Archives For September 2019

Tunisia, a little-known country within US academic and foreign policy circles until the 2010-2012 Arab uprisings, has attracted immediately after that a lot of attention and the intervention of a collection of Washington DC-based democracy promoters, instructors, observers, supervisors, and other transitologists and consolidologists.
To these should be added a bundle of self-proclaimed “experts “on Islam, political Islam, the Middle East, and its “democratization”, with a spot for liberal neo-conservatism, holding influential positions in Washington DC think tanks and other entities part of the so-called democracy-promotion industry.  Some of these experts used to consider the Arabs and Muslims unfit for democracy, but with an excellent sense of timing repackaged themselves as democracy promoters and instructors for that very Arab-Muslim world [1],  including Tunisia.  They all descended en masse upon little Tunisia to give unsolicited advice and even instructions on how to proceed in order to build a democracy that would get their seal of approval.
In the US, our “democratizers” endeavored (and succeeded) to frame the narrative and the debate about democratic transition in Tunisia in terms largely favorable to the Islamists, thus contributing to ensure the continuous support of the US government to these Islamists, in addition to getting a certain legitimacy in the US and internationally.
This blog post is a rather polemic opinion, but it also presents a few observations and reflections about this occurrence.    
A love affair with the Islamists 

While promoting the integration of political formations into the political process of foreign nations, is in principle part of the democracy promotion project of the United States, when it came to post-“Arab-Spring” Tunisia, although the Islamists were accepted by the political class, and integrated into the political game of that country, and therefore didn’t need any special treatment, our democratizers decided, however, to focus practically exclusively on the Islamists of the Ennahda party, promoting and supporting them. They purposely ignored all the other players in Tunisian politics, particularly the progressives, but also the social democrats, and even to a certain extent the secular democrats as well. All of whom, it should be reminded, represent the majority of the electorate in Tunisia, and, unlike the Islamists, do share America’s core values of liberty, equality, and democracy. In spite of that, our democratizers have considered that supporting democracy in a Muslim-majority country like Tunisia should necessarily mean supporting solely the reactionary Ennahda Islamist party, even though the Islamists represent only a minority of about 15 to 25% of the electorate, and didn’t even participate in the 2011 Tunisian revolution.  

Thus, parading behind a veneer of academic “expertise” and objectivity, our alleged “experts” (Experts bidons as the Francophone Tunisians characterize them.)  worked hard at the Tunisian Islamists legitimization, providing them with various platforms in Washington to promote themselves and profess their unshakeable, sudden, democratic convictions. This occured after our democratizers paved their way with numerous articles about the Arab Spring including Tunisia, political Islam, democratic transition, and so on, in newspapers (Op-eds), and reports in mainstream think tank  publications;  swearing up and down that these Islamists are “moderate”, staunchly pro-market, and true believers in democracy, and won’t constitute a threat to the interests of the US, its allies and clients in the region, if they came to power –to the contrary…

The grip of our pro-Islamist “democratizers” over mainstream foreign policy circles, including government agencies, is quite amazing, with most of them lining up behind our democratizers and their Islamist protégés.

As indicated above, although Tunisian secular democrats, social democrats, and progressives share most of America’s core values, and largely outnumber the Islamists in Tunisia, practically none of them has been invited since the start of the Arab revolts (of 2010-2012)  by mainstream think tanks, foreign policy circles and other entities part of the democracy promotion industry, including in academia, to come to Washington, participate in the numerous panels about the “Arab Spring”, democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, democratic transition in Tunisia (the only Arab Spring success story, and so on, and so forth…), or/and to meet with US officials. Only Islamist officials and sympathizers have had that honor time and again, with very few secular exceptions, usually other conservatives confortable with the neo-liberal policy orientations of the previous regime, which is, incidentally, absolutely unquestioned by the Tunisian Islamists.   

