The following is the edited text of a forum convened by the Middle East Policy Council on October 12, 1999, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
MAMOUN FANDY, assistant professor, Georgetown University
One cannot understand the issue of Tunisia and its first contested presidential elections without putting it in the wider context of democratization in the Arab world. Since the collapse of communism, one region that has not been very much affected in terms of a transition to democracy is the Arab world. Nonetheless, the ripple effect of pluralist politics certainly has had an impact on the region. Today in Arab countries there is nothing more gripping than the notion of pluralism and the involvement of civil society in governance. The issues are not just those of democracy, whereby a Jeffersonian model is promoted; there are also very practical concerns focusing on continuity and stability.
We have seen three models throughout the Arab world of political change, which has at least for the time being been dealt with in a smooth fashion. There was the transfer of power in Morocco to a younger king. We've also seen a similar transition in Jordan, to a 37-year-old king. Young leaders have also come to power in Bahrain and Qatar.
The issue of succession in the Arab world is very important. There are many aging leaders, and transitions need to be carefully managed. In the monarchies, it seems that there is a mechanism for this management, at least at the level of what may be called bio-politics. Biology sometimes leads to a smooth transition. There is also the model of the "monarchical republics," which look like monarchies or try to act like them: the Bashar al-Asad phenomenon in Syria and the Uday Hussein phenomenon in Iraq.
Then there are republics with functioning quasi-democracies such as Egypt, Algeria and Yemen. Within that category, one can put Tunisia, as a separate case with unique conditions. Tunisia's is not the first contested election in the Arab world. There was a contested election in Algeria. And we know that the Yemeni elections will be contested, that the son of the former president of South Yemen, Mehdi Ashabi, is a candidate for the presidency.
The issue of change is central to the lives of most Arabs - the transition from state-run economies to free economies, the transition from total control by the state to participation by civil-society organizations and political parties. But democracy in the Arab world cannot take place without some specific preconditions, and Tunisia appears to have many of these in place. We cannot expect Jeffersonian democracy overnight, but at least Tunisia's case seems to have the potential for success.
For one thing, the economic policies of Tunisia seem to qualify it to be a trading partner with the European Union. In addition, Tunisia has implemented some important social policies, from the personal-status law to the rights of women. Tunisian women are probably the most empowered in the Arab world.
Not only that; the government of Tunisia guarantees for the opposition political parties in the coming election at least 20 percent of the seats in Parliament. One might say that this is democracy from above, and therefore it ought to be subject to criticism. That's true. Nonetheless, the process of empowering political parties and helping create preconditions is a very welcome step. One important aspect of Tunisia that also qualifies it to be a democracy is its education policy. The literacy rate is extremely high. One of the candidates running on some of these issues is Abdelbaki Hermassi, one of the best sociologists in the Arab world, who is now the minister of culture. He has emphasized the notion of building the conditions for democracy in Tunisia.
One of the criticisms that one might make about these coming elections is that the Islamists are the real opposition party. I was one of the few who were very critical of Tunisia's handling of the Islamist question in the '90s. But, after watching what has happened in Algeria and is still happening, and what has happened in Egypt for five years, I turned around. The costs for a small country like Tunisia would have been extremely high.
So, with wise economic policies and a bit of repression, Tunisia managed to sail through the post-Gulf War predicament of most Arab states. Although there are criticisms to be made, Tunisian policy was very successful in saving the country. Algeria has had to pay prohibitive costs in its attempt to go into an electoral process without creating the preconditions for democracy.
We know that President Ben-Ali will win the Tunisian elections, but even the most important leaders of Tunisia would concede that nobody can escape the change in the political culture of Tunisia that this campaign has brought about. This is the first time the president of an Arab republic has not taken his people for granted. President Ben-Ali has his own Web site. He's campaigning; he's not assuming that he is going to be reelected. The others who are contesting the elections are also serious people within the Tunisian political culture.
