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by Rob Prince
When President Zine Ben Ali was deposed, a new era of modern Tunisian history -- one filled with hope and frustration -- unfolded.
The signs are everywhere 'Place Janvier 14,' 'Ave. Janvier 14,' etc. More often than not they replaced 'Place Ben Ali' and did so within hours after the announcement that his rule had ended.
On January 14, 2011 -- a mere two years ago -- Tunisian President Zine Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and other family members boarded a jet plane that, after being refused landing rights in Paris and Rome, eventually landed in Saudi Arabia. The Ben Ali's only found refuge in conservative Saudi Arabia, which, over the years, has housed an odd assortment of other political detritus, deposed corrupt and repressive overthrown African leaders from Idi Amin to Mengistu Haili Mariam.
Considerable debate continues as to the nature of Ben Ali's flight, and perhaps more importantly, where the two extended family clans squirreled away some $17 billion -- we'll never know the exact sum -- of the country's wealth in Swiss, Finnish, Austrian, Channel Islands, the UAE and Canadian banks. Some speculate that Ben Ali planned only to accompany his family to safety and to return to Tunis that night. Others suggest he knew he would never return and that he was lucky to escape with his life and a hefty bank account.
Regardless, 'it' was over and a new era of modern Tunisian history -- one filled with hope and frustration was about to unfold. As for the stolen money, two years on, less than 5% has been returned. Given the secrecy, complexity of international banking rules and greed of their managers, it is highly unlikely that beyond symbolic amounts, the money will ever be either returned, most of it forever unaccounted for. It is claimed that before leaving, in one last symbolic effort to rob the country she had milked for billions, Leila Trabelsi robbed the national treasury of as much gold and jewels as she and her assistants could carry to the departing plane, some several hundred million dollars worth.
The Tunisian Revolution Has Lost Some of Its Gloss
The 'Tunisian Revolution' has lost a good deal of its gloss. The rhetoric remains 'radical,' the reality much less so. That it was a genuine national uprising engaging virtually the entire population is beyond doubt -- and as such, nothing short of a regional inspiration. That it can be characterized as 'a revolution' is open to question. What has changed? How many of the institutions of the old order remain in place, run in many places by the same people who have simply changed political affiliations to be a part of the new wave How many elements of the old ruling class have been integrated into the new system? And some of what has changed, has changed for the worse, not the better.
Some of the headlines of the past few days are almost surrealistic, others just downright depressing. "Headquarters of Tunisian Association in Support of Minorities Attacked" one reads -- this after the association sponsored an event in which a speaker spoke of the fate of Tunisian Jews, some of whom, with the collusion of the French Vichy authorities at the time, were rounded up and sent to extermination camps in Europe. Another article, appearing at the award-winning online Tunisian investigative website, Nawaat.org, exposes a plot on the part of one the Tunisia's ruling parties (the one that really runs the show), Ennahda, to establish some kind of armed paramilitary wing. A third piece relates how a young couple, no more than twenty years of age, have been sentenced to two months in prison for having kissed in public. Tunisian youth responded by declaring January 13, as "National Kissing Day," a day of a national 'kiss in.'
In themselves these articles don't necessary mean much. Taken together, however, they suggest a deteriorating national consensus, a nation that has been in crisis since Ben Ali's departure. True, Tunisia has not collapsed to the point of civil war as in Syria and Libya. Still, the crisis isx deepening and dangerously so.
Rolling Back Bourguiba's Accomplishments
The country has been on a rocky road these past two years. Besides consolidating its own power for as long as possible, the goal of the transitional government in power since October 2011 is to roll back the achievements of the country's first president, Habib Bourguiba, where it concerns education, women's rights and the separation of church (or in this case 'mosque') and state while maintaining essentially the same IMF-friendly open economy that contributed so much to the country's recent crisis in the first place.
Not particularly important to the United States from an economic point of view, Tunisia still has strategic value. The U.S. embassy there is a major communications gathering center, a kind of information 'lily pad' in an otherwise unstable and unfriendly neighborhood. Tunisia's transitional government enjoys strong support, despite its many blemishes, from the United States.
