from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Beji Caid Essebsi and Tunisia’s Identity Politics

May 20, 2015

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The Tunisian president, Beji Caid Essebsi, is coming to Washington today for meetings with President Obama. It is a big moment. Tunisian leaders have visited multiple times since Zine El Abedine Ben Ali’s fall in January 2011, but Essebsi’s visit is more consequential if only because he is not saddled with “interim” in his title. As I have written before, there is a lot to like about what has happened in Tunisia—peaceful transfers of power, compromise, a sense of shared responsibility for the future of the country, and minimal violence. It is for all these reasons that one hears the constant refrain, “Tunisia is the Arab Spring success story.” Even by the low standards of the present (and future) Middle East, the Tunisians have accomplished much in a short period of time. Still, I am having a hard time bringing myself around to the perception that Tunisia is firmly on a democratic trajectory. This is not just because of the country’s serious economic challenges, center-periphery problems, the apparent appeal of extremism to a relatively large number of young educated Tunisian men, or my own terminal cynicism. It’s more straightforward than any of those explanations: I simply do not believe that Beji Caid Essebsi has any particular interest in building an inclusive, pluralist political system. He is not even shy about his intentions.

Last December 26, five days after he was elected president, Essebsi published an op-ed in the Washington Post, whose editorial writers have been positively bullish on Tunisia, titled “My Three Goals as Tunisia’s President.” Essebsi hit all the right themes emphasizing Tunisia’s “openness, tolerance, and moderation” and vowing to “strengthen [his country’s] young democracy at a time when hopes for democracy elsewhere in the region are failing to take root.” Yet intertwined with these platitudes clearly targeted for a particular kind of Washington audience—one that doesn’t know any better—was coded language and signals that suggest President Essebsi’s commitment to consensus may not go much further than the 848 words of his piece.

The first item that tipped me off that Essebsi, who served both Habib Bourguiba, modern Tunisia’s founder, and the disgraced Ben Ali, was not exactly who people want to believe he is was the second sentence of his op-ed: “It was trade and exchange with Europe—in particular, with France and Italy, Tunisia’s closest Mediterranean neighbors—that opened the country to the Enlightenment.” There is nothing wrong with the Enlightenment, of course. It was an age of reason and tolerance and bequeathed to the modern world principles that those of us lucky enough to live in liberal democracies hold dear. In the context of Tunisia’s recent history and the political contest over who controls post-Ben Ali Tunisia, however, it was a clear shot at Essebsi’s frenemy, Rachid Ghannouchi, and his Islamist Ennahda Movement, which by dint of its Islamism harbors a worldview that is ostensibly hostile to Enlightenment ideals.

Next Essebsi referenced Sadiki College, which is a bilingual high school established in 1875 that still exists and has been a training ground for Tunisia’s elite. None other than Habib Bourguiba was a product of Sadiki. The high school along with al Jamiyya al Khalduniyya, which was founded by Sadiki alumni in 1896, served to undermine the prominence of Zaytuna Mosque and University, which also still exist and which people like Ghannouchi—a graduate—hold in highest regard. Essebsi then informs his readers that the Sadiki graduates who founded Tunisia “…brought to their task a commitment to anchor the young republic in modernity. They instituted universal education, gender equality and separation of religion and state…” Could it be any more obvious what Essebsi is doing here? The Tunisian president is reaffirming how he and his party, Nidaa Tunis, stand for many of the same things that Washington Post readers believe as opposed to the Islamists with their retrograde views of the world. A couple of paragraphs down, Essebsi reemphasizes for his readers that his party triumphed in the parliamentary and presidential elections “Thanks to Bourguiba’s modernist legacy, which helped us mobilize the large, educated middle class, especially women to vote for our candidates…” Message: Islamists are ignorant misogynists. No doubt some are, but I am willing to wager that they do not have a monopoly on these loathsome qualities.

After some boilerplate about the economy and battling extremism, Essebsi thanks Ghannouchi for being magnanimous in defeat and affirms his willingness to work with “all Tunisians to overcome our difficulties and establish our nation as a solid democracy.” It was a nice touch, but I am not sure how nice given everything that preceded it. It was as if someone advised Essebsi, “Sir, you have to be a little gracious. It’s the Washington Post.” Lest anyone believe that the last five months of working with Ennahda ministers and deputies may have encouraged Essebsi to view the group differently, the Tunisian president told the New York Times yesterday that the Islamists are being “Tunisified,” suggesting somehow Ghannouchi and the Islamists he represents are somehow products of someplace else and thus not a natural part of the country’s identity.

For regular readers of this blog, Essebsi’s outlook seems like a milder version of Turkey’s Kemalism, made more acceptable by the warm revolutionary afterglow of Ben Ali’s fall. A critic might argue that it’s less important what Essebsi says than what he does, and what he has done so far is seek accommodation with Ennahda and oversee the formation of an inclusive government. This is all true, but it is only part of the story. The Nidaa Tunis leadership at first offered an exceedingly narrow government that left Ennahda out of the government, but Essebsi’s people simply did not have enough parliamentary mandates to make it happen. The current government is thus the result of electoral math, not good intention. It may very well be that the inability of the two big players in Tunisian politics to impose their will on each other will force them, without any other option, to compromise and over time establish democratic norms. That would be an outcome worthy of celebration, but there is something to be said for the power of ideas and at least for now identity politics remains potent enough in Tunisia to deliver a servant of the old regime to power.