The impact of seeing contested presidential elections will be felt beyond this small country, in the larger Arab world. It will have implications for what will take place in Yemen and elsewhere. Egypt and Tunisia, with their preconditions for democracy, can lead the way to a more democratic Arab world. Arabs as well as Westerners should pay special attention to the outcome as well as the implications of these elections.
MONCEF CHEIKHROUHOU, director general, Assabah Newspaper
It is a unique opportunity for me to come here from Tunis on the eve of the first contested presidential elections - and on the eve of the second or third multi-partisan parliamentary elections that take place the same day - and share with you some opinions from the standpoint of an independent press group in Tunisia.
The independent press group that I represent has been there for about half a century. It was started by my late father, who believed that an independent, patriotic press had a role to play in the independence of Tunisia, when it was trying to get out from under French colonial power, and in the building of the modem state right afterward. To the very end of his life, he believed that the press had an important role to play in a democratic transition.
In 1988, we were invited to Lisbon by President Soares. We were invited there as a group of people from around the world who believed in democratic transition. The group was led by Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had assembled people from the press, the universities and the government. President Soares, who paid us the honor of spending two days with us, said that he believed Tunisia was the next candidate for democratic transition in the southern Mediterranean ring. When we got back to Tunis and wrote that in our newspapers, there was very strong support from the younger generation of Tunisians.
Today we are witnessing another important step in that direction. But what has happened in the meantime? In the meantime, there have been two important events, the prerequisites to democracy, as Mamoun Fandy called them. The first is economic development that is as fair as possible and that covers all the areas of Tunisia as much as possible. There has been very active strategic planning to reach the year 2000 without any "shade areas," areas that have been forgotten by market forces or by investors, where the population did not get chances to invest, either apart from the government's investment or in infrastructure.
Today the whole of Tunisia has been included in that work. The country has enjoyed a growth rate of 5 percent on the average during the past 20 years, which is quite remarkable. The Tunisian man or woman has something he can be thankful for that is primarily the result of his effort, but which is also the result of good choices and good planning.
This important prerequisite allows us today to consider the next step with more assurance. The second step is less positive. I would call it the containment of the Islamist movement in Tunisia and in neighboring Algeria. That movement had a very important flaw. Without getting into any other considerations, it has been made clear to all the democrats in Tunisia that the Islamist movement wanted to implement what Edward Djerejan called "one man, one vote, one time," and not "one man, one vote."
It is good to have elections and to have a majority select the right choices. But it is paramount that the democratic system not be destroyed by that first act of building democracy. This containment took place in Tunisia with calculated risks. I commend Dr. Fandy in his candor regarding the Islamists and the Tunisian government's behavior toward them; he took into account all the new information and made a decision accordingly.
The information available today shows us that Tunisia did the right thing. The cautious but resolved direction of Tunisia during these years allowed a country without any natural resources to maintain its stability by making people happier - by making people better educated and by implementing the rule of law, rather than by distributing rents that will not last forever. (We had some phosphates that would have allowed us to do that for a couple of years.)
These are the major elements that explain the gradual approach Tunisia has taken since that famous sentence of President Soares, who, in 1988, thought that Tunisia was the next candidate for democracy in the southern Mediterranean. Of course, he had read President Bourguiba in 1987, one year before, and he knew that the Tunisian people were aiming at democracy.
This election is an important event; we in our press group think that it is not "business as usual." We have prepared teams of more than half of our journalists and staff reporters who have been covering the event since before the campaign started. We have been making public all the information on all the parties and all the leaders. We are not a newspaper that belongs to government or to one party; we are a newspaper that belongs to Tunisia. We are a patriotic newspaper; therefore, it is our duty to cover all shades of the political life of Tunisia.
Starting yesterday, we devoted one special page to the opinions of the voters and another page in front of it to the opinions and the debates of the candidates. This is new. And we are proud to contribute to what we think today is the role of a free, independent and patriotic press in the building of a democratic transition that has been chosen by Mr. Ben-Ali. No one has forced it on him. He chose it because it is in the best interests of our country. We cannot talk about joining the European Union before year 2008 economically, as a trading partner, without getting in tune with our own environment in terms of political and cultural evolution.
