Image and reality

The Tunisian government likes to present its country to the outside world as progressive and stable. The ministers and the functionaries who run the state commercial enterprises see themselves as transforming Tunisia to enable it to trade freely with Europe by the end of the first decade of the next century. This is the major provision of the treaty of association with the European Union, signed in July last year. Tunisia was the first non-member Mediterranean country to enter the new type of accord with the Union. There is now much talk in Tunis of the mise á niveau - the process of bringing Tunisia industry and services up to the level at which they will be able to compete with European companies' products.

In the long term the hope is that this trans-

formation will produce a society which is sufficiently prosperous to be able to evolve as a democracy, but for the present the government feels it has to rule with a firm hand. Since the beginning of the 1990s militant Islamist opposition has been crushed, and the authorities have become steadily less tolerant even of secular, liberal opposition parties. The regime has been concerned not only with threats which might arise from within the country but with de-stabilising influences from Algeria, which has been in a state of virtual civil war since late 1993, and Libya, which has a record of intervening in its neighbours' domestic politics.

The reaction of the establishment to foreign criticism of its undemocratic policies, and the poor human rights record that goes with them, is summed up by the recent comments of two officials of the governing, and almost sole, political party, the Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique (RCD). One remarked to a Financial Times journalist that "when you're running at 200 miles an hour, you cannot afford to stop so someone can have a cigarette". Another, in the course of a private conversation last summer, said that "wanting political reform (was) like having the intention of becoming an industrialised company - it's an aim, but you cannot do it quickly - you have to create institutions first". The official view, in other words, is that authoritarian government may be unfortunate but for the time being is a necessity.

Members of the government hope that the lack of political freedom is masked by the relatively liberal social regime that has evolved since Tunisia became independent from France in 1956, and by the country's pragmatic foreign policies. These are very much the types of policies that the Europeans and Americans would like to see other Arab countries pursue.

The government's attitude to social issues, particularly the role of women and the place of religion, was formed by Habib Bourguiba, who won Tunisia its independence and was then its President, until 1987. Under Bourguiba, whose intellectual formation was in the French socialist mould of the 1930s and 1940s, European provisions for divorce replaced the Shariah (Islamic) law, under which a man can divorce himself by the simple process of renouncing his wife in front of a judge. The new legislation allowed wives as well as husbands the petition for divorce. Polygamy was banned. Great emphasis was placed on female education and the provision of services and opportunities for women. The result was that women have come to play a bigger role in public life in Tunisia than they do in most other Arab countries, and Tunisian children have been healthier and better educated. Bourguiba missed no opportunity to promote secular ideas. It is said that whenever he was told of the establishment of a new committee he would ask, "does it have a Jew and a woman?"

In foreign policy, Bourguiba's pragmatism showed clearly in the government's attitude towards Israel. As early as the 1960s the President declared that he believed that one day the Arab world would have to accept Israel. Recently, under his successor, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, his views have been given concrete expression in the government's decision to recognise Israel. It was announced in January this year that Israel and Tunisia will open "interest sections" in each other's countries in April. This will make Tunisia the fourth Arab country, after Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, to have diplomatic links with Israel.

It is its social and foreign policies that have given Tunisia the moderate, liberal image it has in the Western world. This image has made Europeans and Americans assume that the country's economy and domestic political life must be relatively liberal by Arab standards. They tend to accept the government's rather defensive explanation of the repressive measures it has taken in the last few years. In fact, the officially promoted image of Tunisia as the fast changing economy in which, temporarily and regrettably, opposition has to be carefully controlled, is not entirely accurate.

The government has certainly been successful in implementing budgetary and financial reforms of the type recommended by the International Monetary Fund, but the structure of the country's economy is changing more slowly that it pretends. Although lip service is paid in official circles to a market economy, socialist instincts still pervade the establishment. The country's major industries are still owned by the state, as are the big banks, though since the end of the 1980s these have been operating on Western banking principles. The stock exchange was only separated from the Ministry of Finance in October last year. Foreign purchases of Tunisian stocks are restricted. The situation was summed up recently by a Tunisian economist. "What I have seen in the last four years," she said, "is a large gap between the way in which Tunisia is perceived by outsiders and what is actually happening. Tunisia signs all the treaties and conventions; it is able to say 'we're the first country in Africa, or the Arab world to do such and such'. But what the government signs is not the same as what it implements. I would say we are at a hundred per cent as far as the legal framework is concerned, but at only twenty per cent on implementation."

Similarly, the government's repressive measures since the end of 1989 have been carried out with less regret than it pretends. The instinct of the President and his advisors is for "control" of the traditional sort known to Arab governments. Much of the Tunisian middle class and most of the senior people in the ministries and state companies still associate themselves with the government or the government party. The establishment may say it believes in democracy, but its instinct is to adhere to the ruling party and to regard opposition as unpatriotic and a threat to its own comfortable position.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-bibliothek | 9.1. 1998

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