Guest Post: “Tunisia is more than just Secular VS Islamist”

Rebel Economy spoke to Monica Marks, a Tunisia-based Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate at St Antony’s College, Oxford, who debunks the myth that Tunisia was a bastion of liberalism in North Africa. She explains that too many bought into former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s idea of a “Tunisian Miracle”. 

  • 1) – Before the country’s revolution, Tunisia was often described as having a large, well-educated middle class and a liberal social system. Will this still be the case under an Islamist-led government?

Two parts of this question are problematic: the supposition that Tunisia had a ‘liberal social system’ before the revolution, and the implication that Ennahda’s Islamism poses the largest threat to Tunisia’s economic future.

Tunisians of all ideological stripes (save for a few Salafis) tend to praise their society for being more tolerant and open than elsewhere in the region, particularly Arab countries to the east such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Tunisian society is notably less conservative on a number of fronts—women enjoy more legal protections, public schools are co-ed, alcohol can be procured easily in many parts of the country, and some restaurants stay open during Ramadan.

It is important to note that when observers (particularly foreign observers) characterize pre-revolutionary Tunisia as socially ‘liberal,’ they are often basing this on two simple factors: (1) Tunisia’s post-independence leaders (Bourguiba and Ben Ali) are almost always described as ‘secularists’, and (2) Tunisia’s 1956 Personal Status Code, which is still in effect, granted women more rights than elsewhere in the MENA region and included the Arab world’s only prohibition on polygamy. Taken together, these factors—the secularism of state leaders and women’s advanced legal status—are often enough to prompt commentators to call Tunisia’s society and pre-revolutionary government ‘liberal.

But Tunisian society before the revolution was, in many ways, anything but liberal—at least in terms of its relationship to the state.

[caption id="attachment_1535" align="alignright" width="239"]Monica Marks Monica Marks[/caption]

Journalists who spoke out against the government would face salary suspension, firings, and harassment at the very least. Critical bloggers were threatened with imprisonment, and some chose to self-deport out of fear of long sentences and/or torture. Real or suspected members of Tunisia’s Islamist movement, Ennahda, faced years of incommunicado detentions, torture, and post-carceral oppression (being blacklisted from employment, being forced to register their names up to five times per day at local police stations, etc.). Leftist activists, though a much smaller group, faced similar brutality. Judges who spoke out against the regime had their salaries suspended without notice, and human rights leaders—such as the prominent lawyer and anti-torture activist Radhia Nasraoui—dealt with near-constant harassment from the regime’s goons in their homes and offices.

Despite Tunisia’s much-vaunted claim to progressivism on the matter of women’s rights, more religiously conservative women, particularly those expected of involvement in Ennahda, underwent myriad forms of abuse, including having their hijabs ripped off by police officers, undergoing long periods of arrest and unofficial detention, and being sexually harassed and abused by security forces. Religious expression was seriously curbed—young men who wore beards were often arrested on suspicion of being Ennahda members, women who worked in state facilities such as schools were generally not allowed to wear the hijab, and police officers were routinely stationed in mosques to monitor Friday sermons.

All of this is to say that we must think critically about this dichotomous picture that is often presented to us in local and international (particularly French and English) media, of Tunisia being a dramatic ‘before and after story’—i.e. a liberal, progressive society before the revolution that has quickly regressed into a sort of Islamist-led backwater.

This is far from the case. What we are seeing after the revolution is a great deal more contestation in the public sphere. Ben Ali held the lid of oppression very tightly. Now the lid has flown off the pot, and long-percolating differences in Tunisian society are finally bubbling to the surface. In some cases, those differences have bubbled over into acts of violence and criminality (such as the June, 2012 protest against the Abdeliyya art exhibit in La Marsa, repeated Salafi attacks on Sufi shrines, etc).

  • 2) So Ennahda’s Islamist influence is not the real impediment to the country’s economy?

Islamism is nowhere close to being the chief threat to Tunisia’s economic future.

Rest assured, Tunisia faces major challenges on the economic front: for starters, the public contestation which I mentioned above often manifests itself in the form of strikes and socio-economically motivated protests.

Though major strikes happened under Ben Ali (most notably in Gafsa in 2008), such acts of protest were generally met with swift oppression. The regime used a mixture of police brutality and economic mollification to keep protesters at bay (eg: giving 200 dinars a month to citizens in restive southern areas through bogus public programs—not enough for a decent quality of life, but just enough to keep hungry mouths from protesting in the streets).

After the revolution, a kind of laissez-faire democratic atmosphere started to pervade the country. The state’s monopoly on all forms of authority receded, and people began to express their preferences and grievances about all topics—political, religious, socio-economic, etc.

So strikes have been a major problem for Tunisia’s interim governments, and the transitional government led now by Ennahda. Naturally, foreign direct investors aren’t keen to pour money in a country where strikes are so frequently closing factories. There are other major problems plaguing Tunisia’s economy: poor educational quality, underdevelopment in the interior, the presence of bloated public companies and the huge informal economy.

