Tunisia: Inside Bin Ali’s ’Republic of Tomorrow’

Tunisia: Inside Bin Ali’s ’Republic of Tomorrow’

In November 2007 Tunisia’s second president will celebrate twenty years at the helm. As the architect of this Maghribi state’s so-called ‘change’ and ‘renewal’ (‘changement’ and ‘renouveau’), Bin Ali can claim a number of successes. However, the challenges ahead are awesome for Bin Ali and Tunisia. With fifty years of ‘republicanism’, fifty-one years of independence, and twenty years of change and renewal it is important to evaluate Tunisia’s steady search for modernity under Bin Ali. This exercise warrants a look inside Bin Ali’s ‘Republic of Tomorrow’ or ‘jumhuriyyat al-ghad’.

Reformism and the ‘Bin Ali’ Factor: A Brief History

The ‘Bin Ali’ factor is a coincidence that recurs twice in Tunisia’s history. In 1705 Hussein Bin Ali founded one of the longest-running states in the Arab West. That state survived until 1957 when the current Bin Ali’s predecessor and Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, sacked the last Husseinite monarch, founding Tunisia’s republican system. But Bourguiba rid Tunisia of one of Hussein Bin Ali’s heirs only to be sacked himself by another Bin Ali, Zinealbidine.

Three-hundred and eighty-two years separate Zinealabidine Bin Ali from Hussein Bin Ali (they are unrelated). Yet a few additional historical coincidences draw attention: both accede to power through a dramatic change, a coup d’etat in the case of the first Bin Ali and a ‘constitutional coup’ (the then octogenarian Bourguiba was declared senile) in the case of the second; both rulers carry names of Shi’ite Imams; and both take over power to preside over a period of significant change.

Thanks to the Husseinite state, and before it the Aghlabid and Hafsid states, modern Tunisia shares with Egypt and Turkey a continuous tradition of statehood and reformism. Like Bourguiba before him, Bin Ali draws inspiration from an established long line of statesmen such as Ahmed Bey and Khair Al-Din. Both looked to Europe for ideas of how to renew the state. Elections, parliament, the first Muslim constitution, and European curricula were introduced from the second half of the 1800s. To an extent, the reformist scene was set in motion for Tunisia’s modern rulers in this period. Both the staunchly Francophile and secularist Bourguiba and Bin Ali, himself a by-product of the ‘Bourguiba school’, have sought to build an Arabo-Islamic identity by reference to European know-how. Bourguiba received his first education in the famed ‘Sadiki’ college, created by Khair al-Din, which based education on a French curriculum and a ‘universalist’ outlook. This background is vital for understanding the trajectory of Tunisia’s reform and the substance of political management post 1956, the year of independence from French colonialism. In particular, reform in Bin Ali’s Tunisia is distinguished for wedding the specificity of Tunisia’s political history and traditions with global trends in social and economic reform. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the concept of the ‘Republic of Tomorrow’.

Bin Ali: From ‘General’ to ‘President’

Twenty years in power has been a learning curve for President Bin Ali. The ‘Bin Ali’ of 2007 is a far cry from his former self as ‘General Bin Ali’, the army commander who deposed Bourguiba in 1987. General Bin Ali understood the world around him in Hobbesian terms. Political life looked ‘brutish and nasty’. Bourguibists were lurking everywhere to end his meteoric and unexpected rise to power. Amongst them he could see only ‘rivals’ and ‘conspirators’. Similarly, he looked at society through the same Hobbesian ‘lens’, identifying Islamism as a ‘state of nature’ and Islamists as unruly and threatening to the stability of Tunisia and his own rule. The upshot was that General Bin Ali’s first years as Bourguiba’s heir were reflected in heavy reliance on policing and intolerance of all dissidents. It was almost an application of ‘military’ or ‘security’ tactics to political management. Consensus-building was organized around a ‘National Charter’ that gave General Bin Ali breathing space to re-organize political community and its membership in ways that allowed him to consolidate his power. The charter served to exclude politics based on religion and co-opt the disorganized and marginalized liberal opposition. He hand-picked his own men and women; and he customized politics and the ‘rules of engagement’ to ensure political survival. Up to 1994 ‘General Bin Ali’ struggled to move out of the shadow of Bourguiba, and worked to fend off the Islamists and those ‘Bourguibists’ who disapproved of him and his ‘medical coup’.

