from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Tunisia: First Impressions

November 12, 2014

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Tunis—Ever since Tunisia’s October 26 elections, there has been a raft of paeans to the “birthplace of the Arab Spring.” Tunisia does look pretty good, especially as it sits in between the chaos, resurgent authoritarianism, stasis, and faux reform of the neighborhood. The free and fair elections, which occurred ten months after the adoption of a new compromise constitution and a little more than a year after violence almost wrecked the whole post-Zine El Abidine Ben Ali political process, is worthy of praise. There have been two peaceful elections since Tunisians sent Ben Ali packing, which is an important benchmark for the country’s political trajectory. There is no doubt that Tunisians should be feeling pretty good about themselves, but I wonder if the editorial writers and commentators haven’t gotten a bit carried away. According to my friend and colleague, Amy Hawthorne, who observed last month’s elections, Tunisia’s transition to democracy is “very fragile.” I agree; Tunisia may be the best of the lot, but there are lots of ways it can go wrong.

Before proceeding, let me offer a caveat. I am not a Tunisia expert. I have been following the country casually since the uprising here began in December 2010. It is a fascinating place, which is why I took the opportunity to visit. There are many more people studying Tunisia who have vastly more experience and are well worth reading. All that said, in my short time here I’ve picked up on what seem to be three major challenges for Tunisians as they move forward:

1. Bourguibism—For a certain generation of Tunisians, Habib Bourguiba, the founder of independent Tunisia, continues to hold a singular appeal. There are parallels between Bourguibism and Kemalism, though the former does not seem to be as well developed in terms of a worldview as the latter. Bourguiba advocated a state-managed economy, provided a strong cradle to grave social guarantees, fostered a hostility to religion even though the constitution declared Islam the religion of the state, emphasized Tunisian exceptionalism—which gave the country some leeway in differentiating itself from the Arab world so Tunisians would not feel bad about emulating Europe—and oversaw progressive personal status laws that gave women the right to vote and initiate divorce. And while most people claim they do not to want to return to Bourguiba’s authoritarianism and have a hard time even contemplating a reversal of the January 14 Revolution, Bourguibism remains important in Tunisian politics. The Nidaa Tounes movement, which secured the most seats in October’s parliamentary election, has consciously linked itself to Bourguiba. The party’s leader and perhaps Tunisia’s next president, the 87-year old Beji Caid Essebsi, was a minister four times under Bourguiba. In his public statements, at rallies, and in even in his choice of eyewear Essebsi evokes Bourguiba.

There are two problems with this Bourguiba nostalgia. First, the apparent appeal of Bourguibism raises the nasty issue of identity politics. There are elements within Nidaa Tounes that sound a lot like radical Kemalists in their commitment to laicisme and their way of life, which they think should be everyone’s way of life. No one seems to know how strong this current is within Nidaa Tounes or Tunisian society more broadly, but analysts should at least entertain the possibility that an Essebsi presidential victory—elections are on November 23—will encourage these Tunisian “Kemalists.” Essebsi himself may be far more conciliatory toward the Islamist camp than the different factions within Nidaa Tounes that seem to have coalesced around their hostility to said Islamist camp. Second, Bourguiba’s statism created vested interests that are going to be hard to break. More on this below, but this is a problem not just of a small number of influential families who play an outsize role in the Tunisian economy, but also Tunisia’s middle class, which, from what I am told, loves its entitlements.

2. The Economy—There was a time not long ago when the World Bank and International Monetary Fund showered praise on the Tunisian economy. That actually is not as bizarre as one might think, even if one takes into account Tunisia’s current economic troubles and the whole 1970s/1980s era shabbiness of almost everything in downtown Tunis. Tunisia under Bourguiba’s successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, posted some good macroeconomic numbers, including a (relative to the rest of the region) healthy five percent growth rate, low inflation, and a budget deficit of zero.

It was all a great success until, suddenly, it wasn’t. Ben Ali’s fall stripped bare the façade of “Tunisia—the one Arab country that works,” revealing considerable rot. In a recent mea culpa, the World Bank published a rather lengthy report on the state of the Tunisian economy, called The Unfinished Revolution: Bringing Opportunity, Good Jobs and Greater Wealth to all Tunisians, that details the economic challenges confronting the country: state-owned banks with poor governance and shoddy financial controls; a protected and lethargic private sector; an underdeveloped services sector; disruptive non-union workers; and a bloated public sector. As an aside, the powerful labor union—the UGTT—has proven itself to be among the more responsible economic actors. The union’s leaders are not necessarily on board with a neoliberal reform program and certainly want to protect what their members have, but they do recognize that reform is necessary in order for more Tunisians to enjoy greater economic opportunity.

It is the barons of Tunisian business, not the UGTT, that are more likely to resist economic change. The same elite that controlled the economy under Ben Ali still controls the economy. The business class has grown fat and wealthy not because they are good capitalists, but because they were connected to the man in power. Ben Ali may be gone, but doing business remains very much the way it was done while he was firmly in control. It seems unlikely that the titans of Tunisian commerce will support the legal, political, and commercial reforms necessary to support the development of an actual market economy. Lest anyone think that the problem is just with a few families that have a grip on the economy, the Tunisian state has nurtured a middle class that has grown used to good wages (relative to meager productivity) in state agencies, generous health care, and subsidies on food and fuel.

Bouguiba’s state-managed economy was a means of political control—Tunisians were expected to accept limited personal and political rights in exchange for a well-developed social safety net. Yet six decades later, the vested interests in the system have hobbled the economy and hemmed in Tunisia’s new politicians who would pare back these benefits at their political peril. The leading political parties don’t have an answer to this problem, and all technocrats meekly suggest is “national dialogue” about the economic challenges ahead. This seems like a recipe for economic policy drift, which is troubling because 2015 and 2016 are likely to be pretty bad years. Can the fragile political transition survive the tough economic times ahead? One can only hope.

3. Who to Trust?Perhaps one of the things that sets Tunisia apart from its neighbors is a strong civic culture. It helped pull Tunisia back from the brink last summer, and the idea that Tunisians have a shared responsibility to each other underpins the national dialogue that followed this difficult period. Besides the fact the leading political party, Nidaa Tounes, does not have the requisite parliamentary mandates to govern alone, the Tunisians whom I have met emphasize that this strong civic culture is also what may drive a coalition government composed of Nidaa Tounes and al-Nahda. It is true that Essebsi and al-Nahda leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, have signaled a willingness to work together, but there is a certain wariness that pervades the discussion. As one Western interlocutor who has been observing Tunisian politics up close remarked to me, “No one seems to be acting normally.” Even though people say Tunisia is not polarized, I am not so sure. People freely admit that there is a disconnect between the two leaders and their respective bases, which leads one to wonder what happens if (a) Essebsi wins the presidential election outright (i.e., without a runoff), (b) he croaks, or (c) Ghannouchi, who is 73, but looks a decade older, dies. One can imagine that under any of these circumstances, the current emphasis on compromise could come to an end.

Take the above with a grain of salt. Although it is based on a fair amount of reading, it is the product of a mere six days on the ground. It is, as the title of the post indicates, my first impressions. The intention is not to throw cold water on a pretty good story, but it is also important to recognize that Tunisia is far more complicated—and interesting—than the “Yay democracy!” editorials and commentaries of late.

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