I would like to stress that our priority as a press group today is to continue our job. It is both easier now and more difficult. It is easier because we are way past the times when the publisher was sentenced to death when he published articles saying that Tunisia had to be independent. My late father was sentenced to death and had to escape into exile abroad. But he never stopped publishing his paper. Today journalists and newspapers can defend democracy and practice democratic transition without being in danger.
This is the beginning of a process. Young Tunisians, men and women, want a democratic transition. So there is a fit between the leadership and the younger generation. But in spite of that, we find our job at this time quite difficult, trying to create a tradition of civilized dissent among people on cultural, political and economic matters. When we cannot agree we need to be able to argue without becoming enemies.
In our cultural heritage, unfortunately, when we did not agree, we were enemies. We have to go back to the time of Hannibal, to remember that in our history we had a Senate elected by citizens. At that time, "citizen" was meant in the Greek sense; only upper-class people could vote, not workers, not farmers, not slaves. Since that time, the democratic transition has had a long hiatus. It is our duty today to be extremely watchful, to observe and to be vigilant. We intend to continue doing so, to make sure that the democratic transition succeeds in Tunisia.
ROBERT H. PELLETREAU, Afridi & Angell; former assistant secretary, NEA
Tunisia, its uniqueness among Arab nations and developments affecting its national life, are not sufficiently understood or followed by the American media. The October 24, 1999, presidential and legislative elections in Tunisia make this a good time to focus on this central Mediterranean country, sandwiched in between Libya and Algeria on the North African coast, only a short trip across the water from southern Italy.
Tunisia has a long history of relations with the United States, beginning over 200 years ago with navigation and trade treaties between the bey of Tunis and our early presidents and continuing forward to recent times- World War II, when at the Battle of Kasserine Pass American forces first met Rommel's panzer divisions (the moving cemetery and war memorial at Carthage attest to our sacrifice); the early years of Tunisian independence, when the United States provided generous economic and military assistance; and the current era of close cooperation and growing trade and investment under President Zine el-Abidine Ben-Ali.
I was American ambassador in Tunis when the changeover from President Bourguiba to President Ben-Ali took place. It was not a coup, as some Western observers continue to misrepresent it. It was the decision by the vast majority of Tunisia's governing figures at the time, including most of the ministers of Bourguiba's final cabinets who were being moved in and out of office at a frenzied pace under the president's increasingly erratic and autocratic rule, that the "supreme combatant" had to retire. I was awakened that November 7 by an early-morning telephone call from incoming Prime Minister Hedi Baccouche, and a few hours later I met with newly named Foreign Minister Mahmoud Mestiri, previously Tunisia's senior diplomat at the United Nations. I knew President Ben Ali and most of the new ministers well, as they had been part of the governing fabric of the country, and it was therefore not a difficult decision to recommend to Washington that the United States accord rapid recognition and support for the change. It came in less than 48 hours in a friendly message from the president.
The actual assumption of power showed many of the characteristics we have since learned to associate with President Ben-Ali: meticulous planning and execution, hands-on management of the key actions, careful isolation of the handful of uncertain Bourguiba loyalists, and equal care not to shed the blood of any Tunisian citizen. His "Declaration of November Seventh" to the Tunisian people remains today a remarkably clear statement of the centrist policies of the Ben-Ali era. The well-informed magazine Jeune Afrique aptly entitled its report of the events "dans la douceur."
The new president and his government rapidly set about rebuilding a responsive and functioning structure of government both within the ministries and in the majority party. Many independents and traditional members of the opposition rallied to support the new government, among their number the deputy secretary general of the MOS, Dali Jazi, respected academic figures and human-rights activists. An effort was made to develop a new "National Pact" in which all Tunisians of every political persuasion could participate. At first, Islamist figures also joined the process, but influenced by the apparent success of the Islamist movement in neighboring Algeria, they shortly withdrew into a miscalculated opposition. I remember talking to one Tunisian minister at the time who described to me in very practical terms the difference between being a minister before and after the change. In the former period, a minister would be convoked to the presidency to be lectured, shouted at and given direction. In the new era, the same minister would be asked to explain how he expected to handle a given issue or problem, and then would have the disconcerting experience of observing the new president carefully taking notes on what he was saying. Accountability became a requirement of office, and it still is.
