Sat 19 Feb 2011
Having spent most of the week in Tunisia, here are some thoughts and observations.
… is very positive. It is not the end of a president (like Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004), but the end of an era. Since independence in 1956, Tunisia had only two presidents – Bourghiba and Ben Ali who ruled for 30 and 23 years respectively. In this sense Tunisia feels a bit like Central and Eastern Europe in late 80s-early 90s.
There is a lot of optimism, but even more short term confusion. There is no clear understanding, nor agreement on what to do the following weeks and months. There are no institutions, no leaders and no united platform of dissidents, NGOs or oppositionists (like Solidarnosc in Poland or Saakshvili in Georgia) to stir the country through the next months. The interim president is unelected with little legitimacy, there is no parliament, the interim government is very weak politically, and under constant assault from protesters who want jobs, salary raises etc. So far the government had to accede to most of the demands of the protesters, since it has little power to say no. With such tempo the country can easily go bankrupt (add the outflow of tourists, uncertainties of the investors etc).
The starting point of post-revolutionary transitions in Serbia, Georgia or Ukraine were much better, and even there many of the results are mixed. These countries’ protest movements had leaders who could assume the responsibility for governing in a matter of weeks, not (6-7) months. They also had some history of competitive elections, established political parties, NGOs, more independent media, and economic power was more diffused. They also had decent laws (electoral codes, media laws, and constitutions), which even if not fully respected, were at least in place and did not need to be drafted all almost from scratch in a matter of weeks after the revolution. Central and Eastern Europe in late 80s-early 90s also did not have many of these things, but they at least had organised and united governments’ in waiting such as Solidarnosc or Charter 77, and much more EU support.
In Tunisia there is no clear understanding on the sequencing of next steps. Should one elect a president or change the constitution first. If changing the constitution comes first – then an constituent assembly needs to be convened, but the question is how to elect? Any elections will need changes to media and electoral laws at least. A dilemma outlined by some active revolutionaries is that if the country holds elections too early – this might favour Ben Ali’s old guard who have the money, the resources (including media), the skills and the organisations to score too well; but if elections are held too late when disappointment with the economic performance might kick in – then Islamists might score better than anyone thinks.
On the positive side, however, is the fact that Tunisia is a decently functioning country. Confusion is not chaos. Tunisia has functioning state institutions, a very well educated (and French-speaking) elite, emancipated and active women, and strong connections to Europe. Sicily is 160 km away (Lampedusa is 70km) and Europe feels close. Aside from a narrow circle of Ben Ali’s family, corruption is relatively low. In the Transparency International corruption perception index Tunisia (59th place in the world) scores better than Croatia, Macedonia, Greece, Italy, Montenegro, Georgia (68), as well as Moldova (105) let alone Armenia (123rd place), Ukraine (134) or Russia (154). Tunisia is also on the respectable 55th place in the World Bank Cost of doing business index. Obviously such indexes are not entirely objective, but they still give a sense of the overall trend. The ministries might be a bit chaotic, but the system seems to function nonetheless. And the population has discovered the joy of protests and keeping in check those in power. But chanelling these structural factors into an organised political process will be a challenge.
The newspapers are a joyful read (the ones I could read in French, at least). They provide a daily deluge of comments and post-revolutionary hopes. But the TV could become problematic. There are only a few private channels and all of them belong to Ben Ali’s old guard. They are very pro-revolutionary now, but can play an important role in propelling many of the unsavoury ‘have beens’ into politically strong positions in the future. Al Jazeera is more popular than the local channels, but while contributing to pluralism in general, it is less likely to affect the media-battles between the future political forces that should emerge in Tunisia. Equally problematic, there is no independent broadcasting council that could contribute quickly to greater pluralism of the media by granting more licences to new media outlets.
