Friday, November 19, 2004


on the march

Khaled Hroub has an article in the International Herald Tribune today about democracy in Tunisia. Hroub writes about Tunisia's reputation as an emerging secular democratic Middle Eastern state in the 1990s and how this reputation has increasingly been betrayed by reality. Still, Tunisia remains one of the West's golden boys in the region, and under Bush, "Washington has allocated to Tunis the regional offices of its Middle East Partnership Initiative, meant to spread democratization throughout the Arab world."
Anecdotes in Arab media circles about Tunisian intimidation and ultrasensitivity are amazing. A number of Arab thinkers, for example, were not allowed to attend seminars in Tunisia because they had befriended Tunisian thinkers who are hated by the regime or had co-authored publications with them.

How has Tunis managed this sleight of hand? By emphasizing secular discourse, the regime has offered the West a comfortable illusion. It is not the secularism of the Baathist regimes of Syria and pre-invasion Iraq. Nor is it the secularism of the monarchies of Jordan or Morocco, marred as they are by the principle of heredity. Here we have a republic that is westernized in its political positions and in the socio-cultural program of its elite, with extra doses of "democracy" jargon.
Furthermore, earlier this week, Tunis hosted the second round of the World Summit on the Information Society.
In the summit's first round in Geneva, participants - including Tunisia - declared their "common desire and commitment to build a people-centered, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge ... premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Meanwhile the government's silencing of the national press has deprived its political opposition of even the smallest opening to express critical views.
Hroub also mentions the "presidential referendums" that take place every five years, in which Tunisians are asked to extend Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's presidential tenure. The latest was on October 24 of this year.
A cynic might say that its result - 94.5 of the electorate in favor of the standing regime - represents a huge leap toward "political liberalization" compared with results of the earlier polls: 99.4 percent for the regime in 1989, 99.7 percent in 1994 and 99.5 percent in 1999.
In fact, these results immediately reminded me of the Iraqi referrendum held just previous to the US invasion of Iraq. In it I believe Saddam Hussein got some 99 percent of the vote. Anyhow, I think it goes to show that "democracy" as being promoted by the US in the Middle East (a secular government, elections, a president, economic liberalization, etc.) can easily be hijacked by authoritarian governments. Not that the US is blindly ignorant of this fact, as I am sure they are not. International politics are always going to be a matter of convenience, of partnerships, of turning a blind eye and "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" mentalities. But I think that if there is going to be a positive change in the Middle East, there has to be encouragement of pluralism, not democracy.

So refreshing to see an entirely different perspective.

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