Oppression extinguished Tunisia’s light

Oppression extinguished Tunisia’s light

After its independence in 1956, Tunisia was considered in several western capitals to be one of the most serious candidates for democracy. Its first president, Habib Bourguiba, invested far more in education than in defence and before adopting a constitution he passed a new personal status code giving women equal rights with men. These first steps taken by Tunisia’s new leadership – in a region shaped by coups, civil wars and dictatorships – were deemed revolutionary at the time.

More than half a century later, Tunisia is still an exception in the Middle East and north Africa region, not least for the sustainability of its modernist reforms and its stability.

But, politically, it has nothing different from its neighbours. Its regime is even singled out as one of the toughest in the region.

Tunisia is often criticised for its political stagnation, especially since its socio-economic achievements haven’t been accompanied by political reforms to consolidate real democratic practices. Over the years, the political stagnation has weakened the impact of these achievements. One of the most worrisome indicators for its major economic partners is the spiralling corruption, due mainly to favouritism and impunity.

And, while its socio-economic indicators remain among the best in the Mena region, Tunisia has been overtaken by its neighbours in politics.

At the nomination hearing of Gordon Gray as new US ambassador to Tunisia, last July, Senate foreign relations committee chairman John Kerry made it clear: Tunisia “lagged far behind even some of its neighbours in its respect for human rights”.

Indeed, Tunisia hoards the most pejorative superlatives. It is one of worst countries for journalists and bloggers, and international watchdogs regularly report crackdowns on human rights defenders.

The political arena is monopolised by the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), despite a semblance of pluralism. The legitimate opposition faces internal strife and is either besieged or not recognised.

This state of affairs persists even though the Tunisian constitution clearly and unreservedly guarantees the right of free and peaceful association and respects freedom of expression and allows civil society and labour unions to play its full role without restrictions.

The major powers have turned a blind eye to these slips, as they did in other parts of the Arab world. It is important, in this context, to remember former US president George Bush’s confessions in a speech in London, in November 2003: “Your nation [Britain] and mine, in the past, have been willing to make a bargain, to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. Longstanding ties often led us to overlook the faults of local elites. Yet, this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time, while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold.”

Furthermore, according to Tunisian opposition, the regime is even enjoying western “sympathy”, to the chagrin of human rights groups.

To be sure, democracy will never be brought from overseas. Every nation has its own context and reality but, behind the scenes, there are a few questions that draw the attention of political analysts – the most important one focusing on the reasons why Tunisia fell flat in its rush toward democracy and lost ground.

The regime of this small country sandwiched between Algeria and Libya has managed to circumvent international pressure and has benefited from the lack of western interest in its internal political problems. Tunisia has also been one of the key regional partners in the now-defunct “war on terror”, which provided cover for its abuse of rights and “heavy-handed” security measures, and consolidated a secular system set by former president Habib Bourguiba.

Amid turmoil elsewhere in the region many governments – including France, its main economic partner – have tended to place Tunisia low in their list of priorities. Currently, major powers are focusing more on Algeria, which is struggling to turn the leaf of a bloody decade and Libya, now out of its international isolation, rather than Tunisia.

In sum, the Tunisian regime enjoys international indifference vis-à-vis its home policy. That could explain the political stalemate, but there are now also fears that the regime is losing its political identity. Its tendencies sound enormously paradoxical. For example, it has always denied Islamists any right to exist in the political arena. At the same time, secular parties and organisations do not enjoy any margin of freedom. The authorities have even refused to recognise the Tunisian Association for the Defence of Secularism.

This has deepened the absolute divorce between the regime and the opposition. Moreover, several issues of national importance can probably never be solved, including the very thorny issue of Islamist exiles. While many Arab governments are resuming dialogue with radical opposition, including radical Islamists, Tunisia is still sulking.

President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali will seek a fifth term, next month, in an election whose results are already known. Officially, it will be Ben Ali’s last term, unless he amends the constitution one more time.

Officials and diplomats still agree that Tunisia could one day turn into a democracy. It’s just a question of political will.