ‘Ali. This means taking steps publicly to recognize Tunisia for its positive traits, while at the same time, encouraging Ben ‘Ali to expand the freedoms that the Tunisia people are coming to expect.
Jerry Sorkin is a Philadelphia-based entrepreneur with nearly two decades of experience in Tunisia.1 1999 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (Washington, D.C.: The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State, Feb. 25, 2000), p. 14.
2 Statement issued in Tunis, June 14, 2000.
3 Le Monde, Apr. 6, 2001.
4 News release, Committee to Protect Journalists, Apr. 3, 2000, at http://www.cpj.org/attacks00/mideast00/Tunisia.html.