Authoritarianism thrived in Tunisia under Europe's long shadow

tunmadein The news broke on January 17, a little before noon: the European Union (EU) was up in arms to offer "immediate" aid to Tunisia in its bid to set up free and democratic elections. You can bet your boots that this gesture on the part of "the European Good Guys" will be received with heartfelt gratitude by Tunisia's people! Europe is today rushing to victory's rescue when only yesterday it was mired up to its neck with the Ben Ali government in negotiating the recognition of an "advanced status" of partnership for the regime. Such "virtuous" opportunism can hardly dodge an excruciatingly embarrassing fact: if authoritarianism enjoyed such longevity in Tunisia, it was largely under Europe's long shadow.

Among Mediterranean Arab countries, Tunisia, like Morocco, stands out for the precocity and the intensity of its cooperation, first with the EEC, then with the EU. It was notably to be the first state of the southern shore to sign a "Euromediterranean partnership agreement". Within the framework of this "Euromediterranean partnership" (or "Barcelona Process"), the country got a generous financial aid-package purportedly designed to help its economy adapt to free-market conditions. In 2004 when, now enlarged to 25, then 27 member-states, the EU was promoting a "European good neighbourhood policy", Tunisia was, on a par with Morocco, among the first to join this new bilateral cooperation arrangement. It hooked up with Europe, not in hope of full membership, but along the lines of a "light", à la carte version of the Copenhagen criteria (democracy, rule of law, human rights, respect for minorities, free market).

Ben Ali's Tunisia had thus acquired the status of "twenty-eighth" member of the EU, including implicit exoneration from the constraints of the political standards of the Union. Certainly, the issue of democracy, the rule of law and human rights featured high on the list of the "priority agenda" agreed between Tunisia and the EU. But it was just one heading among a dozen or so others - more specifically, such as "War on Terrorism", the liberalisation of exchange, direct foreign investment and "the efficient management of migratory flows".  The actions undertaken in favour of democratisation were to remain limited to administrative and judiciary reforms, and bringing its legislation into line with existing international conventions.

The ambiguity of the situation was a stumbling block for a number of European members of Parliament and sent the Union into a spasm of legal contortions. Despite its conspicuous commitment to the promotion of democracy in the Mediterranean, the Union has rarely failed to prioritize its security worries vis à vis political Islamism, terrorism and sub-Saharan migratory pressure, constituting the Maghreb as a de facto front line transit zone. The sum aggregate of cooperation efforts in this field etches in the contours of an international regime of surveillance under which both democracy and authoritarianism can have a run for their money, the security of the former coinciding with the measures required for the longevity of the latter.

The Ben Ali regime thus long represented the archetype of an authoritarian dominance, firmly inserted into a Europe of democratic niceties. To overthrow its rule, the population of Tunisia was only able to count on its own nerve.  Outside support, when available, was to come not from a fainthearted Europe, still less from a French government whose complacency extended to offering its expertise in policing and crowd-control, but from the United States' firmly repeated warnings to the authors of further acts of bloody repression. .

Tunisia has now entered an open-ended phase of political transition whose issue is anything but certain. The dismantling of the authoritarian system and the materialisation of their democratic aspirations are exclusively the business of the Tunisian people themselves. If Europe wants to show solidarity towards this difficult and dangerous enterprise, it will not be enough for us to come up with further aid packages, even for purposes of electoral organisation. Our whole neighbourhood strategy with Mediterranean third countries will need to be overhauled. It behoves us to take the rap and relearn the score from January's events in Tunisia, truly a shock wave in the core zone of neighbourhood proximity hitherto considered to be the limes of the European democratic perimeter. It is not within the confinement of a fortress Europe that democracy will be able to take wing in Tunisia, still less in any of her neighbouring countries. "Democratisation in Europe", once remarked Nietzsche, "is simultaneously, and whether we like it or not, a school for tyrants". Once reformulated both in terms of the current context and of our democratic convictions, his phrase must offer food for thought for us "European Good Guys" in our future dealings with the Mediterranean's southern shores.

Michel Camau is coauthor, with Vincent Geisser, of "Syndrome autoritaire. Politique en Tunisie de Bourguiba à Ben Ali" (Presses de Sciences-Po, 2003).


>The WRW Dossier

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>Read William Pfaff's article in the New York Review of Books

>Read Elodie Auffray's article: "Tunisia : "Social networks were a centerpiece of this revolution"

>Read Patrick Hutchinson's French-language Editorial

>See BBC live coverage and minute-by-minute Twitter feed on Cairo's Tahrir square

>Read what other Bloggers from Tahrir Square have to say

>Read Alain Cabras's French-language article "L'Union pour la Méditerranée : être et dire"

>Read Gilbert Achkar's interview on the events in Cairo and Tunis on Znet

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