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After the Tunisian Revolution: Redefining Moderate Regimes

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Recent events in Tunisia call for a redefinition of both what the West considers moderate regimes and the governance model these countries should choose.

After 9/11, U.S foreign policy entered an era of confusion: the list of former anti-Soviet allies covered a large spectrum of regimes, political and religious-ideology groups. A redefinition of the U.S relationship with these allies was made in a very simplistic way, based on a so-called anti-terror policy: on one hand, certain regimes were kept and “re-friended” after 9/11; on the other hand, states or political groups that will be fought against became the “axis of evil.”

The latter were the subject of almost all that was written by the Western media on post-9/11 related topics: the focus was made on Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Hamas and other classics. This piece is not dealing with the latter, but with what will be called “moderate regimes”, particularly former Tunisian regime as well as other North African regimes.

Ben Ali’s Tunisia was considered by the West as a model for collaboration in fighting terrorism[1],[2],[3],[4] and consequently received privileged treatment – especially from the EU and France. It was also depicted as the model of governance for Morocco since the dramatic terrorist attacks of May 2003, and Tunisia’s economic situation were the sources of many positive comments.

What is the takeaway for the EU and US from the fall of Ben Ali’s regime?

What analogies can be made with neighbouring so-called “moderate” regimes?

The Tunisian Crisis suggests that both the EU and the US are losing their grip on North African geopolitics

Tunisia was the EU’s and US’s anti-Islamism regime

Ben Ali’s regime was very radical in fighting political Islam, its approach outstripped usual political bans and went as far as to do Stasi-like profiling of people’s religious practices. Scanned documents distributed on social networks showed, for example, authenticated police reports on individuals and the frequency of their trips to the mosque versus praying at home!

The result of this approach was the absence of any political Islam in Tunisia.  European politicians have often replied to human rights advocates with the simplistic answer “We prefer Ben Ali to a Taliban regime in North Africa” (Sarkozy).  Christophe Barbier put it more straightforward : “plutôt Ben Ali que les Barbus” (rather Ben Ali than bearded Islamists)whereas there was no serious threat of radical Islam in Tunisia. In a plenary session of the European Parliament, we can see plenty of European deputies boasting Tunisian progress in the economic sector, human rights, education and emphasising its role in anti-terror policy.

The myth of Tunisia’s liberal economy

In addition to its reputation as a bastion against Islamic fundamentalism, Tunisia has privileged economic relations with the EU: it was the first country to sign an Association Agreement and the only one in the region with a free trade agreement with the EU [I]. Tunisia’s favored position was said to be due to the “Tunisian liberal economic model” [II].

While Tunisia benefitted from a competitive 32nd place in the WEF rankings, the Tunisian economy was not as stable as it appeared on paper.  First, heavy reliance on the tourism and service sectors at the expense of more diversified industry left Tunisia exposed during the recent global economic crisis. This, as well as a lack of opportunities for new graduates, is in part responsible for the breakdown in Tunisian society. Another non-negotiable point is that what little profit there was to be had in the Tunisian economy was undermined by the manoeuvres of the Trabelsi family (Ben Ali’s in-laws).  As Wikileaks reported but was already widely known and proven by recent events, the Trabelsis have a stronghold on all sectors of the Tunisian economy, from banking to real estate.  Thus the EU’s and US’s assessments of the Tunisian economy were either wrong or misguided.

France’s last ditch effort to save Ben Ali versus Obama’s wise last-minute decision to abandon him

In fact both American and European diplomats remained silent as the Tunisian crisis began in mid-December. The lack of coverage by Western mainstream media helped not only to strengthen criticism on these positions, despite some early reactions like those of the Swedish Piraten Partei, the Greens, or other left wing groups who usually do not follow the main European diplomatic orientation (cf. their positions on Palestine, for example). As the crisis intensified  two important reactions that could be described as a lack of anticipation were yielding:

1. It took the EU High Representative, Baroness Ashton, three weeks to react – on Jan. 10 – to a popular uprising in a totalitarian state with which the EU has an association agreement.
2. Hillary Clinton “pledged neutrality between the parties”.

While some consider that Western support for the revolution would have been appreciated, and might possibly have hastened the outcome and/or limited the bloodshed up until the last hours of the revolution, France remained firm in its supportive position. We now know that it even tried to send security material to Ben Ali’s regime. Obama, on the other hand, made a late and good save to his reputation among Arab public opinion by declaring his admiration of the “Tunisian people’ s courage and determination.”

Thus support for the Tunisian dictatorship was based on superficial arguments and simplistic treatment of North African politics and issues. The Tunisian revolution may lead to a democratic regime that may choose to act against EU’s and US’s interests. If the Tunisian revolution spreads to its neighbours, what mega-trends can be identified amongst the Maghreb countries?

Neighbouring North African Countries: Analogies and Differences


The Tunisian educational system is the most efficient one of the Maghreb countries according to the World Bank’s 2008 report on education in the MENA region. Some use this factor to argue that neighbouring countries will not follow. Illiteracy is though said to be a barrier for people to understand pertinence of democracy and the mechanism of checks and balances. But does one need higher education to understand that making policy makers accountable will improve his daily life?  In Tunisia, the lack of openings on the job market for new graduates are analogous to those of Algerian, and to a lesser extent Moroccan graduates.  Here it is important to note that North African countries are subject to a brain drain whose principal beneficiaries are the European Union, Canada and the US.  While the very best and brightest people are able to leave the country, whereas the weak economic structure in place in these countries means that highly qualified graduates have neither the opportunity to work at the level of their education nor leave to find acceptable employment elsewhere.

