Tunisia and the democratic failure in the Middle East

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Among all the Arab Spring countries Tunisia is the only one that had a successful transition, at least until now. In the rest of the countries the democratization process failed, having as a result civil wars and failed states like in Syria, Libya or Yemen or praetorian regimes like in Egypt. But the recent attacks in Tunisia, that killed many tourists at the Museum of Bardo, seem to tell us that also Tunisian transition risk to fall in the hands of Salafists and Jihadist terrorists, also considering that thousands of Tunisians went to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But the Tunisian people are a democratic and republican people in the marrow of their identity. The republican values have been displayed even during the attacks against the Bardo, when the members of the Congress, hided in their Parliament, started to sing the national anthem, as a demonstration of their principles to be held even until the death. It was a way to say to the terrorists: they shall not pass. Will this save the Tunisian transition?

We shall see, but for now we can analyze what make of Tunisian people a people that could empower their transition fighting for its success and saving the country from failing backwards. One of the main reasons that made the transition in Tunisia more successful respect to Egypt and the other countries is the maturity and democratic identity of the civil society. The Tunisian population is the population among Arab countries that is the closest to European, and particularly French, identity. Tunisians enjoy one of the highest level of education in Maghreb and the Arab World, with a high number of civil society organization (including an important trade union) and many NGOs that work for civil rights that have been either reconstituted after the revolution or born new. Tunisia has a diverse and mixed ethnic identity (between Berber, Arabs, Europeans, Jews, Centralafrican etc.) and a diverse and mixed cultural identity, with outside influence during its history from many populations such as Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, Italians, Spaniards and finally French. This gave to the country a custom of diversity and openness to external views of political institutions and state forms that was useful during the moment of transition towards a new democracy. Another important element for the success of Tunisian transition until now has been that the Tunisian military is a small army, composed by less than thirty thousand people, professional and with an apolitical role, that account just for 1.6% of the GDP, that means a much different situation from Egypt. Instead the trade union is a very big institutions, trusted, powerful and representative of those secular and democratic values that helped Tunisia to strengthen its institutions. So Tunisia has a civil society, institutions and history that can defend her from the attacks of the Salafists and make her stand for the democratic transition. But in the long run, to really win against the possible Jihadists metastasis that from Libya could reach their country, Tunisian people need to address the root causes of their problems, that are similar to all the Middle East and that have been until now facilitated also by the West that supported dictators for its neocolonialist interests.

The real problems that Tunisia and in general Muslim communities of the Middle East face today lies not in the theological debate if Islam is compatible with democracy and neither in the religious foundations of terrorist groups that mixed political Islam with violent Islamism, but in dealing with the root causes of social conflict, economic backwardness and lack of freedom that, together with doomed foreign interventions in the Middle East, caused the growth of violent Islamist movements. As Abu-Nimer (1) among other scholars argues, the real root causes of underdevelopment to address in the Middle East are several: the economic deprivation first of all; then the global cultural invasion in communities unable to integrate it; the authoritarian states with a legitimacy based on external Western support and internal acceptance of authoritative-security practices; the theology of stagnation, with lack of space for reinterpretation of Islamic history and traditions; the patriarchal structures and tribal loyalties, that limit the freedom of individuals, especially women; and finally a disempowering educational system, without emphasis in critical debate, self-examination, and openings to global societies, even if as I said Tunisia is probably in the best position in the Middle East.
Hopefully the West will help the Arab countries to come to terms with these problems instead of keep creating a narrative of clash of civilizations useful just for imperialistic interests, a la divide et impera. Even the threat of ISIS should be treated in these terms, clearly identifying it with Salafist or Jihadist terrorism and not ‘Islamic terrorism’. To speak about Islamic terrorism today is an big mistake, as the word Islamic has to do with the ideals of Muslim religion (like to say Christian or Judaic) and we cannot identify the criminal actions of a group with the ideals of a religion. That is why even President Obama refused to speak of ‘Islamic terrorism’, in order not to fuel the idea that a religious tradition authorize the deployment of terrorism, while there is no religions that look for that, being it an oxymoron. The risk in the “West” is to follow the narrative of Islamophobia, facilitated by the masses that have no time to think or reflect deeply on how words are used and identities are constructed for political reasons. As Juan Cole remembered in a recent article (2), when a sectarian religious group start doing crimes or using violence (either it be the Ku Klux Klan or ISIS) we have to speak of “destructive cults”. Destructive cults appeal to people on the basis of religious symbols, as they go at the core of the identity of the people. We need therefore to deconstruct realities to understand deeply the development of the current international terrorism instead of following essentialist ideas.
History is made of men and women, besides institutions and policies, and the people can make it and remake it. Therefore we need to turn to the wish of the people to understand the future of regions like the Middle East. The Arab Spring brought many hopes, even if obviously it was not easy to respond to such high expectations as democracy is always a long transition, a ‘never ending’ process. But it demonstrated that people can change regimes and ask for what they believe not what their leaders or foreign countries want. Today we can say that the Arab Spring practically failed everywhere, from Syria to Yemen, from Libya to Egypt, apart only from Tunisia. In the Arab world the answer to a very common question today in international studies, “is democracy in decline?” (3), is unfortunately yes. The reasons may be many, from the weakness of local political institutions, to the ‘winner take all’ mentality, the type of ‘political culture’ as Lipset would have said, as well as indicators of the modernization of the country, like the rates of education and the female emancipation. But as Courbage and Todd argued in a recent book (4), there is a current spread of massive ‘modernization’, based on reduction of fertility and raise of female literacy, throughout the Muslim world, similar to the history of Christianity. The hope is that sudden events like the Arab Spring and social trends like the ‘modernization’ process in the Muslim world, are signals that also the Middle East will be able to free itself from conflicts and disempowerment that kept it going backward instead of forward. And maybe one day not far also the Middle East will enjoy the stability, security and prosperity that many other parts of the world live in this so called ‘post-modernity’ of the contemporary world.

1)Abu-Nimer, Mohammed. Peace building principles and values in Islam. In Matyok, Thomas et al. eds. “Peace on earth. The role of religion in peace and conflict studies”. Lexington books, 2014. P. 375-390

2)Juan Cole, “How ‘Islamic’ Is the Islamic State?” The Nation, February 24, 2015

3)Is democracy in decline? Journal of Democracy, Twenty-fifth anniversary issue, Vol. 26, Number 1, January 2015

4)Youssef Courbage, and Emmanuel Todd. A convergence of civilizations: the transformation of Muslim societies around the world. Columbia UP, 2011.

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