In fact, every effort has been made in Washington to avoid any in-depth discussion that would have allowed different perspectives and points of view to be expressed, including addressing the historic, social, economic, political (and global) causes of the “Arab Spring” uprisings. Rather, the conversation remained superficial, excessively culturalist (to allow our democratisers to focus on Islam and Islamism). No discussion on the specific nature and impact of the neoliberal economic model that prevailed in Tunisia (as in other Arab countries) for decades, or on the unbalanced economic relationships between a developing country like Tunisia and its economic and trading partners in the industrialized world (which of course contributes to exacerbate economic under-development). When mention was made of the neoliberal economic development model, it was only to point out that it could have worked well, had the previous regime reformed its governance system along the lines of accountability, transparency, legal reform, and the litany of reforms at the heart of the neoliberal agenda. Botton line: no discussions were allowed that might eventually call into question the validity of this model. And the debate was redirected (and confined) towards issues of culture and religion, of Islam Vs secularism, moderns Vs traditionalists/conservatives, as well as meaningless made-up issues such as “liberal Vs illiberal Islam”, and so on.

What could have been seized as an opportunity to discuss relevant issues and make proposals for a more equitable global economic order, and a development model that prioritizes social well-being in developing countries has been wasted. This would certainly have allowed the US to improve its image in Tunisia, the Arab world, and the developing world, by showing that it cares about the well-being of the people, and to put its foreign policy in line with the aspiration of an increasing number of Americans for an equitable foreign policy. Unfortunately, this opportunity has been wasted in the name of neoliberal ideological dogmatism and rigidity. 

Without entering into a detailed analysis, which would be beyond the scope of this modest blog post, one could suggest a few possible explanations to this love affair between US democratizers and the Islamists of Tunisia.

Decoding the democratizers behavior: 

Our democratizers perception of America’s interests reveals a predilection for short-termism, shallowness, fed by a superficial neo-orientalist understanding of Islam, and essentialist stereotypes about Arab societies[2], This is reflected in the disparaging assumption by several pundits, at least in the beginning of the Arab revolts, that religious grievances were the main explanatory factors of the uprisings, and consequently the response should be religiously-inspired. The overwhelming levels of unemployment, high poverty and inflation rates, widespread corruption, human rights abuses, the dismantlement of education, health, and welfare services, the fact that entire regions in Tunisia have been neglected for decades and remained largely under-developed, are barely relevant to our democratizers. Incidentally, this situation (economically, and in terms of corruption) is worsening by the day under the Islamist party Ennahda-led governments that have been ruling Tunisia practically since 2011, with the blessing of many among the democracy promotion industry in Washington. 

The focus on culture and Islam as the main explanatory factors of the uprisings by our democratizers seems to indicate that in the eyes of our democratizers maintaining the Tunisian and other Middle Eastern and North African peoples under (non-violent) Islamist influence and control, not only will keep them quiet and under control according to the dictum that “religion is the opium of the people”, but also aligned with the existing neoliberal world order[3] under the supervision of the U.S.  An order that the Islamists never questioned or even wanted to reform and adapt. It should be noted here in passing that the control of populations through the control of religion (Islam) is an old trick. It was one of the cornerstones of France’s colonial policies in Algeria, but… it failed.

In addition, some others among our democratizers, apparently overtaken by events, still believed that the US was fighting the cold war, when the Islamists were considered the strongest bulwarks against the spread of communist influence in the Muslim world, and should be supported for that reason[4].  Today the communists are gone, but apparently, they have been replaced in the mind of our democracy promoters and instructors by those local secular democrats and progressives who dare, even if they are not necessarily anti-American[2], to claim some kind of relative political and economic sovereignty for their countries in these times of neo-liberal globalization in serious crisis with dreadful consequences for the developing world. In other words, most of those who know first-hand how devastating the effects of  neoliberal globalization policies on developing countries like theirs can be, and who maintain that they need more than constitutional adjustments and “liberalizing” reforms along Washington Consensus.

One should also mention the middle-of-the-road American liberals’ unhealthy fascination with exotic “dangerous”, “threatening”, political Islam/Islamism, which can be “tamed” by democracy –or so they believe. (A touching unshakeable faith in liberal democracy under any circumstances)

Academic opportunism is another explanation, particularly on the part of some newcomers to the field of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, eager to make a name for themselves, through the expedient use of mainstream think tank publications and newspapers’ op-eds.

Finally, there is definitively the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood backers from the Gulf with deep pockets, over U.S. universities, and think tanks, which have benefited from their largesse.