Freedom of Speech

In this regard Tunisia went beyond and above the “normal” levels of censorship practiced in North Africa. A typical example of Ben Ali’s censorship is the handling of Internet access: until his last speech on January 14th,  many websites were banned for Tunisians, which explains in part the Tunisian uprising as Tunisian Cyber-activists are considered by many as the most talented in the region.

Morocco : this country achieved a lot concerning freedom of speech after King Mohammed VI came to the throne in 1999, but in the last couple of years, Morocco is making steps backward and regressing in many freedom of speech indices (RSF, Amnesty, HRW). 2009 was especially bad for journalists: many newspapers were closed or were financially obliged to close due to very high penalties after trials. Meanwhile, Morocco’s Internet policy remains very liberal compared to its neighbour.

Algeria: Algeria has a freer and more active traditional press than its neighbours, which explains its relative lack of twitterers and facebookers.  The growth of the Web 2.0 scene in Tunisia and Morocco can be seen as a direct result of the lack of freedom in the traditional press in these countries whereas in Algeria, which has similar network saturation (compared to Morocco at least) the usage of the Internet by dissidents is less per capita and less overall than in these countries.

Globalized economy

Morocco: like Tunisia, Morocco is a privileged partner of the EU, a member of the union for the Mediterranean but more important, Morocco has signed a free trade agreement with the United States during George W. Bush’s presidency. The tourism industry generates a considerable income in addition to Moroccan Expats’ remittances .

Algeria and Libya: still hermetically sealed economies, lack of competitiveness, but 150 billion $ of positive economic balance in 2010 thanks to natural resources (gas and oil).

Egypt: is the second US aid beneficiary after Israel and even more than Israel, this aid is vital to Egypt’s economy.

The World Economic Forum ranked Tunisia 32nd for its investment competitiveness, followed by Morocco (75), Egypt (81), Libya (86) and Algeria (100). Despite its openness to foreign investment, corruption undermined internal business. Former president’s relatives dominated the economic scene. Wikileaks’ cables describes it as ‘mafia rule’.

Migration/Brain drain and Unemployment

Brain Drain

Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia: traditional destination of emigrants is France but numbers are declining due to many reasons including the worldwide financial crisis,  economic growth in the global south, as well as the increasing brain drain to America or Canada.

The preferred destination for Egyptians is the United States but more and more Egyptian educated citizens go to work in Gulf countries.

Classic migration

Classic post-WWII migration involved migrants without university or even high school backgrounds. Currently, with strengthening immigration controls in EU nd elsewhere, migrants without significant educational baggage are almost never considered as candidates for legal emigration. Clandestine migration is facing an increasing number of EU’s borders closing, thus leaving more unsatisfied potential migrants.

The economic structure is so underdeveloped that a large part of new graduates are underemployed and participating in the increase of social pressure. Mohammed Bouazizi being the most famous example, as his self-immolation sparked the Tunisian uprising. In Morocco unemployed doctors or other advanced degrees holders regularly organize protests.

Call centers, tourism and the informal sector are the main sectors of employment available to new gradutes; however, their added value is not high enough to handle underemployment and unemployment issues.

“Real” North African Moderate Regimes: new governance for the XXIst century

Now that the myth of Tunisian stability is over, a redefinition of moderate regimes should be made after this important lesson to both neighbours and the West. Anecdotally, in Time Magazine, on Tuesday, January 11th, this piece was posted with the title: “Algeria and Tunisia: Moderate Arab Regimes in Trouble”; hours later, the title was changed to “Algeria and Tunisia: Protests Threaten Repressive Regimes” before finally finishing as “Algeria and Tunisia: Arab Regimes in Trouble”.  These changes were added after a buzz of criticism by Twitterers and bloggers about the use of the label ‘Moderate’ (here is an archived version with the first title) . This journalistic anecdote should be representative of the change that should happen in the region: Autocracies should be named as such, either by foreign partners or by their own people.

The region now urgently needs accountability of its policy makers. Tin order to avoid dramatic uprisings like that of Tunisia, the presidential dictatorships and and absolute monarchies in the region should find a pacific end.

Even though monarchies showed more stability in the long term (four centuries in Morocco), they also have to redefine their governance. Parliamentary monarchy seems to be an option for such countries, making the prime minster responsible for socio-economic policy and accountable for his decisions by legislative elections.  Debates about Tunisia’s constitution are also going in this direction: a parliamentary republic with no head of state able to grab power. Whatever the construction of a “new” Tunisia will look like, the months ahead for  this country will actually be key in determining  future governance in the region.

[I] Louis Michel: “le 1er pays à avoir signé un accord d’association avec l’UE partenaire actif dans la politque de voisinage de l’union européenne, le seul pays méditanéen disposant depuis 2008 d’un accord de libre échange.”

[II] IMF President Dominique Strauss-Kahnn in November 18th 2008 in Carthage

« Je m’attends à une forte croissance en Tunisie cette année, la politique économique adoptée ici est une politique saine et constitue un bon modèle à suivre pour de nombreux pays émergents. »

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Mehdi Lbadikho Twitter: @L_badikho

Lbadikho, Engineer, Blogger at and co-founder of the Moroccan portal Also blogging about sustainable development issues in Morocco at