After the 2011 revolt forced Ben Ali out of power, many Western observers deluded themselves into thinking that Tunisia was successfully building democracy while its Arab neighbours were failing. They had been equally deluded about the quality of the country’s economic management before 2011. It has taken them many years to realise that they have got Tunisia wrong.
The harshness of their criticism of President Kais Saied today may be the result of their getting this small, open country wrong twice since 2000.
Saied’s move to dismiss his government and suspend parliament in 2021 surprised many foreign diplomats who had failed to read the situation correctly. Tunisians were less surprised, and thousands poured onto the streets of to express their relief at what they saw as the comeuppance of a corrupt and incompetent political class.
The counter-revolution in Tunisia was longer in coming than in any other Arab country but it is too early to write the obituaries of uprisings that, in two waves, in 2011 and 2019, engulfed most Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
A long-term revolutionary process is at work in the region. Western governments, especially in Europe, are deluding themselves if they think they can rely on strong men to ensure the stability of southern-rim Mediterranean countries. Social inequality and the underemployment of human resources continue to generate huge social frustration that young people will not endure. European Union (EU) leaders are obsessed by the waves of immigrants from the south and the rise in populism it fuels in Europe but remain in denial about the underlying causes.
Why did the EU and United States (US) fail to appreciate that the counter-revolution started immediately after the Tunisian and Egyptian “revolutions” toppled Ben Ali and Mubarak? Why did they not understand that, after failing initially to launch bold reforms in managing its security apparatus and its economy, Tunisia’s politicians and trade union leaders were driving the country into an impasse?
The answer lies, first and foremost, in the very nature of the state across the region. By 2011, it was clear to seasoned observers that the liberal economic policy framework favoured by the West, the so-called Washington Consensus, was failing to deliver the economic goods. Today the Washington Consensus is dead, but will the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the EU revise their policy prescriptions which, to have a chance of succeeding, must be predicated on rebuilding the state, using public investment as a key tool and fighting the corruption produced by crony capitalism?
The Arab revolts were met with disbelief by most Western politicians and think tanks. This was surprising, as successive UNDP Arab Human Development Reports (2003, 2005 and 2009) had shown the ballooning unemployment rate in North Africa and the downward trend in the overall ratio of gross capital formation to GDP over the previous quarter of a century. One year on, the Managing Director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, said in 2011, “let me be frank: we were not paying enough attention to how the fruits of economic growth were being shared”.
Some observers did get it right. None more so than Professor Gilbert Achcar whose “radical exploration of the Arab uprising”, as he describes his book The People Want, stands out for its refusal to pull punches when questioning the prevailing liberal doxa.
The very use of the expression “Jasmine Revolution” suggested a misunderstanding. No revolution occurred in Tunisia in January 2011. A violent revolt drove the ruling apparatuses to distance themselves from the head of state and they forced him out to save their privileges.
In Tunisia, political cronies of the main political parties were offered jobs in the hugely inflated civil service that often existed only on paper, but for which they were paid. The result was to destroy the efficiency of the civil service and hugely increase the wage bill. The inevitable rise in the country’s debt crowded out public investment in health, education and infrastructure. Presidents and governments came and went, each and every one borrowing money from the IMF, the World Bank and the European Investment Bank.
The IMF and the EU continued to preach a gospel of liberalism and pretended to believe reforms were being enacted. Meanwhile, private investment, both domestic and foreign, declined. Key sectors such as phosphates and fertilisers saw their production collapse while tourism fell victim to terrorism and the COVID pandemic. The poorer hinterland, where all revolts in Tunisia start, continued to be exploited by the richer coast, providing most of the water, wheat and phosphates the country needed.
As elsewhere in the world, the EU and US convinced themselves that free and fair elections pointed to a bright future. Younger Tunisians begged to differ, and fewer people voted at successive elections, with many not even bothering to register.
Islamist movements have never shown any interest in addressing the challenges of a modern economy and Ennahda proved no exception.