… are seen as the good guys. They stayed neutral during the protests, and this meant refusing a clampdown. Declaring ‘neutrality’ meant supporting the protesters. The way the army is seen Tunisia challenges two Western notions of what an army should be like. The first relates to restrictions on the use of the army in domestic politics (except natural disasters and exceptional situations). In Tunisia such a role, in the short term, at least, is welcome. They provide some security on the streets, provide a check on the hated police and pushed Ben Ali out. (They also guard the building of the Ministry of Interior which still has protesters outside.) The second notion is the idea of conscripts. In the west a modern army is an army of professionals. In Tunisia the army, unlike the police, is the ‘people’s institution’ precisely because of consists of conscripts, not professionals.
Europe before the revolution
… was in cahoots with Ben Ali. People talk of a case when a local NGOs (Association of Democratic Women) received a 30.000 EUR grant from the EU commission delegation. The regime froze the bank accounts and the NGOs could not use the money. Instead of putting pressure on the then-government to release the money, the EU requested the funds back from the NGO at the end of the financial year. Disgrace. Another case was that of Rama Yade, ex-state secretary for human rights in France, refused to meet opposition NGOs during Ben Ali’s reign. Certainly some EU states were more principled than others. Unsurprisingly – the Nordics. A Tunisian summed it up neatly: ‘EU wanted democracy for themselves, but not for us’
… and after the revolution
Despite some bitterness vis-a-vis Europe, there is no one else to help. The is US not that visible, the other Arab states will be consumed by their own post-revolutionary transitions (Egypt, at least) or will have few stakes in seeing the revolution succeed. Quite the contrary.
… is possible. In two ways. Either the old elite uses its money, power, media, networks, etc to entrench themselves successfully in the new system and push back the changes (in the next 1-2-3 years); or some revolutionary leaders reproduce a centralised system that is perhaps freer than that of Ben Ali, but nonetheless quite authoritarian. Most revolutions in history knew one of these two outcomes (the Russian revolution in 1905-1907 for the first, and the French and Mexican revolutions – for the second). Either way, democracy does not descent upon states in one go, and may require more than one upheaval, zigzagging between phases of centralisation and democratisation before democracy consolidates.
A European diplomat’s explanation of the revolution was quite interesting. He argued that despite high growth in the last years, Tunisia’s economy could not generate enough jobs for young people. In the last decade or so, the share of the rural population was slightly increasing. This was partly explained but much better and tougher border-controls by the EU, which made it impossible to let the demographic steam off. Hence the growing dissatisfaction and frustration with economic conditions and the revolutionary explosion.
Virtually everyone notes that the economy will make or break the success of the revolution. People went in to the streets for socio-economic reasons (lack of jobs, Ben Ali family’s extravagant corruption and richness etc) and the success of the revolution will depend on its ability to deliver economic improvements. This is a tall order, since job-creation was Ben Ali’s number 1 priority anyway, and moving those into even higher is that not that easy. And others actually say that the economy might only get worse in the near future.
The success of a revolution is not defined just by the capacity to overthrow a regime, but especially on what follows next. A successful revolution is a revolution that over the next decade delivers a more pluralistic and inclusive political and economic system.
Besides supporting economic delivery through loans and grants, the outsiders do not have much room for manoeuvre. This is not Central Europe, the Balkans or even Armenia where the EU deployed high-level advisors that work within the governments advising locals what to do. The southern neighbourhood is much more sensitive – both due to the colonial legacy and EU’s tarnished reputation due to the support for all kind of autocrats.
The EU could help with building the structural conditions for a more pluralistic system. Obviously support for civil society, party-building and media will be key. Helping to set up a broadcasting council that could grant licences asap, getting FM and TV waves for BBC TV and radio in Arabic could be useful. Small things like some direct EU assistance to the families of the victims of the revolution would also help. A bit of lessons learned from other cases of transition – from South Africa to Poland to Georgia – would widen a bit the domestic discussion inside Tunisia, not least on the potential dangers and failures. Offering Tunisia an EU mobility partnership and a visa-facilitation deal (reduce cost of visas from 60 to 35 EUR, and grant long term visas to businessmen, students, civil society etc) is also an idea worth pursuing.
So far Tunisia managed to successfully get rid of an authocrat, but this is not yet a ’successul’ revolution. Its success will be defined by what happens in Tunisia in the next 5 to 10 years. And the EU will be the most important external actor than can help in a meaningful way.