– This blog post is an opinion article, my very personal “empirical perspective” on the democracy promotion industry approach to Tunisia –
Tunisia, a little-known country within US academic and foreign policy circles until the 2010-2011 Arab uprisings, has attracted since then a lot of attention as well as 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 North Africa (MENA), and its “democratization”, with a soft spot for liberal neo-conservatism, some of them holding influential positions in Washington DC think tanks and other entities part of the so-called democracy-promotion industry. It is worth noting in passing that quite a few among them 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 , including Tunisia. Soon after the uprisings that toppled the Ben Ali autocratic regime, 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 they made sure sounded to the locals as “the approval of the United States”, perceived locally at that time 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.
With the “noble” intent of preventing the concentration of power in executive hands, through a mix of direct and indirect interferences, they eventually had the Tunisians opt for a hybrid political system that combines elements of parliamentary and presidential systems of government.
But, with the Ennahda Islamist party (which, on the other hand, they promoted and supported) Machiavellian manipulations, deceit, and political maneuvering, the then Tunisian constitutional assembly, in which Ennahda played a pivotal role, adopted a mixed political system that favors parliamentary fragmentation to the extreme, making it necessary to forge broad-based governing coalitions. This would allow Ennahda to practically always be part of aany future government, given the Islamist party continuous presence in the parliament, as a stable, disciplined, and cohesive minority. At the same time, under the pretext of mitigating tensions between the Islamists and their secular opponents, and preventing excessive political divisiveness, Ennahda actively promoted the adoption of a mode of governance based on “consensus” –building on the kind of “unanimism” that prevailed in pre-Arab Spring Arab societies and politics, and on the notion of tawḥīd (unity), quite important in the Islamic tradition– and thus making sure that no decision is made without their consent; and, for their democracy promotion industry sponsors, that nothing would fundamentally change in terms of the overall political and economic orientations of the country.
At the same time, in the US, 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 the US government support.
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 (minority) 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, and democracy.
Thus, parading behind a veneer of academic “expertise” and objectivity, they worked hard at the Tunisian Islamists legitimization in Washington, providing them with various platforms to promote themselves and profess their recently adopted democratic convictions. This occurred after our democratizers paved their way with numerous articles about the Arab Spring, political Islam, democratic transition in Tunisia, and so on, in newspapers (Op-eds), and reports in mainstream think tank publications; swearing up and down that these Islamists are “moderate”, representative of their society (where, in their condescending views, as in all other Arab societies, a high level of religiosity prevails!), true believers in democracy, staunchly pro-market, 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 at the highest level, 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 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 neo-liberal policy orientations of the previous regime, and today allied with the Islamists in government, eager to reproduce the pre-Arab Spring economic system characterized by cronyism and rentierism, and inherent corruption, with just a few cosmetic changes.
As to the Islamists themselves, it should be stressed that they don’t question these neo-liberal policies, don’t even talk about reforming or adapting them to post-Arab Spring Tunisia, except to stress the need to combat corruption, just a moral problem for them- by proposing simplistic measures with populist appeal.
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, to a certain degree, the “Arab Spring” uprisings. All that has been carefully avoided. Rather, the conversation remained superficial, emphasizing cultural explanations of Arab authoritarianism (to allow our democratizers to better focus on Islam and Islamism). And nothing, or almost nothing, about the impacts of the (neoliberal) economic model that prevailed in Tunisia and other Arab countries.
Without asserting that economic injustice is the only cause of the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, one shouldn’t, of course, minimize its importance as our “democratizers” have done. It is worth mentionaing here that even (fact-based) analyses by authoritative (and neutral) UN agencies have shown that decades of neoliberal policies have played a crucial role in the social uprisings of the Arab Spring. But, when mention was made of the economic model that prevailed in Tunisia by our democratizers, 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. This is a clear indication of the entwining of democratization and economic neoliberalism in the mind of our “democratizers”. 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 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 the US 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, has been completely wasted. This would 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. In addition, and as important, to put its foreign policy in line with the aspiration of an increasing number of Americans favorable to a US foreign policy that promotes peace rather than continuous confrontation, and a fair and equitable global political and economic order. Unfortunately, the opportunity has been 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. This is reflected in the disparaging assumption by several pundits, at least in the beginning of the Arab Spring, that religious grievances were the main explanatory factors of the uprisings, and consequently the response should be religiously-inspired (represented by Ennahda in Tunisia). The overwhelming levels of unemployment, particularly among youths, high poverty and inflation rates, widespread corruption, human rights abuses, the dismantlement of education, health, and welfare public services, the worsening of social inequalities between urban and rural, between coastal and inland regions, neglected for decades and remaining largely under-developed, were barely relevant to our democratizers. Incidentally, this situation 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 so-called democracy promotion industry in Washington.
One can’t help it but surmising that our democratizers, trapped as they are in their own prejudices, believe, in reality, that maintaining 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 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, under US stewardship. An order that (again) the Islamists never question or want to reform, or even adapt to their country’s specific conditions. 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!
To be mentioned also is the simple-minded, foolish belief that building formal, disembodied, generic democratic institutions without having to urgently address the underlying socio-economic grievances, inequalities, and precariousness, intensified by the general crisis of globalization, would be enough for democracy to take hold in Tunisia.
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. 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, 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.
Yet, remarkably enough, the Tunisian people have proven fully committed, in spite of huge obstacles engendered by a catastrophic economic situation 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” experts (as they are called by Francophone Tunisians), and by 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?
 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!!
 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 Studies, 11(3), 48-64.
 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
 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