Talking with Safwan Masri
Tunis - Safwan M. Masri is executive vice-president for Global Centres and Global Development at Columbia University. He is the author of “Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly.” He answered questions from The Arab Weekly about his book and perspective on Tunisia.
- What motivated you to write this book?
Intellectually, I was driven by a nagging desire to understand why Tunisia alone has been able to transition towards a functioning democracy, while other “Arab spring” nations devolved into civil conflicts that have resulted in humanitarian crises of gargantuan proportions.
The book was also personally motivated: Tunis was reminiscent of the Arab capitals in which I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s but which have lost all the promise of modernity and secularism that they once held, perhaps irreversibly. The quest to understand Tunisia became an exercise to comprehend the demise of the Arab world, of which I am, and a personal journey to reconcile conflicting aspects of my identity.
– What kind of reactions did you get?
The book has been very well received and reactions have been quite diverse. In the United States, for example, audiences have been receptive to a counter-intuitive and provocative narrative about the Arab world and in the special case that is Tunisia.
Tunisians have been especially appreciative of the opportunity to be reminded of their important history and of the dose of confidence and optimism the book has provided.
In places like Amman, Beirut and Jerusalem, the book has resonated with people frustrated by failures in their own societies, particularly when it comes to education, religion and women’s rights.
– Tunisia’s history and social make-up have predisposed it to the 2011 peaceful transition. Do you think it predisposes it to succeed in meeting the social and economic challenges it faces?
I think it does but the challenges the country faces are real. I am confident that Tunisians will bring about political stability. On multiple occasions over the past few years, Tunisians have demonstrated their capacity to reach consensus and to compromise for the sake of safeguarding the gains they have made.
On the economic front, difficult reforms must continue to be made and corruption needs to be addressed sustainably, through the rule of law.
In my opinion, the most threateningly destabilising issue in Tunisia that must be addressed is the age-old dichotomy — economic and social — between the urban centres of the coastal area and the interior and south of the country.
– There were those in the West in 2011 who thought Tunisia would usher in a regional domino effect. Did they miss how Tunisia is different?
Not only did everyone think that there would be a domino effect but many argued that Tunisia should serve as a model for the rest of the region. Pundits of all stripes failed to appreciate that the ingredients that prepared Tunisia for its experience have been many generations in the making and that the rest of the region has been moving in the opposite direction, making it ill-prepared for a democratic transition.
The role of the military and the extent of foreign intervention, notably regional, were underestimated. So was the fact that civil society, which played a vital role in the Tunisian scenario, was absent elsewhere and there was no space for political alternatives to mature.
– Were Tunisians justified in expecting the international community to be more forthcoming in assisting them?
One of the decisive factors that have helped Tunisia evolve the way that it did has been that it was never significant enough to attract international and regional intrigue. The factors that have saved Tunisia from unwelcome intervention are the same ones that stand in the way of much-needed assistance today. The international community should do a lot more to help but its attention is directed towards problem areas elsewhere at the expense of not bolstering the one successful example of a peaceful, democratic society in the region.