In my conversations with leading economists speclialising on Tunisia at the World Bank, International Finance Corporation and African Development Bank, I have heard across the board that Ennahda “could not have done much better” on the economy over the past two years, that the challenges are huge and often of a structural nature. So there are a number of major obstacles for Tunisia’s economy here, but Islamism doesn’t seem to be one of them.

  • 3) In Egypt youth unemployment stands at 77% and is one of the most pressing problems. How does this compare in Tunisia?

Along with underdevelopment in the interior, youth unemployment is one of the leading economic challenges for Tunisia. These are also important political challenges, since the 2011 revolution – which started with a young vegetable seller’s protest in an impoverished interior town, Sidi Bouzid – which are prompted primarily by socio-economic grievances. The nexus of youth unemployment and regional marginalization in the interior was critical to the revolution, and many ministers and leading economic advisers in Tunisia’s government fear persistent challenges on these fronts might spark a second revolution.

Youth unemployment hovers between 10 and 30%, depending on what region of the country you’re looking at. But current, reliable statistics on things like youth unemployment and literacy rates are difficult to find. That’s because Tunisia’s National Institute for Statistics (INS), along with the leading international development banks here (including the World Bank and the African Development Bank, which is actually headquartered here), have been scrambling to re-diagnose the country’s basic indicators in the wake of the revolution.

[caption id="attachment_1537" align="aligncenter" width="580"]Brookings Brookings[/caption]

Ben Ali very much manipulated the INS, and the international banks will frankly tell you that they bought into Ben Ali’s idea of the “Tunisian miracle” too much—i.e. that they didn’t do enough work to really go beyond the manufactured stats and get a good handle on the socio-economic indicators in the country before the revolution. As this research gets done, it’s becoming clear that literacy rates are lower than previously thought, and that youth unemployment is higher.

What we do know is that the economic situation in Tunisia—despite all its problems—isn’t nearly as dire as the situation in Egypt. While statistics on indicators like literacy may turn out to be about 10 percentage points lower than previously thought (in the low 80s as opposed to the high 90s), this still places Tunisia head and shoulders above Egypt, where literacy rates are around 50 percent. Tunisia desperately needs to reform its educational system to match graduates’ skills with the needs of the market, but there is a good basic educational infrastructure intact here, and the country has immense potential to build. I believe Tunisia could become a real educational hub in the region if the proper reforms and investments are made.

And what are the major factors responsible for youth unemployment in Tunisia?

There are about seven:

(1) the low value-added nature of the economy, which is geared toward benefitting offshore exporters more than developing skills at home;

(2) poor infrastructure in the interior, including roads, water supply, electricity, and internet access;

(3) an outsized informal economy;

(4) a partially closed economic structure benefitting large public companies, such as Tunis Air and Tunisie Telecom;

(5) the relatively low skills of many labourers;

(6) the poor quality of vocational training and the local perception that such training is only for poorly achieving students; and

(7) the significant mismatch between university graduates’ skills and the needs of the job market.

Again, referring back to the last answer, we must try and look at these things in a technical way—not getting too tied up in the secular vs. Islamist debates, which are so frequently dominating local and international headlines.

  • 4) How is Tunisia relying on international donors and assistance?

This is a critical question, and it’s one that’s not getting enough attention in my opinion.

From my work with the Institute for Integrated Transitions (IFIT), a newly founded Barcelona-based non-governmental organisation (my report, called “Inside the Transition Bubble: International Expert Assistance in Tunisia”, can be accessed in English or Arabic here) we looked at international expert assistance in four key areas of Tunisia’s transition: media, judicial, and security reform and youth employment.

In the youth employment sector, one of the most intriguing things to come out the research was that key policy makers in the troika coalition (most often from Ennahda and the secular CPR party) often feel deeply confused by and frustrated with the international advice they are receiving.

Many lamented Tunisia’s lack of in-house ability to diagnose domestic economic problems.

“We are forced to rely on internationals who take our data, then go and formulate plans and projects for us without ever explaining how they got from the data to the plans and projects,” one ministerial adviser who asked not to be named said.

One quote that I cited in the IFIT report was from Jameleddine Gharbi, Minister of Regional Development and Planning. “They come with an already determined vision and only want to focus on a specific subject,” he said, referring to international experts. And:

“The needs in the interior are critical, but they don’t look there… We point, we say ‘Look—this is our problem.’ But then they point and say ‘no—your problem it is here.’ It’s as if I have a red folder and they try to convince you that no, it’s blue.”

The most disturbing quote I heard on this theme during the course of interviews was that certain international advisors, whom my interlocutor wouldn’t name, advised the government to [completely] cancel [rather than reform] key subsidies on basic goods like cooking oil and bread. I have not verified this information, but fortunately the subsidies—which are absolutely critical for Tunisia’s poorest citizens—are still in place.


  • mohamed
    Posted April 29, 2013 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    very interesting

    • ahmed karaoud
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

      I find this interviews very interesting , relevant analysis mainly the part : ” what are the major factors responsible for youth unemployment in Tunisia? “

  • Elyes Bdira
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Interesting sober and objective view. I wish some of the hostages of ideological battles among the Tunisian elite understand this.

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