Tunisia: booting up a development model or back to the future?

Tunisia’s "Jasmine Revolution" is the first successful uprising in the Arab world against a post-colonial state. While at present, Arab audiences and commentators are focused on the uprising itself, attention will soon shift to the new political order that is to come. A successful "Tunisian model" would further embolden Arab citizens against their incumbent governments, ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" is the first successful uprising in the Arab world against a post-colonial state. While at present, Arab audiences and commentators are focused on the uprising itself, attention will soon shift to the new political order that is to come. A successful "Tunisian model" would further embolden Arab citizens against their incumbent governments, which have equally threadbare nationalist legitimacies, while a failure would likely intensify Arabs' despair and resignation. Little Tunisia, therefore, is carrying a heavy regional political weight, something it has not done since the late President Bourguiba (1903-2000) emerged in the 1960s as a champion of modernization, forging "un pays pilote," or model for the developing world.

May Tunisia really recover its lead role? The challenge this time will not be as easy as in the 1960s, the "Decade of Development." Tunisia, however, weathered the structural adjustment required by the new global order and is relatively well positioned after years of reasonably successful economic stewardship under ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2010). Its average per capita growth rate of three percent since 1987 is tops for the Middle East and North Africa region, although less than half East Asia's. Tunisia has a broad middle class that enjoys widespread home ownership, 80 percent of the population by official accounts. Its broad based bilingual educational system offers a solid foundation for a knowledge-based economy. Investments in research and development, though pitiful by Western standards, are unrivaled by other Arab states as a proportion of GDP. The culture of modernization bequeathed by the Bourguiba era (1955-1987) remains embedded in the society despite the years of repression at the hands of Ben Ali's police state.

Tunisia’s "Jasmine Revolution" is the first successful uprising in the Arab world against a post-colonial state. While at present, Arab audiences and commentators are focused on the uprising itself, attention will soon shift to the new political order that is to come. A successful "Tunisian model" would further embolden Arab citizens against their incumbent governments, which have equally threadbare nationalist legitimacies, while a failure would likely intensify Arabs’ despair and resignation. Little Tunisia, therefore, is carrying a heavy regional political weight, something it has not done since the late President Bourguiba (1903-2000) emerged in the 1960s as a champion of modernization, forging "un pays pilote," or model for the developing world.

May Tunisia really recover its lead role? The challenge this time will not be as easy as in the 1960s, the "Decade of Development." Tunisia, however, weathered the structural adjustment required by the new global order and is relatively well positioned after years of reasonably successful economic stewardship under ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2010). Its average per capita growth rate of three percent since 1987 is tops for the Middle East and North Africa region, although less than half East Asia’s. Tunisia has a broad middle class that enjoys widespread home ownership, 80 percent of the population by official accounts. Its broad based bilingual educational system offers a solid foundation for a knowledge-based economy. Investments in research and development, though pitiful by Western standards, are unrivaled by other Arab states as a proportion of GDP. The culture of modernization bequeathed by the Bourguiba era (1955-1987) remains embedded in the society despite the years of repression at the hands of Ben Ali’s police state.

The Jasmine Revolution, however, occurs in a political wasteland. The revolution had no leader or organization apart from friends of friends interacting over Facebook and Twitter. There are few intermediary bodies, political parties or NGOs that have any credibility because they have been compromised and contaminated by Ben Ali’s police state. The new transitional government headed by Mohammed Ghannouchi and presided over by interim President Fouad Mebazza has little credibility, although the leftovers from the Ben Ali era — who, at least today, still occupy all the key ministries — are for the most part technocrats who were not directly associated with Ben Ali’s thieving family networks, the principal target of the revolution.