In conclusion:

Yet, remarkably enough, the Tunisian people have proven fully committed, in spite of huge obstacles engendered by a catastrophic economic situation[5] endured by their small peripheral developing country’s economy, caught up in the whirlpool of neoliberal globalization and foreign interferences, to building democratic institutions that are truly indigenous, not imported, not transplanted. Institutions that include socio-economic rights as well, whether our neoliberal democracy instructors, usually anti-welfare state, anti-union, free-market aficionados, like it or not!

Moreover, it seems that Tunisians are led on the chaotic path of building their own version of democracy by a relatively cohesive social elite (I am not talking about the political class here), singularly knowledgeable and educated; with a direct relationship, an almost organic link, to their people, and this should entice our democratisation advisers and instructors to tone down their arrogant interferences. Only Tunisians would know how to built a  democracy that is rooted in their country’s history, reflecting their people’s social and cultural specificities. “Cultural” in a broad sense, not only religious, as our democratizers with their neo-conservative culturalist fixation on Islam believe!  Thus, Tunisians apparently don’t need foreign interferences, or foreign coaching by “bidons” experts, and no preachy, condescending, and unsolicited advice-givers, as they continue to forge their own path towards democracy and social justice!

One can’t help it but wonder, wouldn’t there be enough for our democratizers to do in the US these days, with all these anti-democratic forces rising? Shouldn’t our democratizers focus on their own country after all, instead of wasting tax-payers’ money trying to “democratize” a complex world that their lack of modesty and intellectual rigor prevents from understanding and respect, in all its diversity?  Moreover, they don’t seem to understand that their relevance today, given the large number of Americans who oppose US global interventionism particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and accordingly the current administration nationalist inclination and disinterest in universalizing American values, at least as our democratizers understand them, is over!

[1] See:  http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000109.htm  (Not to be missed, this statement by one of our experts that reads as follows: “the autocracy of the Arab world exists not despite, but because of, a certain measure of freedom” [Sic 🙂 ]
[2 In line with some of our democratizers contention that a decontextualized, one-size-fits-all stereotyped approach to Muslim and Arab countries is good enough for them, no matter the historical, social, political, economic and geopolitical specificities of each country, notably Tunisia. Most likely also: a blatant ignorance of these specificities.
[3] In Tunisia, and in Morocco, Islamist parties are committed to the same pre-Arab Spring neo-liberal policies. See: Cimini, G. (2017). The Economic Agendas of Islamic Parties in Tunisia and Morocco: Between Discourses and Practices. Asian Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies11(3), 48-64.
[4] Moreover, Ennahda has facilitated the sending of thousands of Tunisian Jihadists to join the ranks of the various radical Islamist groups, including ISIS, to fight the Syrian regime of  El Assad, and in Iraq. This also means that having Ennahda in power, or part of the power structure in Tunisia, can be useful in case of a need by some influential key players in the Middle East and North Africa political confrontations, to strengthen with additional manpower the local militias that they control or influence,
[5] Thanks in large part to Ennahda and its allies’ mismanagement of the affairs of the country.
[1] Often providing approximations and general platitudes, divorced from their historic, social, economic contexts.
[2] One of the democratizers argument for supporting the Islamist Ennahda party and not the secular liberals is that it is a well-organized and cohesive political party, while the seculars of various tendencies are divided and lack discipline. But who can match the cult-like organization, discipline and cohesiveness of a religious sect?
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Nejib Ayachi  (The views expressed in this blog post are strictly mine, and only mine. They do not represent in any way those of other members and associates of the Maghreb Center)

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Some interesting stuff on the topic:
The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, a talk by Prof. John J Mearsheimer at SOAS, the University of London (Jan. 21, 2019): https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=5&v=ni9rncx8ceA&feature=emb_title 
Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent, Capitalism, Democracy and the Organisation of Consent, Edited by Rebecca Fisher (See Edmund Berger contributions): https://corporatewatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/MDMD-Master-PDF1.pdf
 

 

The first round of the presidential election in Tunisia takes place this Sunday, September 15th. Today, the country is turning a new page in its history, with the second democratic presidential election since the collapse of the autocratic regime of Zine Ben Ali in 2011. Seven million citizens are expected to get to the polls and cast a ballot, while the socio-economic crisis is deepening, and the political landscape is increasingly fragmented.

