Tunisia: The Democracy that Could Have Been?
“A Good Place to Have Aided Democracy”
By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
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In a February 13th Washington Post op-ed, columnist Anne Applebaum evaluates democracy and human rights in Tunisia and criticizes the US’s commitment to democracy promotion as “an afterthought” in our strategic policies towards the Middle East.
Applebaum notes that at first glance Tunisia seems a more likely partner in the democracy promotion campaign in the Middle East than Iraq. She describes Tunisia as “an avowedly secular Muslim state: Women here have the right to divorce and to marry as they please. Most do not wear headscarves, let alone veils. Much of the economy is private…the middle class is relatively well educated.” Despite these successes, and the endorsement of French President Jacques Chirac, who described the country as having “very advanced” human rights, Applebaum calls the situation in Tunisia a “Putinesque, postmodern political charade, supporting a whole panoply of phony political parties, phony human rights groups, phony elections.”
Freedom House reports support Applebaum’s claims of “corruption, nepotism, and stagnation of a one-party state, dominated by what is, in effect a president-for-life.” The organization deems it “not free” and report that political and social freedoms are largely restricted by the government. The country has been ruled by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali since 1987, when he disposed of the previous president in a bloodless coup. Under Ben Ali, women’s rights have increased but there is pervasive suppression of free speech, access to the internet, press freedom, and political opposition. Although opposition parties do exist they are denied political power and Ben Ali has changed the constitution twice to extend his rule.
Despite these abuses there has been little condemnation of Tunisia on the part of the West. According to Freedom House, “because of Tunisia's position as an economic trading partner and its strategic importance as a pro-Western ally in the fight against Islamic extremism, criticism from some of Tunisia's most important diplomatic and trade partners has been embarrassingly muted.” However Applebaum reports that widespread unemployment is leaving the educated young people with two choices: “emigration or radical Islam;” the latter, she says, is allegedly becoming “chic” among young people.
Applebaum speculates about why the West never tried to encourage Tunisia, a secular ally that advances women’s rights, to become democratic; she comes to the derisive conclusion that democracy promotion was “never an important American goal in the Middle East.”
CCD is interested in the opinion of our readers, especially on unfolding events in our field. Ms. Applebaum charges that the US only recently became committed to democracy promotion and that Tunisia would have been a prime country to encourage. What do you think?
- Has the US only become interested in promoting democracy since further justification was needed for the war in Iraq?
- With US and European encouragement and incentives, could Tunisia become a model democracy for North Africa?
- Are some freedoms more important than others? Can you have some freedoms (such as women’s rights and free markets) and not others (such as free speech and freedom of assembly) and be a democracy?