Setting the reset button on Franco-Tunisian relations

Just minutes after French election results were reported, showing that Socialist candidate Francois Hollande had defeated incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy, Tunisian leaders celebrated the socialist’s victory. Hollande’s victory opens the possibility for improvement in the declining relationship between Tunisia and its number one trading partner.

First the political reactions: Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s president, released a statement less than an hour after Hollande’s victory, saying:

On the occasion of your election to the presidency of the French Republic, I am pleased,on behalf of all the Tunisian people, to give you my most sincere and heartfelt congratulations to you and all the French people….We hope your election as head of the French Republic will restore momentum to our two countries with the aim to restore and strengthen their long-term partnership.

Mustapha ben Jaafar, speaker of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly and leader of the Ettakatol party, endorsed Hollande as a fellow social democrat:

We are hopeful that the arrival of the Socialists (in France) will give impetus to the historically strong relationships between our two countries….With France, the new democratic Tunisia wants to build a true partnership that respects the values of freedom and human rights, based on a strategy of co-development and shared prosperity. The special relationship of friendship and solidarity forged between Ettakatol and the Socialist Party are an added impetus for relations between France and Tunisia.

As Maghreb Emergent reports, it is not just Tunisia’s elites who are happy about the change – ordinary Tunisians are happy to see a change from a regime that they saw supporting their former dictator:

Compromised by his ties with Arab dictators and his lack of judgment during the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Nicolas Sarkozy has lost the confidence of Arab countries. Anxious to restore the image of France on the international scene, Francois Hollande has surrounded himself with new personalities who will be competent in changing these policies over his coming term.

Implications for Tunisian relations: France’s actions following the uprisings in Tunisia have not been forgotten. French Defense minister Michelle Alliot-Marie’s name continues to be invoked regularly as a symbol of France’s close ties with deposed dictator Ben Ali (she offered Tunisia support to quell the January 2011 uprising).

Ties between the countries have continued to be strained. Tunisia’s Islamist government has made it a priority to reduce study of the French language and to expand relationships beyond the traditional colonial relationship that has endured since Tunisia’s independence in 1956.

Despite these political tensions, commercial ties between the two countries remain important. While Tunisian newspapers report on new agreements with Gulf countries for golf courses or hotels, it is the ~3,000 French companies operating in Tunisia that remain the backbone of Tunisia’s trading partnerships. For more on Tunisia’s international relations, see this article from February 2012)

It is in this context that Hollande’s victory tonight is so important. Hollande has the opportunity now to reset the relationship that had been so fraught between Tunisia’s transitional government and the Sarkozy administration. Most importantly, it opens the door, as Marzouki and Ben Jaafar’s statements show, for Tunisian politicians to engage with France without losing political credibility.

International relationships remain based on complex political interests and it is wishful thinking that Tunisia’s relationship with France will change overnight with a new French administration. The historical relationship between the two countries remains complex. Nevertheless, the cloud that hung over Franco-Tunisian relations since January 2011 may be lifted with Hollande’s victory.

Ennahdha’s real vulnerability – they’re amateurs

Tunisia’s continuing strikes and sit ins have put the ruling Ennahdha party in an uncomfortable and tenuous position. While the social troubles in Tunisia pale in comparison to those in its fellow reolutionary countries, try telling that to a mother who has to walk her children through a growing mountain of trash on the way to school because of an ongoing dispute between sanitation workers and the local government.

Ennahdha’s reaction has been halting and convoluted – and shown just how much they are new to the process of governing. In a word, they’re amateurs.

The government of Ennahdha has been pressed to put an end to these work stoppages. They know well that governments can rise and fall based on popular revolt and they need to show their ability to run government effectively. The problem is that the very nature of Tunisia’s revolution has made them vulnerable to any action which can be construed to go against the popular wishes of the people.

Thus, when Ennahdha calls for an end to work stoppages, they get slammed from the left – after all, wasn’t one of Ben Ali’s biggest crimes the suppression of wages and the cooption of unions? They also get slammed from the right, which doesn’t object a priori to a law and order party – but remains distrustful of the still un-reformed police.

