What’s Going on in Tunisia?

The dethronement of Tunisian strongman Ben Ali, and his flight to Saudi Arabia, has our media conjuring visions of a powerful upsurge of “democratic” populism in what was previously thought of as a minor backwater, famous for its beaches and little else. A friend of the West, Ben Ali was the spitting image of his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, whom he overthrew in a bloodless coup. Always tempered by the moderate tone of Tunisian politics, which stresses continuity and stability over revolutionary change, Bourguiba and his Destourian (pro-independence) party took decades to negotiate a peaceful transition from French protectorate to full independence in 1956.

For the next thirty years, Bourguiba managed to tamp down popular discontent in all its forms, from the leftist trade unions to the Islamist militants – the latter a very small minority with limited influence. This was done not so much by outright repression, as in other one-party states during the rise of Third World nationalism in the 1960s, but through cooptation – and the strategic gyrations of Bourguiba, a skillful manipulator of competing interests who never let one faction get the upper hand for very long.

As he got into his late seventies, however, the Tunisian strongman who had successfully steered his country toward independence without an armed struggle – as in neighboring Algeria – went downhill physically and mentally, and his policies became increasingly erratic. Things reached the point where his incapacity was obvious even to his most devoted supporters, and so on November 7, 1987, Ben Ali and his supporters invoked an article of the Tunisian constitution which provides for the transfer of power in case of the president’s incapacity.

In his message to the nation announcing the succession of power, Ben Ali was careful to pay tribute to his predecessor, who still enjoyed tremendous prestige as the veritable father of the nation. In accordance with the Tunisian temperament, which values moderation and continuity, he stressed his intent to build on the foundations laid down by the previous regime. In spite of the renaming of the Destourian party, which was now the Destourian Socialist Party, the new ruler was determined to keep the country open to Western development and maintain its official nonaligned stance.

The great problem for the regime, however, was its self-insulating and self-perpetuating statism, which encouraged – indeed, made inevitable – the development of a particularly brazen form of crony capitalism, with the economy in the hands of the state – and the state in the firm grasp of Ben Ali’s immediate and extended family. As a WikiLeaked US diplomatic cable put it:

“Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants. Beyond the stories of the First Family’s shady dealings, Tunisians report encountering low-level corruption as well in interactions with the police, customs, and a variety of government ministries. The economic impact is clear, with Tunisian investors – fearing the long-arm of “the Family” – forgoing new investments, keeping domestic investment rates low and unemployment high. These persistent rumors of corruption, coupled with rising inflation and continued unemployment, have helped to fuel frustration with the GOT and have contributed to recent protests in southwestern Tunisia (Ref A). With those at the top believed to be the worst offenders, and likely to remain in power, there are no checks in the system.”

But of course there is always the ultimate check on the system – revolution in the streets. Which is precisely what happened when a young man by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi, a graduate student forced by poverty to sell fruits and vegetables in the market, set himself on fire in protest at having been denied a permit. Apparently he had declined, or could not afford, to pay off the appropriate party-state officials. His desperate act sparked a series of demonstrations which soon spread beyond his small town in the southwestern countryside, and in a matter of a few weeks Ben Ali was on a plane and out of power.

Tunisia had a brief fling with economic liberalization in Bourguiba’s day, but this was firmly opposed by both Party militants and Islamists, who feared the social consequences of economic liberty (albeit for different reasons). The liberalizing era was soon halted, however, when Bourguiba saw the opposition it was engendering from his most devoted followers, and when Ben Ali took power there was no similar “liberal” phase. By this time the Destourian apparatus had become completely distanced from the people, with party and state effectively merged and all power vested in the person and family of the President. Elections were held periodically, but there was no effective competition, and besides the whole process was rigged.

As we go to “press,” as they used to say, the Tunisian revolution is far from over. A wing of the ruling party has managed, so far, to retain control, and there is some fighting still going on between Ben Ali loyalists and the New Gang in Charge, but the differences between these two factions is marginal, at best, as underscored by this report:

“A state of emergency has now been declared in Tunisia that bans demonstrations and imposes a strict dusk-to-dawn curfew, with orders given to security forces to shoot anyone disobeying orders or fleeing. “

Meet the new boss – same as the old boss.

The “Jasmine Revolution” is being held up as a hopeful harbinger of things to come in the Arab world: for the first time, we are being told, a sclerotic despotism is being challenged and successfully overthrown by a populist uprising. This is simplistic, to say the least.

