A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, October 15, 2009

And They're Off: Tunisia's Presidential Campaign Begins: Some Personal Thoughts

Tunisia's Presidential campaign has begun for the October 25 elections. (Could we possibly arrange to have an election primarily fought in the same month as the vote? Nahhh...not if it's like this one, anyway.) For background and details on the election, I'd refer you to Hamadi Redissi's piece in the latest Arab Reform Bulletin from the Carnegie Endowment. This post is more of a personal reflection than an analysis. (For a more critical analysis, The Arabist had one recently, but since his server or IP or something has been hanging today, I can't give you a direct link. [Okay, it's back and it's here.])

I like Tunisia. It's a lovely country. I've visited many times, and my wife and I honeymooned in Sidi Bou Said in 1993. It's prosperous by Arab world (non-oil) standards, cosmopolitan, secular, Mediterranean. North African cuisine is great: I like couscous, I like the fiery red harissa, I even like the merguez sausages cooked at the little stand-up snack bars, since they give the Lipitor something of a challenge. It's the Maghreb country I know best (I emphasize Maghreb, not "North African," since that would include Egypt).

I don't usually name-drop much here, but to set the stage let me note that I've even met President Zine El ‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali a few times and once had a one-on-one (no one else in the room) hour long off the record interview with him. The former Foreign Minister and longtime Ambassador to the US, Habib Benyahia, was an old friend, as is the current head of the Tunisian External Communications Agency, Oussama Romdhani, another Georgetown product like myself.

I do not, however, mistake the political system for a democracy. Redissi's article notes the limitations on pluralism. I would note a few others.

Some US and French journalists visit Tunisia and are awed by the Western (mainly French) feel of the cities, the secularism and prominence of women, the downright pride in the country's Jewish heritage and the ancient Ghriba synagogue on Djerba Island, the fierce anti-terrorist sentiments, and (though not always mentioned in their reports), the beach resorts full of German and Italian tourists in rather scanty bathing suits for an Arab country, the ready availability of alcohol (we are talking about journalists), and they feel they have found a real Western island in the Arab world. That they have, but not in a political sense.

Tunisia has never had a particularly strong military, and the military has never played a role in politics: that is one legacy of the founder of the state, Habib Bourguiba. But Ben ‘Ali, who deposed Bourguiba in 1987 when the old man was officially 84 (some say older: he lived to be 97, but perhaps more than 100), came from the internal security apparatus, so while he is only peripherally a military man he is primarily an internal security type.

Bourguiba was, unquestionably, increasingly a loose cannon. By the time he entered his 80s he had first cultivated his son as his successor (long before the Asads, Saddams, Mubaraks and Qadhafis) but then split with said son; more and more he seemed to be senile (yes, I know it's not a medical diagnosis), and finally his Prime Minister (Ben ‘Ali) deposed him.

Bourguiba had been President for Life. Ben ‘Ali promptly announced that there would be no future Presidents for life, and amended the constitution to limit the President's terms, and the maximum age the President might run for office. (As Ben ‘Ali aged and served more terms, these limitations were lifted.) Ben ‘Ali keeps extending his eligibility, but he is not President for life. Since 1999 he has run against competing candidates.

In 1999 he squeaked through with 99.66% of the vote; in 2004 he was clearly less popular, only winning 94.48% of the vote.

I'm going to go way out on a limb here and guess he's going to be reelected this year. Without a runoff.

Why do we hear less about Tunisian lack of democracy than about other countries? Partly because the Tunisian press and opposition parties are rather tame. The press tends to be pro-government or government run, and the opposition party papers are dependent on the government for printing plants, paper and ink. There is nothing comparable to the sometimes wild tabloid media that exists in Egypt, which is otherwise not particularly more liberal in electoral politics. And Tunisia knows how to cultivate and flatter Western journalists (yes, including me) for good press. And it's no Iraq under Saddam, of course, though it's also not terribly hospitable to strong oppositional politics or political Islam.

Tunisia is in some ways something like a North African Singapore: economic prosperity and high employment compensate for an absence of political freedoms. (And increasingly, China is a sort of Singapore writ large.) Most of Ben ‘Ali's initial efforts after he displaced Bourguiba have been countermanded: the term limits, the age limit. But the economy has been liberalized from the rigid statism of Bourguiba's day. And the opposition parties, at least the approved ones (no Islamist parties need apply) are guaranteed seats in Parliament, though the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (the modern incarnation of Bourguiba's Neo-Destour) is guaranteed a constitutionally-amending lock on the majority. Despite some opening up, Ben ‘Ali has also gone from the somewhat austere reformer to a President in the usual Arab tradition: his (second, acquired after becoming President) wife and her family have enormous business and financial power, and her jet-setting to the fashion spots of Europe has drawn European tabloid attention (who often refer to her as a "former hairdresser"). Of course, I never descend to such tabloid gossip here.

So the campaign is on. There are four candidates. Usually one or two of them will endorse Ben ‘Ali somewhere in the campaign and announce their campaign is only symbolic out of their love of democracy (?).

There was more suspense in the Algerian election, if you don't mind my saying so. Bouteflika only got 90%.

Yet, I still like Tunisia.


JR said...

One of the unexplained phenomena of foreign relations - how the same behaviour is acceptable from one's allies but abhorrent from one's opponents.

arabist said...

Michael Collins Dunn is much too kind to Tunisia. It is a pretty country, and Tunis is a relatively affluent city, but it is quite likely that the economic achievements of the regime are grossly overstated. One might note a decent educational system (the product of the Bourguiba, not Ben Ali, regime) but aside from that this small country has an arbitrary economic system that is extremely corrupt. Just look into the Trabelsi family's meddling (Ben Ali's wife family). Or look at the strikes in Sfax and elsewhere against exploitative state -owned companies or regime-owned mining concessions. Having traveled a fair amount in the Arab world, I have no hesitation in saying that I find the Tunisian regime (essentially a classic police state, run by and for cops) more creepy than Syria's, or certainly Egypt. People are clearly terrified, secret police is omnipresent, and there has been a systematic dismantling or recuperation of civil society. Hopefully post-Ben Ali some real reforms will be possible and there will still be courageous Tunisian patriots able to carry them through. More likely, though, it will deepen its slide into, essentially, a mafia country.