‘President Bin Ali’ emerges after the signing of the 1995 Association Agreement with the EU, the first by an Arab state. Thus ‘President Bin Ali’ was able to shake off the ‘Bourguiba’ complex. Bourguiba was the country’s liberator from the French and during the 1960s when the Arab World was besotted with Nasser, he was the voice of reason (through his call to accept the UN partition plan as a basis for resolving the Arab-|Israeli conflict). President Bin Ali stood up to Egypt’s call for a single Arab Association Agreement. He broke ranks and signed the treaty, which, amongst other things, has made Tunisia one of the largest recipients of EU technical and financial aid. The agreement with the EU provided Bin Ali with a political feat, an act of statecraft that was uniquely his. Just as Bourguiba was the first to call for peace with Israel on the basis of UN resolutions, President Bin Ali is now the first Arab ruler to sign an EU Association Agreement. The irony is that many would see the signing of the agreement as having a ‘Bourguiba’ touch. For, it embodies the pragmatism, moderation, gradualism and aversion to ideology the country’s diplomacy is premised on from the days of Bourguiba. Unlike Morocco, for instance, Tunisia does not aspire to EU membership. Rather, it gradually seeks ‘privileged-nation’ status as a more realistic route to reaping high benefits from association without wasting time or compromising national sovereignty on the unachievable goal of EU membership.

With the Association Agreement begins an important phase in Bin Ali’s rule. Tunisia indirectly obtains ‘positive neutrality’ in world affairs, and Europe is confirmed as Tunisia’s first-tier of diplomatic and economic activities. Tunisia thus gradually and quietly lowers its profile in Arab affairs, a domain that has largely become noted for Saudi instead of Egyptian leadership. Although Tunisia has never publicly adopted slogans such as ‘Jordan first’ or ‘Lebanon first’, which signpost inward-looking policies, nevertheless, it has practiced a policy of ‘Tunisia first’ since 1995 onwards without much fanfare.

The Maghrib is the second-tier of Tunisia’s diplomatic and economic activities. Thanks to its non-ideological diplomacy and positive neutrality it is the only member of the Arab Maghrib Union (AMU) that has no disputes with the other four fellow AMU member states – Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and Libya. It maintains a neutral stand vis-à-vis the Algerian-Moroccan disagreement over the Western Sahara; it keeps an open mind about Gaddafi’s African Union; and it has upgraded relations with Mauritania over the past five years. In fact, Bin Ali can claim successes in expanding the volume of trade with both Libya and Algeria to levels that Bourguiba was never able to realize. Trade with Libya is exemplary: totaling nearly two billion dollars in 2006 and borderless two-way travel of nearly two million tourists, goods, laborers and businessmen are strongly pointing towards an economic integration in the horizon of 2012. Both Algeria and Libya have oil pipelines passing through Tunisian territory, earning the country rental income and concessionary oil and gas benefits.

Thus the Bin Ali of 2007 considers economic exchange to be the basis of collective prosperity and peace. Tunisia has reaped the benefit of this approach in 2007 when a UAE company signed a contract with the Tunisian government to invest nearly US$ 16 billion to construct a twenty-first-century city of sky scrapers in Tunis. It is the largest direct foreign investment, one that will make UAE the largest investor in the country’s economy. The investment will not only change the Tunis skyline, but will also provide thousands of jobs during the 10-year period of construction and thousands more after completion. It comes at a time when Gulf investments to Tunisia are on the rise, mostly in telecommunications (Kuwait), oil refining (Qatar) and tourism (Saudi Arabia). The combined Gulf investments are a big fillip to the Tunisian economy, which is human-resources-rich and oil-poor. Political stability and the record of Tunisia as probably the sole Arab country to be free of armed conflict for 50 years have all boosted investor confidence. Tunisia has until recently relied on Europe for both investment and tourism (5 million in 2006) followed by the Maghrib, which provides the country with an additional 2 million Algerian and Libyan tourists a year, and thriving trade and labor exchanges with Libya. The new focus is to secure a slice of Arab Gulf investments, which have traditionally benefited the Levant region, Egypt, Sudan and Morocco. The new focus seems to be already paying off.

The Association Agreement with the EU has reinforced the economic emphasis of Tunisian foreign policy, giving Tunisia both an incentive and a model, especially in its approach to Maghribi-Maghribi relations (e.g. the success of gradual economic integration with Libya) and Maghribi-EU relations (e.g. through the 5+5 forum, which is a vehicle for expanding Maghrib-EU economic ties). Indeed, the EU Association Agreement has not as yet been successful with regard to democratization of either Tunisia or the Maghrib. However, it has been an important factor in the shaping of Bin Ali’s ‘Republic of Tomorrow’.

