Safwan Masri looks at why Tunisia will probably succeed
The differences between Tunisia and its neighbours have been remarked on for centuries. Its openness to foreigners, tolerant outlook and joie de vivre are not just the result of a Mediterranean climate.
The revolts that began in Tunisia in the winter of 2011 and spread across the region, toppling former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, were widely lauded by Western political leaders and media, whose enthusiasm I did not share.
I thought democracy had a chance in Tunisia but not in other countries in the region. Why? Before I explain, I must declare a personal interest in Tunisia, as I have known the country since 1951 and reported on it for the Financial Times, the BBC and others since 1974.
Three factors need to be considered.
First, young Tunisian men and women, starting in the poorer hinterland areas, dared to confront Ben Ali’s dreaded police with their bare hands, toppling Ben Ali after gaining support from Tunisia’s general trade union and others in the coastal cities. The Islamist movement was nowhere to be seen.
Second, Tunisia was not a major strategic asset for Western powers. Its former colonial ruler, France, was caught completely off-guard by the developments.
Last, Tunisia did not witness a revolution of the system but a decapitation of the existing system. Today, the country’s industrial and farming assets belong to the same people they belonged to in 2011, with the exception of the Ben Ali clan.
As Safwan Masri explains in his book “Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly,” Tunisia is different from the rest of the Arab world. This explains the relative success of its democratic transition, he argues.
True, the country faces several challenges: The economy is in bad shape, not least due to the conflict in neighbouring Libya; corruption is pervasive; bold decisions to address regional differences are needed; civil service is hugely inflated; and young people have yet to taste the fruit of their daring in 2011.
In addition, too much domestic capital lies abroad, which is detrimental to the country’s economic growth.
That said, Tunisia has secured many achievements. First, blood has not been spilt in Tunisia anywhere near the scale it has in other Arab countries. Its freedom of speech is more widely protected, torture is in retreat and free-and-fair elections take place. These are no mean achievements in a world in which human rights are receding.
Masri does an excellent job of examining the historical factors that make Tunisia what it is. Modern Tunisia’s founding father, Habib Bourguiba, was an autocrat but instituted important reforms. By granting women equal rights in 1956, introducing family planning and health reforms and establishing universal education — with mixed classes — he set the pace of modernising change “that formed the core of the vision for the young country he was building,” Masri writes.
Bourguiba, as the author noted, understood that “religion was entrenched in Tunisian society… and could be a legitimising factor for the independence movement,” the Neo Destour, but at the same time removed it from centre stage. “Bourguiba had redefined the relations between religion and society,” says Masri. Tunisia “was thus spared the struggle for national identity that made Islam the badge of honour in societies that had little else which to pin their newfound independence.”
He did this thanks to strong support from Fadhel Ben Achour, sheikh at Zitouna Mosque, the old Quranic school. Ben Achour also led the constituent session of the Tunisian General Labour Union, Africa’s second oldest trade union and was a key player in the fight for independence.
Fadhel’s father, Tahar, played an equally important role in modernising the country’s vision of Islam a generation earlier. Reformers such as Tahar Haddad believed the reason Muslim societies lagged behind Europe was their misunderstanding of the tenets of Islam.
Leading ministers of the 19th century, such as Mustapha Khaznadar and Kheireddine Pacha, also made important contributions. Pacha’s seminal work, “The Surest Path to Knowledge regarding the Condition of Countries,” published in 1867, established his legacy as a great reformer.
In it “he argued for stability in political institutions and for the rule of law as requisites for the power and prosperity of nations. He did not discuss universal suffrage but argued for equality before the law and the regulation of public finances.”
Though he failed in his attempt to reform Zitouna, he created a new secular institution, Sadiki College, six years before the French conquered the country in 1881.
Sadiki College recruited students from all over the country on the basis of merit, providing their education for free. “This egalitarianism extended geographically in that students were recruited from every region of the country,” Masri wrote.” The school was noted for its religious diversity (Jews were admitted) and for instilling a sense of national belonging in its students. This helps explain why Bourguiba’s post-independence modernisation was so successful — alumni dominated the government for three decades. “In the first three decades of after independence, 124 out of 137 government ministers were Sadiki graduates,” noted the author.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi is in many ways the heir of Bourguiba, which is helped by the fact that Tunisia, as it is constituted, has been ruled from Carthage or nearby Tunis for 2,800 years. It is a more homogeneous country than many of its neighbours.
That said, to call neighbouring Algeria “an obscure geographical exception” is to trot out an unfair colonial cliche and to speak of “infamous Turkish pirates,” as Masri does, is historically inaccurate as privateering was practised as much by the English, French, Venetians and Maltese as it was by the Tunisians and Algerians.
Such remarks in no way detract from this book, which deserves to be widely read. Reforms on matters such as education, the role of Islam, gender roles and trade unions are key to the future of Arab countries. Tunisia is no doubt “an anomaly” in the Arab world but only the future will tell whether it remains so.
Still, it is safe to argue that North Africa is very different from the Middle East and that Tunisia is different from its neighbours. It can only consolidate this position, however, if its leaders dare to be as bold with their economic and educational reforms as Bourguiba was half a century ago.