The dominant political party, the Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique (RCD), is sometimes described as an obstacle to the development of political pluralism in Tunisia and in some respects this is true. This current successor of the pre-independence "dustourien" or constitutional movement continues to be closely patterned on the national mobilization parties that were widely prevalent in the so-called one-party states of postcolonial Africa. Party leadership is closely intertwined both with governmental leadership and the traditional clan or tribal structure of the countryside. Within the party, there is vigorous democratic competition for representative positions in the election of delegates from the various districts to the national party convention, for example, but toward the outside world in national elections no concessions are made. It is interesting to contrast the history of the FLN in neighboring Algeria, which dominated the independence era but was unable to sustain its hold on subsequent generations, with the RCD, which has been able to renew itself at the grass roots with each generation of Tunisians.
This history has shaped the uniquely Tunisian structure of the upcoming elections. The outgoing Chamber of Deputies is composed of 163 seats, 144 of which were directly elected in the 1994 elections resulting in 144 RCD deputies. The remaining 19 seats were separated out and divided among four opposition parties. Twelve members of this Parliament are women. The incoming Chamber will be composed of 182 seats, 34 of which - or not quite 20 percent -will be guaranteed to the opposition parties, that is, not contested by the RCD. The same guaranteed percentage will hold for the municipal-council elections next year. Thus the political space of the opposition, now composed of six competing parties, will be modestly enlarged in this electoral cycle. The RCD has put up 148 candidates for the 148 seats it can contest. Only 40 percent of these are incumbents (see the renewal here) and 13 percent are women. Voter registers have been updated and renewed, and radio and TV coverage is being guaranteed to all candidates.
The presidential election, unlike earlier elections, allows more than one candidate, and three have registered: Abderrahmane Tlili representing the Unionist Democratic Union; Mohamed Belhaj Amor representing the Popular Unity party, and Ben-Ali as the RCD candidate. The plurality of candidates is more important for its principle and precedent setting value than for any serious challenge to President Ben-Ali's re-election. The president is genuinely popular. The economy is healthy, even robust. International tourism is booming. The national solidarity fund, which, like Robin Hood, takes from the rich and gives to the poor, has reduced poverty and lessened the disparity in incomes. The outlawing of Islamist parties, sometimes questioned internationally, has had the effect that Tunisians appreciate of immunizing Tunisia from the winds of instability blowing out of the traumatic Algerian experience. In foreign affairs, the policies have been moderate while carefully positioned within the mainstream of Arab political preferences. With the election of Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, Tunisia has quietly received Israel's diplomatic representative in Tunis, named its own to Tel Aviv, and signaled readiness to participate in the reinvigorated multi-lateral track of the peace process as it achieves critical mass among Arab governments.
If I can leave people with one thought from this brief overview, it is to underscore the specificity and uniqueness of Tunisia, and separate it from the general image of Middle Eastern governments. The elections later this month are a cautious but positive expansion of political pluralism and popular political participation in a way that is very much within the Tunisian tradition and experience.
Q: Since Mr. Ben-Ali will win, where's the suspense? What is the excitement in the contest for 34 seats in the reserved section of parliament? Second, what is the reaction inside Tunisia to the criticism from the Algerian presidency? And third, what new direction, if any, is the reelected President Ben-Ali likely to take?
MR. CttEIKHROUHOU: In Tunisia, there has been a tendency to treat these types of declarations at their own level and not link the best interests of the Tunisian people to declarations that could be aimed only at domestic objectives, although they were aired on international satellite television in the hope that people would come to correct themselves. We did not want to pour oil on the fire. But our French-language newspaper, Le Temps, reminded people of some realities in a very polite article that has been read by the Algerian president- he commented on it to visitors later. We did not want to go any further, because we think that the cultural roots of the two peoples, the interests of the area, the interests of the Arab nation, lie not in answering in bad temper, but in playing it cool and proposing more exchanges with our neighbors. As a press group, we are ready to do our duty: to be the watchdog for our country's transition to democracy.