Enter Bin Ali’s ‘Republic of Tomorrow’

The notion of a ‘Republic of Tomorrow’ is shorthand in Tunisian political parlance for ‘democratization’, a term noted for its absence in the elite’s political rhetoric. This is in spite of the fact that the official rhetoric affirms commitment to democracy and rule of law. It emerged at the turn of the millennium (in 2002) as Tunisia’s answer to the rising external pressure for the Arab world to democratize. But the notion is largely a political manifesto that spells out Bin Ali’s vision for political reform ‘a la Tunisiènne’. The notion of a republic that delays what it can realize today in terms of political rights, participation and contestation until tomorrow is a double-edged sword. It may be read by cynics as a device for entrenching political singularity whilst Bin Ali is at the helm. Those preferring to err on the side of caution may view it as a ‘road-map’ for institution-building and democratic apprenticeship that requires orderly and slow but sustainable transition. They might argue that a republic is in need of republicans and as yet Bin Ali may not have republicans in abundance to build his ideal republic. Both viewpoints are relevant.

The ‘Republic of Tomorrow’ is presidential with much executive power resting with the president who is immune from prosecution in and out of office (Article 41). More importantly, constitutional reforms of 2002 no longer limit the president to two presidential terms (Article 39). Already the ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) machine is making capital of this and has since 2006 begun a campaign calling on Bin Ali to declare his candidacy for the 2009 elections. In time Bin Ali can be expected to oblige. On the positive side, the constitutional amendments modernize the constitution in ways that enshrine human rights as never before in Tunisian law; it introduces bicameralism as a mechanism for widening consultation and strengthening checks and balances; it establishes new modalities for better integration and coherence between parliament and government, making the latter more accountable through regular ‘question time’ sessions in parliament; and it commits the state to rule of law and constitutionality, now a prerogative of a newly established constitutional court. Although most of this is still on paper and not in practice, the procedural minimums for the ideal republic are being routinized – elections, less reliance on oppression, loyal and limited opposition, newly licensed TV and radio operators, and continuous reduction in the number of political prisoners. But political parties are still weak and are no credible bulwark against a strong state. Moreover, civil society is yet to carve out an adequately respectable margin of existence in the ‘Republic of Tomorrow’. The Human Rights League, the Young Lawyers Association, and the Young Judges Association all have disputations with the state over greater freedoms to organize and mobilize.

Three features of the ‘Republic of Tomorrow’.

The notion of the ‘Republic of Tomorrow’ embodies gradualism and thus it is suited to the EU approach to democratization as stipulated in the Barcelona Declaration of 1995. The declaration’s ‘political basket’ is neither intrusive nor prescriptive – at least when compared with the Greater Middle East Initiative’s ‘working paper’ before it was re-drafted in the Sea Island G-8 Summit of 2004. That flexibility is suited to the Tunisian approach to political reform in terms of gradualism and pandering to Tunisian specificity. In a way, the signing of the Association Agreement has, without intrusion or a specific blueprint, promoted the principle of ‘mise ? niveau’ (upgrading) of political and economic institutions, as the route to privileged status and close association with the EU. Bin Ali’s ‘Republic of Tomorrow’ is a response to the ‘upgrading’ stipulated in the Barcelona Declaration. Its vagueness and incrementalism in the political realm suits the Tunisian predilection for maintaining control over the pace and substance of reform.

The ‘Republic of Tomorrow’ is solidaristic. It champions private enterprise but within the framework of a ‘moral economy’. This commitment to solidaristic development has since the mid-1990s been mediated via a major social welfare initiative, Fund 26-26 (Caisse 26-26), officially known as the National Solidarity Fund (NSF). It is fully run and controlled by the regime, and the project has been dynamic in alleviating poverty and improving living conditions in the so-called “shadow zones”, especially in the large cities. Society, the private sector and government are the main donors. Another initiative building on the NSF is the creation in 1999 of the Tunisian Solidarity Bank (BTS). The BTS, founded on ideas of community-development banking and the procuring of small credits for the purpose of establishing small businesses or improving living conditions. Indirectly, this commitment to national solidarity has unwittingly contributed to the state’s omnipresence as a distributor not only of jobs and to a lesser extent power (through elections), but also of welfare goods. This welfarism is usually an area that is dominated by Islamists in other middle eastern countries, but here it is being dominated by the state, thus beating the Islamists at their own game. This kind of state-led and grassroots-based financing is aimed at reducing inequality and nipping in the bud movements that could utilize charity as a springboard for political recruitment. Bin Ali’s success in this area is deserved and poverty stands today at less than 10 per cent (the government’s figure is much lower). A number of African countries (e.g. Mali) are seeking to replicate this experience with Tunisian assistance.