As for the institutions which make democracy possible — including civil society, political parties, parliament, local government and even the state administration — they are in Tunisia, as in most Arab republics, even less vibrant than they were at the end of the colonial era. Moreover, those new nations were united by nationalism, which in Tunisia was overwhelmingly secular, albeit with a deep spirit of Islam supporting that nationalism. Now, however, there is no such unity of belief or purpose. Islamists and secularists, for example, have  profound disagreements about the role of religion in public life. Has the Jasmine Revolution overcome these political fissures?

Perhaps. But frequently overlooked and potentially just as divisive are disagreements over the model that should inspire economic policy. While the post-colonial era witnessed contention between those who favored more open or closed, more private or public sector dominated economies, by and large the public, import substitution model came to prevail. That approach has given way to more export oriented, private sector economies throughout the Arab world, although not with the same positive results nor near universal acceptance as the model has in East Asia, for example. The Arab version of private sector, export led growth, constrained by lack of transparency and accountability, has achieved only modest economic gains, enriched regime cronies and left behind youths, rural populations and many others. Small wonder then if Tunisia’s unemployed youths (and their parents) are more desirous of public employment than of broad reforms required to stimulate real, broad-based economic growth. The task of building consensus around a new economic model — hence reallocating substantial resources — will be just as demanding as forging a consensus about the proper role of religion in public life.

The present economic situation, although difficult, is not desperate. Some four percent of GDP has been lost in the month of rioting. Tourism, which accounts for over six percent of GDP, is on hold. But in the medium term, private investment, deterred by the thievery of the Ben Ali regime, may pick up and generate higher rates of growth. Arguably the greater participation of the Tunisian people will enable the government to exact the necessary sacrifices equitably, while also benefiting from the return of the 1.5 million tons of gold and other assets that the Ben Ali family had stripped from the economy. This assumes, however, that a reshuffled transitional government, supported by the military, can perform the necessary lobotomy of the Ben Ali regime.

They are off to a good start. The army has mopped up the remnants of Ben Ali’s presidential police guard and others bent on destabilizing Tunisia after Ben Ali’s departure. They have also arrested some of the more notorious members of the ex-First Lady Leila’s Trabelsi family, because Ben Ali’s ignoble getaway must have taken some of the family by surprise. Dangers still lie ahead, however.

When Chief of Staff General Rachid Ammar refused to order his troops to fire on demonstrators, President Ben Ali had no choice but to flee. Thus the military has emerged from the wreckage of the post-colonial state with its good reputation further enhanced. It provides, therefore, a potential political base for a new regime. Given the paucity of viable political organizations after a generation of repression under Ben Ali, the scenario of a military caretaker government is not out of the question. One but need recall that Nasser’s Revolutionary Command Council was initially presented as such to know how such caretaker status can become permanent.

The further temptation to open the state’s coffers may be difficult to resist. Indeed, then Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, two days before the regime fell, sought to quell discontent by announcing a dramatic increase in governmental jobs for young graduates. Since it is they who sparked the Jasmine Revolution, they can now reasonably expect rewards yet more generous than Ghannouchi promised.

So the political ingredients for a new authoritarian populist regime are present. It would be history as farce, however, were Tunisia, and possibly others in the Arab world, to squander its revolutionary opportunity by going back to the future in this fashion. But the task of building a new political order that can provide democracy and development is, if anything, even more challenging than it was for the immediate post-colonial political elites.

A moment of truth is thus at hand for Tunisia and the Arab world more broadly. Can the country’s new leaders, whoever they will be, fashion a new political order that avoids their predecessors’ mistakes? Can they successfully build a democracy that delivers sustained economic development? The removal of the corrupt dictatorship was necessary, but not in itself sufficient for Tunisia. The country must employ its people and to do so it must further industrialize in a very competitive global marketplace. The inter-related tasks of democratizing and developing the economy have been achieved in Turkey, so they are not insurmountable even in the lagging Middle East and North Africa. Let us hope that this time Tunisia, like Turkey, looks to the future, rather than its past, as it struggles to re-organize its polity and economy.

Clement M. Henry is a Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. Robert Springborg is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School.

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