Tunisians now enjoy the rights to free expression, free association, along with free and competitive elections, but the socioeconomic conditions of most of them, including the middle class, have continued to deteriorate. The unemployment rate has increased, at about 15% of the working-age population, with young people particularly affected, and twice as much in the neglected and deprived regions of the interior of the country where the uprisings of the so-called “Arab Spring” started. In addition to unemployment, the housing crisis, access to decent and affordable health care services, and the increasing cost of living with an inflation rate of about 7 % are fundamental concerns for millions of Tunisians. On the other hand, the parallel economy is growing, now representing 40% of all economic activities in the country, fostering corruption that has become widespread and endemic.

All of this is happening while the current ruling coalition comprised of the Ennahda Islamist party allied with center-right factions of the secular family have succeeded in derailing the debate over the economy and development issues in general, by focusing on identity and religion. Although many progressives in academia, the media, among civil society organizations and some political parties have called for a revision of Tunisia’s economic development model and the type of integration into the global economy that it entails, whose effects were basically the triggers of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ revolts, the same model still prevails.

Illustrating the fragmentation of Tunisia’s political scene is the huge number of candidates (twenty-six!) running for this presidential election. This is happening while many Tunisian have expressed their disinterest in politics, politicians, and elections. As of this writing, the participation rate in today’s election at the closing of polling stations, is only 45%, according to the local media.

In the 2014 elections, voters had to choose between the Islamists and their secular center-right opponents organized in the ‘Nidaa Tounes’ party founded by the old regime statesman Beji Caid Essebsi, who got elected as president in 2014, and who on July 25, a few weeks before the end of his term, passed away at the age of 95. Since the previous election in 2014, several other disparate political forces without clear ideological or programmatic contours have emerged. As to the party of the late president Essebsi, Nidaa Tounes, it broke out in various factions built more on the basis of personal rivalries and thcraving for power, than on ideological or programmatic differences.

The popular protest movement for dignity, justice, economic rights, and democracy, which ended the Ben Ali regime in 2011, was from its initiation supported, and, in some regions of the country, even led, by various progressive social and political forces including the powerful UGTT union organization; before being highjacked by the Islamists, although they have not been part of it –at least as such, that is as Islamists.

However, these secular progressive forces are fragmented, embroiled in personal feuds, and, above all, unable to question and revise their dogmatic and narrowly ideological political vision. As a result, they have contributed to Ennahda’s strengthening its grip on large segments of the working people, the poor and deprived populations, and enabled the rise of the populist right, represented in this election by Abir Moussi, the candidate of a renewed RCD party (formerly of Ben Ali), who seems to be a candidate to contend with.

Another populist candidate who, according to the latest polls, may even win this election, is the newcomer in politics and media tycoon, Nabil Karoui. He became known and popular through his charity work in poor neighborhoods and neglected regions of the country.  He is currently in jail for alleged tax fraud.

The other favorite candidates are Youssef Chahed, the current prime minister, and Abdelkrim Zbidi, the minister of defense, an independent close to the late president Essebsi and his Nidaa Tounes party and considered a man of great integrity, and quite popular for that reason in these times of high levels of corruption. Both belong to the center-right tendency in Tunisian politics and do not question the neoliberal orientations of the country, or have presented a credible program to tackle Tunisia’s overwhelming socio-economic problems. The other main contender is Abdelfattah Mourou, the 71-year-old co-founder of the Islamist Ennahdha party, and its first candidate for the presidency. He is expected to do relatively well, but not enough to stand in the second round of the election.

Unless a candidate obtains the absolute majority in the first round, the candidates, and especially their parties, will face a major challenge: that of preparing parallel legislative elections scheduled for October 6, and immediately after that, the second round of the presidential election, which should be held on October 23.

Preliminary results will be announced on Tuesday by the election authority, but, as reported by Reuters news agency this Monday (Sept.16, 2019) morning, “partial election results showed two political outsiders leading the race to become Tunisian president after exit polls showed them advancing to a second-round runoff next month.” Adding that “the independent election commission said conservative law professor Kais Saied and detained media magnate Nabil Karoui were leading.” “If their lead holds, it would represent an earthquake in Tunisian politics and a strong rejection of successive governments …”

(Nejib Ayachi)