Delusion became a widespread feature of many Western attitudes as it had been before 2011. Prior to that date, the World Bank and Western observers would praise the country’s economic performance. After the fall of Ben Ali, they praised its success as a democracy. It is easier to understand, in such a context, why European leaders failed to think strategically about Tunisia.
Western analysts of North Africa and the Middle East too often project their own view of the world onto countries whose history is different. The semantic tools of modern economic thought were the result of a rethinking of the state and international relations that goes back to the 18th century.
This helps to explain why the West often misreads the rationale behind the behaviour of modern Middle Eastern states. Leaders there seldom focus on increasing the country’s wealth but on staying in power, not least by controlling which newcomers join the elite.
From the 1980s onwards, the IMF and the World Bank abided by a set of ideological tenets which became known as the Washington Consensus: the state should be slimmed down to make way for private investment. This neo-liberal doxa was already failing in Tunisia by the turn of the century but that did not stop the World Bank from putting Tunisia forward as a model of good economic governance to be followed in Africa and the Middle East.The EU sang from the same hymn sheet and came unstuck.
For all its emancipation of women and tolerant attitudes to foreigners, Tunisia’s economic wealth is tightly controlled by a few families whose grip is reinforced by a corporatist system which allows them to virtually control the state. Far from providing new ideas and helping create a broad left-wing party after 2011, the powerful trade union UGTT was happy to see the political parties inflate the number of workers on the state payroll, which has bankrupted the country.
Will the West ever change its neo-liberal script?
In the first edition of his book, Achcar asked why Western experts did “not even dare suggest that Arab petrodollars be massively redirected to job-creating investments in the region, Marshal Plan style?” The international institutions “cannot go so far as to suggest that the oil monarchies stop investing their capital in Western economies, particularly in the United States, and transfer it to Arab governments instead, on the model of the aid that the Unites States provided its European allies from 1948 to 1951”. That is an unlikely turn of events, as Western banks would lose huge opportunities to make money and the Gulf monarchies had much influence in Paris, London and Washington.
Meanwhile capital continues to flee the region to the safe haven of Western banks. The younger elites are now fleeing as well, to the immediate benefit of the Gulf, Canada, France and its neighbours. In North Africa, the “cold war” between Algeria and Morocco explains why trade and investment flows between the three countries are minimal. This situation is all the more absurd considering that Algerian oil, gas, sulphur and ammonia could, in tandem with Moroccan phosphates, generate many jobs and large exports. The tensions between the two suited the West for decades but the pressure of new immigrants in Europe fuels populist parties and the risk of domestic turbulence in countries such as Italy and France.
A further irony of the neo-liberal script is that China and Turkey are increasing their commercial ties with North Africa (after Italy, China is the second-most important source of imports for Tunisia and Turkey the fourth) but not their investments. In all three North African countries, Western private capital continues to play a key role. The EU and the US are also discovering, to their dismay, that North African leaders, as elsewhere in the Global South, do not share their reading of the war in Ukraine. They note that the West views its problems as the world’s problems, but they beg to differ.
The earlier Europe wakes up to the fact that the countries beyond its southern shores deserve an ambitious policy, a new and bolder Barcelona Process, the better. The earlier they understand that Islamism is not the region’s natural inclination, as many, notably the US and the United Kingdom, were inclined to believe after 2011, and give up their tinpot Orientalism, the better. Moving on from the patrimonial or neo-patrimonial state presents an historic challenge for the MENA region and for Europe. The reaction of the United States towards Kais Saied’s disregard for the basic rules of democracy suggests that Western attitudes have not changed. Until it accepts that a complete overhaul of the patrimonial or neo-patrimonial state is a prerequisite for faster growth, greater social inclusion and thus long-term stability in Tunisia and the broader MENA region, the EU Commission will have to accept that its endless position papers which aim to “improve” its neighbourhood policies smack of playing to the crowds.
Francis Ghiles is a Senior Associate Researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB). An earlier version of this article was published by CIDOB.