The ‘Republic of Tomorrow’ builds on the Tunisian Personal Status Code, which has since 1956 given women a political, economic and social visibility unfound in most Arab states. In Bin Ali’s ‘Republic of Tomorrow’ women are envisaged as ‘partners’. Whilst this partnership is yet to be expanded, in practice, to women of all political persuasions, such as the dynamic ‘femmes democrates’, the leading independent voice of female activism in the country, women have legal protection to assert themselves in many arenas even if the state is not hospitable to their brand of politics. This commitment to partnership with women will be a vital factor should Leila Bin Ali, the First Lady, choose—or be chosen—to succeed her husband in the presidency. The First Lady is proactive in women’s affairs and uses her NGO, ‘Basma’, to dispense services to the country’s handicapped. Along with her newly-acquired training in law and the rumored support of a number of the stalwarts within the RCD, namely, Bin Ali’s advisor, Abdulaziz Bin Dhia, Tunisia could be led by a female president post Bin Ali. It would not be a first in a country founded by a Phoenician Queen Didot in the 9th century B.C. and led for a time in the 7th century A.D. by the Berber Princess Al-Kahinah, who fought Muslim Generals for twenty years before they succeeded in bringing all of North Africa under the banner of Islam.

Challenges Ahead

In the ‘Republic of Tomorrow’ Bin Ali has defined a blueprint by which he wants to leave his imprint on the political system as his forebears from Khair al-Din to Bourguiba did before him. For now, however, his actions have been more about progress in economics than in politics. He is arguing that Tunisia must be a ‘zone of prosperity’ before it can move into greater democratization. The twin aims of economic and political upgrading catalyzed by association with the EU are not working in tandem. There is more economic than political openness. Nevertheless, the ideas contained in the ‘Republic of Tomorrow’ are anchored in a reality of augmented local and global demands for democratization. Even though it is a delayed reaction, the ‘Republic of Tomorrow’ is primarily born out of the Association Agreement moment of 1995. However, Bin Ali still commands too much power that not even his ‘Republic of Tomorrow’ is equipped to curtail.

More seriously, as Bin Ali clings to power for longer and longer, Tunisia might find itself back to square one, at the question of succession—the very question that debilitated the state at the drawn out end of Bourguiba’s reign, and before Bin Ali himself intervened to put an end to it.

The newly-founded republican institutions are welcome additions on the route to building a distinctly Tunisian brand of competitive politics. But the republicans are all partisans. Some, Bin Ali has himself created; others are relics from the Bourguiba era that he has skillfully co-opted (e.g. Chedhli Kelibi who has been appointed to the new second house of parliament). The ruling party shows no signs of factionalism. It remains a monolithic structure and one that dwarfs the weak political parties that have been admitted into parliament through a quota system. Strong, effective, autonomous and democratic political parties are vital for a genuine democracy. The weakness of the six political parties now represented in parliament is not to be blamed only on Bin Ali. But Bin Ali is the only one who can encourage alternative political parties (e.g. from within the labor movement and liberal voices from within the human rights movement) with greater potential for organization and mobilization.

Bin Ali’s ‘Republic of Tomorrow’ is yet to match the dynamism of state and society in the mid-1980s when civil society was able to assert itself. The country’s trade union movement under the late Habib Achour grew into a formidable counter-weight to the state, helping pluralize state and society. The ruling Neo-Destour Party became factionalized, displaying democratic tendencies and diversity, which the RCD is yet to measure up to today. Right now, despite his many successes (e.g. diversifying the economy, realizing milestones in terms of food self-sufficiency and IT, improving living standards, and putting in place a modern education system) Bin Ali is yet to accept non-loyal opposition and allow autonomous civil society the necessary latitude for it to partner with the state in order to bring to fruition his ‘Republic of Tomorrow’. Plural, orderly, legal and dynamic opposition and a freer media would be an asset to his ideal republic. Although many in Tunisia welcomed the ideas contained in the ‘Republic of Tomorrow’ they are eager for these ideas to be turned into lived political realities.

“this commentary is reprinted with permission from the Arab Reform Bulletin. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.”