Tunisia still on the brink

Four years after Ben Ali’s ouster, the same dynamics that radicalised the killers of Paris are present in Tunisia.

Hopes for a new Tunisia cresting after the successful presidential vote, writes LeVine [Reuters]

The timing couldn’t be more tragic, or more fitting. Three of the four Jewish hostages killed by Malian-French extremist Amedy Coulibaly at the kosher supermarket in Vincennes, were Tunisian citizens.

Only a week before the fourth anniversary of Ben Ali’s ouster, with hopes for a new Tunisia cresting after the successful presidential vote, the deaths of these citizens at the hand of a Muslim religious fanatic was a sober reminder of the problem of extremism waiting in the wings inside Tunisia as well.

In particular, the son of the chief rabbi of Tunis, 21-year old Yoav Hattab stands out, a photo of him proudly showing off the inked forefinger that confirmed he’d voted in the elections evoked the kind of past, present and future that Tunisia has long hoped to show the world.

Tunisia has long been home to multiple communities, not only Phoenicians, Romans and Vandals during antiquity; Muslim refugees from the early Reconquista and the Norman conquest of Sicily made it their home, as well as Jews and the indigenous Amazigh communities. In the modern era, well over 100,000 northern Mediterraneans lived in Tunis by the end of the 19th century.

A cosmopolitan past

Back then, Tunisia was a site of immigration, compared with the depressing site of so many young men today desperate to head north. The home of the Arab world’s first constitution, in 1861, Italians comprised some of the most important officials in the pre-colonial Court. This cosmopolitan history is one that Tunisians celebrated.

Will Tunisia pass the transition test?

Tunisia’s location and proximity to Europe, its need to play off various greater powers against each other, has ensured that the country would have multiple political economies in which official rulers would both need and compete with the informal economic and political networks that long connected Tunisia to the rest of the Mediterranean.

The struggle to control the flows of people, wealth and commodities moving in and out of the country has long characterised a primary challenge for Tunisian leaders, who themselves have long fallen prey to capturing whatever they could of that wealth for their own personal gain.

Such corruption is in no way unique to Tunisia. As the sociologist Charles Tilly succinctly put it, state-making as an enterprise is one of the greatest examples of organised crime imaginable. The more local economies and polities become globalised, the more opportunities exist for elites in and outside of official structures and institutions of governance to harness them.

Yoav Hattab and his generation and cohort of Tunisians – well educated, fluent in several languages, able to travel regularly to Europe and beyond – represent a very different experience and promise of globalisation.

The strength of the creatives behind the Jasmine Revolution and most of the other uprisings that followed, came from their ability to create their own networks outside of anyone else’s technological, ideological or political control.

Their skills allowed them to outsmart sclerotic leaders like Ben Ali, Mubarak and other ageing despots, at least for a time. But whether in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, or any other Arab country, they are too removed from the flows of economic and political power to transform the more basic political economy of their countries, at least in the short term.

Deep web of corruption

One of the celebrated sparks of the Tunisian revolution was the publication of “TuniLeaks”, which released WikiLeaks files describing the “web of corruption” surrounding Ben Ali and particularly the family of his wife, Leila Trabelsi. The dynamic of control over both security services and much of the economy allowed for a greater concentration of wealth in the hands of the president and his family and associates at precisely the moment that neoliberal policies that brought similar results on a global scale were being implemented not merely in Tunisia, but around the world.

The dynamic of control over both security services and much of the economy allowed for a greater concentration of wealth in the hands of the president and his family and associated at precisely the moment that neoliberal policies that brought similar results on a global scale were being implemented …

It is crucial to keep this in mind as we consider the possibilities for Tunisia’s future; the country’s corruption was not unique or representative of some inherent failure in the society to modernise.

Indeed, the World Bank published a report in March of last year explaining how Ben Ali regime gamed the entire political, economic and judicial system of their country to enrich themselves.

What made the Ben Ali system work so efficiently for 20 years was not just control over the security services, systematic repression and a permissive and even cooperative international environment. As Beatrice Hibou demonstrates in her magisterial book, The Force of Obedience (published just as the Tunisian revolution erupted), the techniques of domination practised by the government were embedded in the most everyday economic mechanisms such as in the tax system and industry.

Jump ahead four years and perhaps the main challenge facing Tunisia is that despite the political revolution that has now been fully institutionalised, the deeper political economy of the country has yet to be reshaped to foster more democratic, sustainable and distributional networks, institutions and relationships.

Interim President Moncef Marzouki at least understood this, which is why he focused on a populist agenda of reform based around one of the few discourses that can challenge such a system; a fully institutionalised human rights regime as a guiding principle of political and economic life.

Levers of power

But today the president is one of the stalwarts of the Ben Ali regime – Beji Caid Essebsi and his Nidaa Tounis party democratically control the levers of power. And with them many figures from the past will re-ensconce themselves in the democratic present – this time in the guise of “technocrats” with the administrative expertise to “reform the system” from within.

With the interior ministry and security services remaining a bastion of the old system, corruption increased during the transition period, and with unemployment and other economic woes a “profound threat” to the chances for development and meaningful and widely distributed growth, it’s hard to see how the new government will do better than the clearly handicapped transitional regime. 

Indeed, the basic problem at this start of a new era in Tunisia is that the transitional government failed to prosecute most Ben Ali figures for the massive corruption they engaged in, thus ensuring that they return to continue the same behaviour as soon as they are able.

The same dynamics of unemployment, marginalisation and lack of a future that helped radicalise the killers of Paris, is also quite present in Tunisia, which accounts for the rapid rise of extremism under the democratic transition, including the disproportionately large participation of young Tunisians in jihadist activities in Iraq and Syria.

Nothing should take away the so far singular accomplishment of the Tunisian revolution – the first youth-led movement to topple a dictator in the Arab world in memory, and so far the only one to shepherd a peaceful transition to a different political system.

But as the election results demonstrate, if progressive forces cannot develop a narrative that both helps Tunisians understand how much deeper the system they need to replace is, and gives them a strategy and a sense of hope that it can be changed, the victory of January 14, 2011, will remain incomplete, and likely tragically so.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. His new book is One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, co-edited with Ambassador Mathias Mossberg.