On top of it, Ennahdha’s right wing has made life difficult for centrists. Last week constituent assembly member Sadok Chorou called for a hard crackdown on protesters, invoking medieval punishments such as crucifixion.  Prior to his recent comments, Chorou was already known as a hardliner who had spent 18 years in jail under Ben Ali, after leading Ennahdha in the early 199os.

While his comments sparked outrage and protest among Tunisia’s left wing, it was Ennahdha’s official reaction that was more telling. According to

Lotfi Zitoun, conseiller auprès du Premier ministre Hamadi Jebali, a expliqué quant à lui que les paroles de Chourou ne devaient pas être prises “au sens littéral”.

“Il estime que ces sit-ins font du tort à l’économie”, a-t-il déclaré. “Cet homme a passé plus de vingt ans en prison et a été interdit de parole pendant seize ans en détention solitaire, il a le droit de dire ce qu’il souhaite, bénéficie de l’immunité en tant que membre de l’assemblée constituante, et ne peut être jugé sur ses intentions.”

My translation:

Lotfi Zitoun, adviser to Prime Minister Jebali, explained that Chorou’s comments should not be taken “literally.”

“He thinks that these protesters have hurt the economy,” he stated. “This man spent more than 20 years in prison [sic] and  was forbidden from speaking during 16 years of solitary confinement, he has the right to say what he wants, and with immunity from prosecution as a member of parliament, he cannot be judged based on his intentions.”

According to Businessnews, when asked about Chorou’s comments, Samir Dilou, Ennahdha’s spokesman, stated:

il ne faut pas trop s’y attarder, c’est une affaire morte. M. Ellouze s’est d’ailleurs exprimé au nom de tous les Nahdhaouis à la Constituante pour expliquer que le but de la citation coranique n’est autre que de dénoncer les sit-in et leurs méfaits

My translation:

We shouldn’t dwell on this, it’s over. Mr. Ellouze [Ennahdha representative from Sfax] has already stated in the name of all Ennahdha supporters in the parliament that the goal of citing this Quranic verse is for no other reason that to denounce protesters and their misdeeds.

This is but one example of Ennahdha leaders downplaying comments by more extreme elements in their movement. In the case of the Tunisian television head who is being tried in criminal court for airing the cartoon Persepolis, Ennahdha’s official reaction has been that there should not have been violence against the station or its staff, but that the broadcast was inflammatory. In the case of the ongoing sit-in by niqab wearing students at Manouba university, Ennahdha has refused to take a stand one way or another.

It’s these kinds of statements that make Tunisian secularists label Ennahdha the party of multiple discourses, saying one thing to their hardline constituents while saying another to the general public. This very well may be true. Though it should be noted, political parties often have multiple discourses. In the United States, a democrat running for office in Idaho will have a very different message than a democrat running for office in New York City.

But perhaps there is an alternate explanation altogether: Ennahdha are simply amateurs, too used to being opposition members and never really having to lead or confront hostile audiences.

In many ways, Ennahdha’s situation is like that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As Khalil al-Anani wrote recently in Foreign Policy [hat tip Issander el Amrani at the Arabist]:

Paradoxically, despite the outright majority attained by its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the MB is still thinking and acting as an opposition movement rather than a responsible power-holder. It seems reluctant to take full power over the country or as Nathan Brown aptly puts it, “the MB confronts its success.” Hence the MB’s leaders are grappling with making the shift from long-standing repressed mentalities to those of statesmen…

Time after time, Ennahdha has hedged words and responded re-actively to the problems they have faced. While their platform was extensive, they seem vulnerable to attacks by a small minority of secularists. This in spite of the fact that they still enjoy popular support and that most Tunisians genuinely want the government to succeed.

But Tunisia’s Islamist leaders are afflicted by two distinct problems:

1) the breadth of views among their constituents (they were supported by moderate, urban middle class voters, overseas constituencies, the rural poor, as well as hardline religious zealots). Pary leader Rached Ghannouchi shows the moderate, polished, educated version of Ennahdha, while Chorou represents the wing of Ennahdha that languished for years in Ben Ali’s torture chambers prisons.