Washington considers the Tunisian political changes something of a model for what it hopes to see develop throughout the region: weak states, more easily penetrated and run by foreign capital. That they might have an 'Islamic flavor' (run by Islamic parties) is of no concern to Washington as long as two golden rules are followed: 1. the country remains economically open and exploitable to international capital, which it does. 2. That the country fall in line with the broader U.S. strategic goals of dominating the region (i.e., cooperating with Israel openly or covertly, maintaining the pressure on Iran, helping bring down the Assad regime in Syria by supporting the Saudi and Qatari-backed rebels).
These past two years have been rough on the country economically, socially and politically. A hitherto virtually unknown Salafist (militant Islamic fundamentalist) movement has emerged. It has enjoyed financial and political support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and there are suggestions that many of those formally involved in Ben Ali's security force are involved. While not formally a part of the government it enjoys encouragement and has very close ties with the country's leading moderate Islamic party, Ennahda, which had, up to the September storming of the U.S. Embassy, offered the Salafists shelter and support.
Tunisia's Salafists have openly and increasingly engaged in brown-shirt tactics to impose their skewed version of Islam on the population. Their actions have increasingly and unnecessarily polarized the country's cultural landscape. Self-appointed religious goon squads, similar to those that exist in Saudi Arabia, abound, encouraged and protected by those currently in power. They have been wreaking havoc for more than a year now, attacking cultural events (art exhibits), TV stations, journalists, movies with which they disagree. These elements have also rampaged historic Sufi monuments, attacked trade unions and Tunisian universities, with hardly a peek of criticism or police response from the authorities.
With Ennahda's acquiescence, the Salafists have overtaken many of the country's historically moderate mosques and turned them into bastions of religious extremism. Attacks on women's rights abound; attempts to hijack the country's higher education system and turn it into little more than fundamentalist madrasas have not been challenged by the authorities; growing verbal threats to the country's tiny -- but historically significant -- Jewish community take place almost daily.
There is opposition to these trends but it remains generally weak and divided. But it is growing.
Tunisia's Frozen Economy
Tunisia's economy remains frozen in crisis.
The biggest failure of the past two years has been the new government's failure to address the economic crisis. The country's post-Ben Ali economic program is no different than the prescriptions followed in the last two decades of the dictator's rule. Instead, the ruling coalition, little more than a cover for an Ennahda-dominated government, has been more concerned with consolidating its political power and assuring its long-term control of the country.
It is often forgotten that the conditions which triggered the national revolt two years past had very little to do with religion. That the 2010 revolt was triggered by religious considerations is a Salafist-fabricated fantasy. They were a non-factor. Instead, it was a socio-economic crisis par excellence: high rates of unemployment (ridiculously high among youth and in the rural areas); low, virtually unlivable wages for those working; a deterioration of the country's social fabric as a result of IMF insistence on cutting government spending; the continued erosion of subsidies on basic food stuffs, medical possibilities and energy.
These factors combined with a breathtaking level of corruption -- the two ruling Ben Ali and Trabelsi families controlling more than 50% of the economy -- and a pervasive system of repression are what brought down Ben Ali, a favorite in Paris and Washington for his adherence to the Washington Consensus and his opposition to Islamic militantism.
And so the crisis in Tunisia continues
A recent IMF report on the economic situation clearly states that the country's current stagnant growth will do nothing to stem the country's 17.6% unemployment rate -- 40% for youth -- nor address the great social imbalances between the urban and more rural areas. Typically, in exchange for offering Tunisia aid, the IMF, frozen in its structural adjustment mode of the past 30 years, prescribes 'more of the same' -- low wages, open capital markets, greater opening of the financial sector, etc.
As these are the same prescriptions that triggered the 2010 uprising in the first place, it is highly unlikely that such policies will turn the economic situation around.
It is true that Tunisia's economy -- so heavily based upon exporting to France and Italy -- is adversely affected by the global economic slowdown that has hit Europe especially hard and that there is no easy immediate solution to the country's economic woes. Still, the lack of virtually any new economic vision is worrisome. It suggests that rather being on some kind of new economic path, the country will remain mired in the old ways.
If this is the case, it seems highly likely that another social explosion cannot be that far off.
Rob Prince, "Tunisia Two Years On: The Crisis Deepens" (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus)