Tunisia: The “Democratizers” and The Islamists

September 25, 2020 — Leave a comment
– This blog post is an opinion article, my very personalempirical perspectiveon the foreign policy establishment and the democracy promotion industry approach to Tunisia –   

Tunisia, a little-known country within US academic and foreign policy circles until the Tunisian people initiated the 2010-2011 popular protests and uprisings in several Arab countries termed the Arab Spring, has attracted during and after that a lot of attention on the part of a collection of mostly Washington DC-based democracy promoters, instructors, observers, supervisors, and other transitologists and consolidologists, as well as a bundle of self-proclaimed “experts “on Islam, political Islam, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and its “democratization”, with a soft spot for liberal neo-conservatism, found in Washington DC think tanks and other entities part of the foreign policy establishment and the so-called democracy-promotion industry. It is worth noting that quite a few among them used to consider the Arabs and Muslims rather 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.

Soon after the fall of Tunisia’s autocratic regime of Pres. Ben Ali, as the country was embarking on democratic transition, they all descended en masse upon little Tunisia to give unsolicited advices, and even instructions, on how to proceed in order to build a democracy that would get their seal of approval, which sounded to the locals as the approval of the mighty United States, perceived at that time by many in the region as a relatively benevolent supporter of the Arab Spring uprisings against Arab autocracies, particularly in less strategically important countries of the MENA region like Tunisia.

At the same time, in the U.S., our “democratizers” made every effort to frame the narrative and the debate about democratic transition in Tunisia in terms largely favorable to the Islamists, thus contributing to their legitimization both in the US and internationally, in addition to ensuring them the support of the US government.

With the “noble” intent of preventing the concentration of power in executive hands in the future (and therefore a return to autocracy), through a mix of direct and indirect interferences and pressures, and thanks to the Ennahda Islamist party (which, as indicated, they promoted and supported) playing a pivotal role, the then Tunisian Constituent Assembly opted for a new hybrid political system (Jan. 2014) that combines elements of parliamentary and presidential systems of government. The mixed political system with proportional  representation that was adopted, thanks to Ennahda Machiavellian manipulations, deceit, and political maneuvering, resulted in the emergence of a particularly fragmented parliament.

In addition to affecting negatively government stability, this type of system makes it necessary to forge broad-based governing coalitions. In the case of Tunisia, this means that Ennhda would invariably have to be included in it, given the Islamists continuous presence in the parliament as a stable, disciplined, and cohesive minority.

Moreover, under the pretext of mitigating tensions between Islamists and seculars, and to allegedly prevent excessive political divisiveness, building on the kind of “unanimism” that has prevailed in Arab societies, and on the concept of tawḥīd (unity), essential in the Islamic tradition, Ennahda pushed for the adoption of a mode of governance based on “consensus”, thus making sure that no major decision could be made without the Islamist party consent; and, for their foreign policy establishment and democracy promotion industry sponsors, that nothing would fundamentally change in terms of the overall (neoliberal-inspired) political and economic orientations of the country.

A love affair with the Islamists 

While promoting the integration of all main 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 (reformed) Islamist Ennahda party [1B] was accepted by the political class and fully integrated into the post-Arab Spring political life of that country, and therefore didn’t need any special treatment, our “democratizers” decided otherwise, they choose to focus almost exclusively on the Islamists, promoting and supporting them[1C]

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 middle of the road secular democrats as well, although together they represent the majority of the Tunisian electorate; and, unlike the Islamists, do share America’s core values of liberty, equality, democracy, and secular republicanism. (Secular, in the sense of considering politics as an autonomous sphere, with government institutions not subject to governance by religious entities.)

Thus, parading behind a veneer of academic “expertise” and objectivity, our “democratizers” worked hard at the Tunisian Islamists legitimization in Washington, through the publication of numerous articles and reports about the Arab Spring, political Islam, democratic transition in Tunisia, and so on, in newspapers (Op-eds) and mainstream  think tank publications;  swearing up and down that these Islamists are  “moderate”, representative of large segments of their society, true believers in democracy, staunchly pro-market, and won’t constitute a threat to the interests of the US and its allies and clients in the region, if they came to power –to the contrary… After paving their way in such a manner, they provided them with various  platforms in Washington to promote themselves and profess publicly their recently adopted democratic convictions.

As indicated above, although Tunisian secular democrats, social democrats, and progressives share most of America’s core values, and largely outnumber the reactionary Islamists in Tunisia, practically none of them has been invited since the start of the Arab uprisings by mainstream think tanks, foreign policy circles and other entities somehow 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”, etc.), 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 (non-religious) conservatives, comfortable with the failed neo-liberal economic policy orientations of the previous regime, and today allied with the Islamists in government, eager as they are to perpetuate the pre-Arab Spring (economic) system characterized by cronyism and rentierism, and its inherent corruption, with just a few cosmetic changes along Washington Consensus lines. As to the Islamists themselves, it should be reminded that they don’t question these neo-liberal policies, don’t even talk about introducing susbstantive reforms to at least adapt them to post-Arab Spring Tunisia, except to stress the need to tackle corruption through  moral  education, and proposing to that effect simplistic measures with populist appeal. 

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

In fact, and unfortunately, 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; not even addressing the historic, social, economic, including the effects of economic globalization and the role of international structures of power, to explain the “Arab Spring” uprisings. Rather, the conversation remained superficial, focusing on the unfolding of the Arab Spring events, and emphasizing culturalist explanations of Arab authoritarianism and, discursively, the uprisings; avoiding any indepth analysis of the causes of the Arab Spring, particularly those of a socioeconomic nature. This allowed our “democratizers” to better focus on Islam, and then on (moderate) Islamism as a very possible and desirable alternative to secular authoritarianism. It is worth noting here, that even authoritative and neutral UN agencies (not known for their “radicalism”) have shown  in fact-based analyses that years of neoliberal policies played a crucial role in the triggering of the Arab Spring social uprisings. When mention was made by our “democratizers” of the neoliberal-inspired economic model that prevailed in Tunisia, it was only to point out that it could have worked, had governance reforms along the lines of accountability, transparency, legal reform, and the litany of reforms at the heart of the neoliberal agenda, been implemented. A clear indication of the entwining of democratization and economic neoliberalism in the mind of our “democratizers”! One could say, with only a little exageration, that it seemed like democratization and the deepening of neoliberal economic reforms were the purposes of the Arab Spring uprisings. Bottom line: no discussions were allowed that might eventually call into question the validity of the said model, not even to examine ways, while remaining within the confine of economic liberalism, to “channel the power of the market to serve society“, to quote a famous contemporary development economist and former World Bank chief economist known for his calls for reform, and certainly not for revolution. And the debate was redirected towards, and confined to issues of culture and religion, of Islamism Vs secularism, moderns Vs traditionalists / conservatives, as well as meaningless made-up issues such as “liberal Vs illiberal Islam”, and so on.

The opportunity for influential foreign policy circles in Washington to start a discussion on truly relevant issues and make proposals for a more equitable global political and economic order, and a development model that prioritizes social well-being in developing countries, if only to prevent other social uprisings like those of the Arab Spring and consequentely would generate security and stability (more than military intervention), has been completely wasted. This would certainly have allowed the US to improve its image in Tunisia, the Arab world, and the developing world in general, by showing that it cares about the well-being of the people there; and, as important, to put its foreign policy in line with the aspiration of an increasing number of American citizens favorable to a foreign policy that promotes peace and cooperation rather than confrontation, as well as a fair and equitable global political and economic order. Unfortunately, the opportunity has been totally ignored because of ideological conformity, and, one could add,  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, based on shallow analyses fed by prejudice and 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 Spring, that religious grievances, or/and Islam itself, were important explanatory factors of the uprisings. The overwhelming levels of unemployment, particularly among youths, high poverty and inflation rates, widespread corruption, human rights abuses, extreme precarity, the dismantlement of education, health, and welfare public services, the worsening of inequalities, between urban and rural, coastal and inland regions neglected for decades and remaining largely under-developed, were barely relevant to our democratizers. Incidentally, this situation is getting more serious by the day, with the Islamist party Ennahda-led governments that have been ruling Tunisia practically since 2011, with the blessing of many in the  democracy promotion industry in Washington. 

Then, there is the simple-minded and foolish belief among our “democratizers” that promoting formal, disembodied,  generic democratic institutions, without really taking into account the historic, social, and economic specificities of a country like Tunisia, as well as the backdrop of the crisis of globalization, would be enough for democracy to take hold in that country, that is — without having to seriously and urgently address the socioeconomic grievances of the people who rose against the dictatorship that oppressed them.

One can’t help it but conjecture that our “democratizers”, trapped as they are in their own prejudices, don’t in fact believe that keeping the Tunisian and other Middle Eastern and North African peoples under (non-violent) Islamist influence and control, is good for the US and its allies? Not only the Islamists will keep their people quiet and under control (in accordance with the dictum that “religion is the opium of the people”), but also aligned with the existing neoliberal world order[3], under US stewardship? An order that, again, the Islamists don’t question or even want to reform. 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 for example, but as we know, it … failed!

For some others among our democratizers, apparently overtaken by events, the US was still 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 democratizers 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 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  fascination  with exotic, “dangerous”, “threatening”, political Islam/Islamism, which “fortunately can be “tamed” by democracy –or so they believe. A touching unshakeable faith in liberal democracy under any circumstances!

Academic opportunism did also play a role, 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 (We are not talking about the political class here), singularly knowledgeable and educated; with an organic link to its people, and this should entice our democratization advisers and instructors to tone down their arrogant interferences. Only Tunisians would know how to build 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 neoconservative culturalist fixation on Islam believe!  Thus, Tunisians don’t seem to need foreign interferences, and foreign coaching by “bidons” (phony) experts, as they are called by Francophone Tunisians, as wellas 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!

– – – – –

[1A] See:  http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000109.htm  (Not to be missed, this real gem by one of our “experts”: “the autocracy of the Arab world exists not despite, but because of, a certain measure of freedom.” J
[1 B]: Ennahda has currently 52 out of 217 seats in the Tunisian parliament.                       
[1 C] One of the democratizers’ arguments 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?
[2]  Often providing approximations and general platitudes, divorced from their historic, social, economic contexts. The contention might be that a decontextualized, one-size-fits-all approach to Muslim and Arab countries is good enough for them, no matter the historical, social, political, economic specific conditions 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 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 confrontations, to use additional manpower from Tunisia, or/and  Tunisian territory to set up logistics bases that could be needed for military interventions in the region, as Turkey has recently requested in the case of its intervention in neighboring Libya
[5] Thanks in large part to Ennahda and its allies’ mismanagement of the affairs of the country.
– Nejib Ayachi 
(The views expressed in this blog post are solely my own, and only mine.)
A good read about the topic: 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


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