2) The contradictory message of Tunisian voters. Tunisians overwhelmingly want a return to the calm and order of Ben Ali. At the same time, Tunisians mistrust their police force and want the right to protest against their employers – many of whom supported Ben Ali’s kleptocracy.

Ennahdha’s amateurism would likely have afflicted any other party – it’s always easier to criticize than to lead. But right now, since the elections, Tunisians expect Ennahdha to lead, not to mince words. Time will tell if Ennahdha gets its voice back.

Thinking about Arab autocracies as protection rackets

Daniel Brumberg‘s recent article in Foreign Policy caught my eye. He identifies the reason that Arab dictators were able to stay in power for so long – that basically they all shared the features of a mafioso protection racket. Here’s the pertinent paragraph:

I would suggest that we think about Arab autocracies as protection rackets. The latter pivoted around an exchange by which regimes provided a diverse range of groups — ethnic or religious minorities, the business sector, and secular activists — with a haven from the uncertainties of an open democratic process. If many elites accepted this bargain, they did so because they feared that competitive elections would produce assemblies that would undercut their de facto social or political liberties in the name of the majority. In the Arab world, autocracy with would-be democrats has been a long-standing phenomenon.

He then goes on to describe that in Tunisia’s smoother transition is due (at least in part) to the former regime’s repressiveness. He says (bolding  mine):

in Tunisia, a protection racket system that was far more closed and repressive than that of Egypt collapsed, thus setting the stage for genuine democratization. Several factors particular to Tunisia account for this more optimistic story. First, because the small, 30,000-man professional military had been long ago subordinated to the political apparatus, Islamist and secular leaders could not easily appeal to any authoritarian enforcer to arbitrate competing visions of democratic life. When the 135,000-strong security forces then demonstrated neither the will nor the capacity to violently repress the uprising, the crony-based ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party melted away, thus leaving Islamists and secularists with little choice but to make peace or fight.

Indeed, the near total collapse of the ruling apparatus created a relatively open and unchartered political field, reducing the opportunities for manipulation by all players. While secularists clearly feared that Islamists had a substantial organizational advantage, no party had sufficient information that might have tempted one or more to pursue transition modalities designed to serve narrow or selfish interests. Even when the September negotiations over the procedures for a constituent assembly seemed at their most polarized, everyone pulled back from the brink and compromised. Finally, the presence of a large urban middle class that cut across the Islamist-secular divide provided further incentive for cooperation. Thus out of the ashes of one of North Africa’s most repressive systems competitive democracy seems to be emerging.

Overall, I liked Brumberg’s article, but this strikes me as a bit over the top. Brumberg seems to conflate the RCD with the ruling government apparatus.

He’s correct that the RCD did, for the most part go away – though not of their own volition. In fact, after a period of laying low, many former RCDists tried to resurrect their fortunes during the electoral cycle. The reason they did not succeed (compared to the NPD in Egypt, for example), was due in large part to the electoral system, rather than their lack of trying. I would argue that without a party list, proportional representative election, we would likely see a lot more former RCDists in the Assembly today. The fact that the elections were based on political parties rather than personalities closed this door.

Brumberg then goes on to talk about the collapse of the ruling apparatus. Though this is perhaps implicit in his argument, I think it is important to further delineate what this collapse was, because it did not occur in the business sector or in the government – where those who were in power largely remained in power throughout the transition. Rather, the ruling apparatus was Ben Ali’s family, which had taken control of a large section of the Tunisian economy. This relatively small group of people was the target of most of the rage against the regime. To most Tunisians, it was not the RCD or corrupt bureacrats or bankers – but rather the family that forced those people to be corrupt. With the removal of the head, Tunisians were open to hearing different voices, secular, Islamist and otherwise.