MR. PELLETREAU: President Bouteflika of Algeria hasn't spared anybody his barbs. The neighbor on the other side has also received some. And when President Bouteflika was here in the United States, we received some, too. Those around Algeria understand that this is part of his natural political style. He speaks the same language whether he is talking inside or outside, nationally or internationally. We don't let it affect or distort our common wish that he will be successful in bringing to a close this dark chapter that Algeria has been going through. And as he does so, and as Libya also finds its way back into normal relations with the rest of the world, I think you will see in Tunisia a lessening of what they feel is a necessary vigilance now and an allowing of even greater openness as this evolution occurs.
Q: What are the various opposition parties and the differences between them?
MR. CttEIKHROUHOU: The party in power is the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD). There are six opposition parties, and, by law, the leading party cannot gain more than 80 percent of the seats, even if it were to draw l 00 percent of the votes. Twenty percent of the seats would be allotted to the opposition candidates, according to a partial proportional rule. I will briefly describe the six parties. The Communist party participated in the very first pluralistic election in Tunisia right after independence in 1959. There were only two parties at that time, the party of Mr. Bourguiba, the ancestor of the RCD today, and the Communist party. The Communist party didn't gain any seats that time, and right after that election, it was even outlawed. The Communist party has evolved, changed, and it's a new party now, Ettajdid.
There was a second party that started in the late' 70s and was allowed to participate in the elections of 1981. It's called MOS, the Movement of Socialist Democrats. This party has historically been the refuge of those who criticized the one-party system before. In 1981, it attracted a very favorable proportion of Tunisian voters.
The third party historically was created at almost the same time as the fourth party. The two of them are, the Party of Popular Unity (PUP), and the Democratic Unionist Party (POU). The PUP is the party of the candidate who came in second to Mr. Ben-Ali, the party of Mohamed Ben-Hajamour, who made his opening speech in the campaign on Sunday, basing it on the basic principle of enlarging the government, having government play a larger role in economics, and developing the democratic process and parliamentary life. There is a kind of contradiction between its economic and political orientation. The economic orientation would be more dirigiste, and the political orientation more liberal.
The POU is a party that was created by its present secretary general, the third candidate to the presidency next to President Ben-Ali and Mohamed Ben-Hajamour. It is a party that has historically supported Arab unity. "Unionist" means unity among Arab peoples, either in the Maghreb or in the Mashreq or with neighbors or with whoever wants to get in to the Union. The principal change of this party's program this year is very important. They are supporting any move towards regional or Arab union only on the basis that each country constructs democracy and reaches union through democratic methods. This is a new and very important evolution within this party and in the way it is speaking to other Arab parties.
Apart from these four parties, there are two that are not represented in the present parliament: the RSP, a party that has strongly supported Iraq's position and is in favor of developing democracy within the country; and the PSL, the Partie Sociale Liberale, the Social Liberal party, the only party promoting liberal economics. It is very small.
Q: Why has Tunisia given relatively greater attention through the decades to attending to its image abroad in comparison with other Arab governments?
MR. PELLETREAU: Tunisia is not only part of the Arab world; it has an Arab location, an African location and a Mediterranean location. It can't live bottled up in itself; it has to live as part of each of these three regions. So it has been very concerned that it be properly understood by the different geographic and international constituencies.
DR. FANDY: Tunisia is very small and has very limited natural resources. Therefore, there is a need to engage the outside world, to bring in tourism and investment. Some countries can afford the luxury of not engaging the larger world, but not Tunisia. Tunisia also lends itself to being easily promoted: personal status, empowerment of women, issues of liberalization and other things. Tunisia also sees its future in being compatible with the global economy, and these elections might help it become more compatible with global political openness as well. The Tunisians are banking on larger involvement from the outside world, which also gives it security. In 1990 we saw a small country that did not do these things, and all of a sudden it was swallowed up and disappeared.