To begin with, the folks in charge are hardly revolutionaries, but partisans of the old Tunisian establishment – the party of Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Secondly, the Tunisian temperament is not conducive to revolutionary upsurges in the sense that we understand the concept: Tunisians are no more likely to start their own version of the French Revolution than they are likely to convert en masse to Buddhism. It simply goes against the cultural grain.

Yet there are certain economic imperatives – such as a street vendor’s need to make a living – that militate against a return to the old normalcy. With the world economy undergoing a radical contraction, and countries such as Tunisia entirely dependent on foreign trade and aid, demands for economic liberalization are bound to rise – and surely crony corporatism of the Tunisian or any other variety is going to face increasingly militant challenges.

What this portends for US foreign policy is not all that clear at the moment, but one thing is certain: the US is bound to see this turmoil as a wedge to be used by radical Islamists. This is why we pour billions into regimes such as Ben Ali’s – with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak a very similar case. It’s too late to disavow our support for these tyrants: the history of their collaboration with Washington is too extensive to be denied. As the economic screws tighten worldwide, and these rigid, reflexively repressive regimes come apart at the seams, the US will be caught between the need to be “pragmatic” (i.e. preserve stability at all costs) and its rhetorical stance as the standard-bearer of “democracy” and liberalism internationally.

What to do? The only course is to stand aside and let the process work itself out. Intervention at any level is bound to boomerang and have the opposite effect from the one intended. Tunisian nationalism, the overriding ideological force in the nation’s politics and traditions, has a very weak adversary in the Islamist parties, which are all in exile and wield minimal if any influence in the current upsurge. However, that could change if the US hand becomes too apparent: that is, if Washington creates a problem where none presently exists.

The ruling party will no doubt try to secure its tenacious grip on power, and yet that power is being challenged by a secular populist movement. If, if the interests of promoting “stability,” the US gets too close to Ben Ali’s successors, then this will give the Islamists the opening they have been waiting for. I see that our Secretary of State has already made a statement welcoming the prospect of “democratic reform” in Tunisia and calling for calm: if only our public officials did not feel the need to comment on happenings in every country on earth, no matter how far removed from our shores – if only, in short, they would button their lips, for a change, our national interests would be very well served. The best policy, at the moment, is to sit back and watch as the Tunisians take care of business in their own way, and for their own reasons.

Lots of Westerners fell for the “’Tunisian success story” narrative, which Christopher Hitchens limned pretty well in a 2007 article for Vanity Fair:

“Who wouldn’t want the alternative of an African Titoism, or perhaps an African Gaullism, where presidential rule keeps a guiding but not tyrannical hand? A country where people discuss micro-credits for small business instead of “macro” schemes such as holy war? Mr. Ben Ali does not make lengthy speeches on TV every night, or appear in gorgeously barbaric uniforms, or live in a different palace for every day of the week. Tunisia has no grandiose armed forces, the curse of the rest of the continent, feeding parasitically off the national income and rewarding their own restlessness with the occasional coup.

“And the country is lucky in other ways as well. … It has been spared the awful toxicity of ethnic and religious rivalry, which makes it very unusual in Africa. Its international airport is named Tunis-Carthage, evoking African roots without Afrocentric demagogy.”

For Hitchens, it is enough that the country is not afflicted with what he regards as the curse of religiosity, and he goes on to detail the views of a female professor of theology attached to a Tunis mosque and university who denies the veil is mandated by the Koran. Hitchens characterizes the Ben Ali regime’s attempts to police the internet as “crude and old-fashioned” – not repressive. His main concern is that Islamist radicals who are not “welcome” in Tunisia are given somewhat freer rein in England, from which they broadcast their message, and he ends his piece with this warning:

“An enclave of development, Tunisia is menaced by the harsh extremists of a desert religion, and ultimately by the desert itself. As with everything else in Africa, this is not a contest we can view with indifference.”

The Bourguibas and Ben Alis who created this “enclave of development” sowed the seeds of their own destruction, and yet as long as no one was rocking the boat Hitchens and his fellow interventionists were willing to tolerate their “old fashioned” tyranny. The problem with this kind of ideological one-dimensionality is that it doesn’t take into account the Mohamed Bouazizis of this world, who yearn to be free.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].