One final point that is perhaps  the luck of history. In February, as strikes and sit-ins paralyzed the country – all of the political actors were able to coalesce around the figure of Caid Beji Essebsi. An octogenarian product of the Bourguiba regime, he was publicly seen as honest and trustworthy and among political actors he was seen as too old to pose a real threat to their interests (unlike Essebsi’s predecessor Mohamed Ghannouchi, who was seen as very close to the Ben Ali regime). Essebsi was all but forgotten in Tunisian politics at that point, and if the uprising had not taken place this year, but rather in a few years time, he may have been unable to step up. Essebsi was able to open the political space for the Ben Achour commission to do the important work of preparing for the elections and negotiating the ground rules of the transition between all political parties.

Six months afterward – the revolution remembered (part 2 of 3)

Part two of my series on posts from Facebook in the days immediately before and after the Tunisian revolution. Part one (here) looked at the days before. Part two discusses the day after Ben Ali’s departure.

RCD Headquarters in La Marsa

From Tunisia 2011

January 15, 2011 – Looking for answers, but safe and sound 

…Now a bit of an update from last night until today….To recap, the fall of the Ben Ali was nothing less than extraordinary. Having been in Tunisia in 1999 (12 years into his reign of terror), and having seen how he silenced the opposition and a vote in which he won 99.9 percent of the vote, I thought I knew a bit his power structure. Coming back here 12 years later it had certainly gotten worse. The wikileaks cables that were released in November described the kleptocracy that the regime had become. And while this was news to me, the stories of pet tigers and wild shopping sprees seemed to be very well known among Tunisians. The first family is reviled here.

And it was the first family’s property that was the first to go last night. The mobs that had formed after the police broke up the peaceful protests yesterday in Tunis went about last night systematically burning and looting their personal property, their mansions, and their business. The car dealerships and the supermarkets that they owned burned. Neighborhoods with their houses were saved while their houses were singled out and destroyed.

As the president fled and martial law was declared the city felt tense, happy with the joy of being rid of the dictator, but nervous about what was next. After all, Ben Ali had set up a security apparatus that some have compared to the Stasi of East Germany, informers everywhere, up to 1 police man for every 40 inhabitants. While the population trusts the army, the police are a different story. And it was they who had the most to lose with Ben Ali’s departure.

While events around our neighborhood seemed calm last night, military helicopters circled overhead and sporadic gunfire could be heard form around the city.

We woke up to calm. We were able to sleep late as the call to prayer was cancelled because of the curfew that was in effect until 7 a.m. We spoke with our neighbors who seemed happy, but nervous. The funeral of a young man killed by the police the day before in our neighborhood was going to happen at 2 p.m. If we wanted to go out, we’d better do it in the morning. So, we ventured out into a somewhat normal, but still very tense city. We’re about a 10-15 minute walk from downtown La Marsa, with a nice walk through the park, by the French ambassador’s house, and finally to the seaside.

As we walked in to town, things seemed pretty calm. There was noticeably less people around, but still enough families and couples for us to remain pretty confident in our safety. As we approached the main train station in the center of town we noticed that at the roundabout an immense tank was parked with about 6 soldiers standing guard around it. Remember, the army is trusted here, so this was reassuring, but the orders they were giving on their megaphones did some seem particularly inviting (are any orders given from a megaphone by a soldier on a tank good orders?). We turned back, went to the market, stocked up on oranges and tomatoes, and headed back home. While things were ok, the tension seemed to be building.

After lunch one of Eloise’s work mates came by the apartment to stay with us. He was alone and it seemed like a good idea for us to stick together.

As sunset approached we could see from our fleeting looks from the balcony that neighborhood men were beginning to assemble. They had clubs and were going to defend their neighborhood. Gangs of rioters (perhaps supporters of the ousted president) were thought to be going around town terrorizing civilians, inciting violence, and looting property. While the military were set up at the major intersections, there weren’t enough to defend the entire population. And so the women gathered rocks and brought them to the rooftops, prepared to throw at any looters, and the men stood guard at the entrance to our small street, baseball bats in hand.

And so we sit. We hear shouts from outside as I write. Most far, some a little closer than any of us would like. The gunfire is sporadic, and the sound of an automatic weapon is always jarring. It’s never been close, thank goodness.

We’ll go to bed soon, try to relax, see what happens tomorrow….

RCD Headquarters La Marsa

From Tunisia 2011