Tunis, like other Maghribi capitals, seems to recede further into oblivion. Political excitement when Narcissist Gaddafi is holding his tongue seems to be singularly uninteresting. The real political kitchen where things seem to be concocted and heated is in the Arab Gulf, Levant, Gaza and surroundings, Egypt where El-Baradei and the Mus­lim Brotherhood are teaming up to road-map post-Mubarak politics, and Sudan, which may be only six months away from losing the south and the birth of a new African state.

If the elite in Tunis is oblivious to what happens outside its Mediterranean shores, the world seems not to be total­ly indifferent in return. Barack Obama’s recent mention of Tunisia in the same breathe as countries topping the black list of press censorship and absence of freedom must have shaken, and no doubt angered, the rulers. No news from Tunis is good news. But when the only news is about absence of freedom, rulers must take notice. There is little rulers can do against the Americans. Obama is not George W. Bush; and the US is not France. The Tunisians never hesitate to use France’s status as the country’s former colonial power as an axe to grind, rejecting even the mild­est criticism against press freedom or freedoms in general. There is little these rulers can do except not com­ment and hope silence guarantees re­turn to normalcy: the usual modus ope­randi that whatever rot may be building in the Kingdom of Denmark should be met with silence.

But silence is far from what the Amer­icans have in mind of late. Staff in the US embassy in Tunisia, and without a whisper from the usually active and ubiquitous security forces, spoke with representatives of the country’s opposition. For three hours Samir Dillou, a human rights lawyer active on the question of prisoners of con­science, and Ziyad Al-Dawlatli, one of the Nahdah party’s leaders inside Tu­nisia, tried to share their assessment of Tunisia’s state of affairs with their American interlocutors.

Succession of President Bin Ali was the key question topping the Ameri­can agenda in Tunis (and no doubt this could be the same for Libya and Algeria). Whether Bin Ali survives un­til 2014 and the ‘who’s who’ of Tuni­sian politicians capable of inheriting the mantle of the presidency is a key American concern. In some US quar­ters, there is a view that the succes­sion could happen before 2014. Unof­ficially, the US does not look favorably on dynastic rule in Tunisia. What is in­evitable is that t he Trabelsi family will for some time (given the absence of impartial legal scrutiny) continue to expand their wealth. This may be the trade-off the Trabelsi brothers (espe­cially billionaire Bilhassen Trabelsi) want in return for not coveting the presidential prize. But that may not mean they will not put their economic weight behind someone else such as the President’s advisor, Abdelwahab Abdallah (former Foreign Minister), trusted by both Bin Ali and Layla Bin Ali. The key question is determining how ambitious Bin Ali is, and whether a weak female President delivers the kind of political goods – namely sta­bility and a pact with civil society pre­paring the country for a future with­out the Bin Ali of the Trabelsi clans – is another question that the Ameri­cans, amongst others, are canvassing as the countdown for Bin Ali’s depar­ture from power begins in earnest. Of course, Layla may opt out of the race to replace Bin Ali but with her bets placed o n one of the younger Trabelsi brothers. She may already be culti­vating her young brother Imad Tra belsi, the new Mayor of the rich Tunis district of La Goulette, to be the dark horse in the race to occupy Carthage. He is reported to be studying to mas­ter the art of oratory. But Bin Ali’s own son-in-law, Sakhr Al-Matri, has also been the subject of much favor and would give Imad a run for his money in such a race. However, Al-Matri’s presidential prospects may be frus­trated by a number of factors, namely his contradictions and questionable meteoric rise to power and wealth. He is described within some diplomatic circles as the paradoxical ‘spoilt brat’ of Tunisian politics: dynastic capital­ism and its trappings of wealth and hedonism in one hand, and Islam in the othe r (Quran Radio, Islamic bank­ing). Amidst the new dynastic and capitalist heavy weights of Tunisia the prospects of Kamel Morjane, the current Foreign Minister, Abdelwahab Abdallah, the former Foreign Minis­ter, or the widely respected Premier, Mohamed Ghannushi, are very diffi­cult to gauge. Whether the dark hose will come from the army remains to be unknown.

Bin Ali has thus far kept the ship of government afloat, knowing how to dispense patronage and wrath equal­ly. He has exceeded all expectations in coming out from the cold and sur­viving in the fray of Tunisian politics. This impresses those who are asking questions about his departure from Carthage. For instance, how he tamed General Ali Al-Siryati (now in his sev­enties), the man in charge of Bin Ali’s own security since 1987, is impres­sive. He is one of the very few Tuni­sians who, if he chose to, could have toppled Bin Ali à la Mauritanienne! For now, there is a close watch of the Tu­nisian scene, as it is once again – like in the last years of Bourguiba – suc­cession time!

The Machiavellians (who give Machia­velli a bad name) in Tunis are for now turning their attention to the nego­tiation of Tunisia’s bid for advanced status within the EU. This could be Bin Ali’s last feather in the cap of his presidency. Sweden’s EU presidency was not favorable on accounts of the poor status of human rights in Tuni­sia. The Spanish presidency has been more sympathetic, and the Belgian take on Tunisia’s advanced status as part of the implementation of the EU Association Agreement and Neigh­borhood Action Plan w ill be as well. To this end, the same Machiavellians in Tunisia have just introduced a law in Parliament that criminalizes all contacts with foreign parties (and by implication activities, including intel­lectual) that could be argued to harm the country’s economy. This is a bi­zarre law with no analogue anywhere else. It is intended to prevent any type of pressure lobbying that could poten­tially scupper the country’s accession to the advanced status, which could still be granted by the end of 2010. This law is disastrous for Tunisia and for the EU. There is no need for such a policy when Tunisia boasts of wide support (by many EU member states and statesmen such as Silvio Ber­lusconi). It only entrenches the v iew, definitely held by the Americans, that Bin Ali has had enough chance to prove his democratic credentials and has often disappointed. I guess these Tunisian Machiavellians must keep in mind that politics, by EU standards, may have to be separation of morality and politics some of the time but not all of the time. What is needed now from Tunis is some moral courage to put Tunisia on track for advanced sta­tus and improved human rights and political reform, away from dynastic temptations. Bin Ali was judicious in signing the Association Agreement with the EU in 1995. To push this pro­cess to its most logical conclusion and earn an upgrade, he must guarantee to the EU in no equivocal terms that he is committed to EU standards of good government. Indeed, there are expec­tations from many sides, within and without Tunisia, that the President’s last term opens up opportunities for state-society reconciliation, genuine reform, curbing dynastic politics, cor­ruption, heavy-handed policing, exag­gerated paranoia over all opposition and free speech and organized poli­tics, and overall honesty in giving Tu­nisians the government Bin Ali rightly and historically promised in 1987.


by Larbi Sadiki

Larbi Sadiki is a Lecturer at the University of Exeter
Source: The IPRIS Maghreb Review’s June edition

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