Tunisia in Past and Future

Tunisia is in a state of unrest. After former President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali fled the country facing mounting protests against his autocratic and corrupt regime, accounts coming from the country indicate confusion about how the formation of a new government will proceed. Under the country’s present constitution, a new presidential election must be held within 60 days. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi initially took over after Ben Ali’s abdication, only to step aside in favor of the speaker of parliament Foued Mebazza when objections came up about his takeover’s constitutionality. Now, Mebazza has turned around and asked Ghannouchi to form a temporary government.

At this point, it seems that the old ruling elite, in the form of Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally party, are still entrenched in positions of power. However, over at Informed Comment, Juan Cole notes that Ghannouchi has entered into negotiations with leaders of two opposition parties, the Progressive Democratic Party and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties. Cole further states that other parties, namely the Tunisian Communist Workers Party of Hamma Hammami, the Congress for the Republic, and an-Nahda (Awakening– the Muslim fundamentalist party) have not been contacted for the formation of a new government.

Since all the media accounts I have read over the last few days barely focus on the history of Tunisia, only going so far back as to mention Ben Ali’s takeover in 1987, now would be a good opportunity to briefly review this neglected aspect of the story.

Like many nations in the Middle East, modern Tunisia came into existence out of the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century. The French occupied the country in 1881, not only to secure the Algerian frontier but also for financial and geopolitical reasons, to prevent the growth of Italian influence in the region. Two years later, France assumed Tunisia as an official protectorate, taking responsibility for administration and finance. European business interests played a large role in the governing of colonial Tunisia, controlling the local councils which advised the governments on budgets and financing. Increased European settlement led, by 1915, to one-fifth of the land being owned by the colons, mainly large landowners who expropriated peasants, depriving them access to capital and the protection of indigenous landowners they used to enjoy.

While the peasant population suffered under French rule, the colonial period had a significant impact in cultivating native elites, who, through taxation, legal codes, and military power, were given a new state through which to exert their influence on the rest of the population. The identity developed by elites came to be closely aligned with the idea of the nation state, and eventually led them to turn against the colonial administration in the fight for national independence.

By 1907, the first true nationalist group, the French-educated “Young Tunisians,” began calling for a change in French policy in order to give the natives greater access to education, opportunities in government service, and agriculture. However, they did not call for immediate French withdrawal and Tunisian independence. Despite the emergence of native elites concentrated in the urban areas, throughout the first decades of the twentieth century the agrarian sector continued to serve as the basis of Tunisia’s monarchy. Because the nationalist-republican ideology at the forefront of independence movements in the Middle East did not penetrate into the countryside, uprisings such as the one in 1938, led by the radical Tunisian Neo-Destour Party (founded by future president Habib Bourguiba), were unable to sustain the high degree of public mobilization needed to win independence.

During the war years the French continued to maintain a strong grip on the country. When the ruler Bey Muhammad al-Munsif called for the restoration of Tunisian independence, he was deposed by the French on the grounds of being a Nazi collaborator. Tunisia was the final German stronghold in North Africa, abandoned in May 1943 under pressure from advancing British armies.

In the years immediately after the war, as an ideological alignment between nationalism and Islamism became more prominent in the region (Algeria is the clearest example), the Islamic public came to call for civil freedoms as well as state sovereignty. The Neo-Destour party carried the support of the Free French during the war into its postwar push for independence, mobilizing alongside with the newly founded trade union federation. In 1952 Bourguiba was arrested, sparking a movement of active resistance and clashes with European settlers. The weakened French government opened negotiations with the Neo-Destour and granted Tunisian independence in 1956, with Bourguiba becoming president in the following year.

Having finally gained independence and becoming a republican state, Tunisia, along with other former colonies like Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, tried to maintain a policy of ‘positive neutrality’ between the competing Cold War superpowers. The educated elite of the Neo-Destour party and the trade unions continued to dominate the government in the post-independence years. However, reflecting a general pattern across the Middle East that coincided with the lost credibility of nationalist republicanism after the Arab defeat of 1967, Islamism became more prominent in Tunisia during the 1970s.

The 1980s saw a period of social strife, as the West’s new neoliberal consensus meant a greater influence of the International Money Fund and the World Bank in the politics of Middle Eastern states. In reforming Tunisia’s foreign debt, the country had to make an agreement with the IMF, adopting reductions in the subsidy of food. In this new environment of austerity and the doubling of bread prices, the peasants in the south of the country protested in December 1983. The revolt spread to other cities, including Tunis, with government buildings, shops, and banks being targeted by the irate protesters. The army struggled to regain control, taking nearly a month to quell the situation. A further series of student strikes took place in 1987.

On November 7, 1987, Ben Ali (then the country’s Prime Minister) overthrew Bourguiba, the country’s first and only president who had been in power for thirty years. Ben Ali prohibition of Islamic parties like the popular Movement of the Islamic Tendency from participating in the parliamentary elections of April 1989, highlighted the continuing detachment of the country’s ruling elites from the Islamic public discourse that was widely circulating among the grassroots opposition. Islamists unsuccessfully demonstrated against the new government. The IMF and the World Bank, encouraged by the promise of stability and secularism represented by Ben Ali’s takeover, granted the new government $270 million loan.

Since that time, Tunisia had been seen by American and European policymakers as a stable state with an educated middle class. However, all reports suggest that the years of nepotism and corruption under Ben Ali have frustrated the aspirations of many Tunisians seeking financial and political security commensurate to their background. The official unemployment rate of 14% has been said to be far too optimistic; and it bears to keep in mind that the current protests were set off by a college graduate igniting himself after being prevented by the police from operating a fruit stand. Deposing Ben Ali was no small achievement, but all signs show that the mobilized Tunisians do not see this as enough. With autocratic regimes in Libya and Egypt following closely in hope that the Tunisian uprising does not become a precedent for their own populations, these developments could have enormous significance for the future of the Middle East.

[Sources: Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Harvard, 1991); Reinhard Schulze, A Modern History of the Islamic World (NYU, 2000)]


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