Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Tunisia needs political as well as economic support

The G8 has produced galleons of money for Tunisia but the country needs political more than economic support. European, African and US development banks have all offered soft loans and debt write-offs – the west’s response to upheavals like the Arab Spring is to reach for the chequebook.

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Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, and Jose Manuel Barroso congratulated themselves in Deauville and patted their new friends from Tunisia and Egypt (anyone know the names of the representatives of these two countries?) on the back as they admired their generosity.

But three days last week in a rain-swept, tourist-free Tunisia brought home to me how much the southern Mediterranean revolution needs political solidarity and engagement as much as economic aid. A senior Tunisian banker told me that even within Tunisia there are resources available to carry on with economic development. Sihem Bensedrine, the brave Tunisian journalist, whose human rights foundation has been at the forefront of opposition to the Ben Ali regime, told me that, unlike eastern Europe, Tunisia did not have to create market economics. Ben Ali, after all, was the Arab world’s number one Davosman. Only yesterday was the corrupt Tunisian leader feted in Davos by the world’s business oligarchs and their political servants.

Tunisia has been growing at a steady four or five per cent in recent years. Not quite China but better than most OECD nations. Ben Ali and his family helped themselves to one to two per cent of GDP and kept Tunisian capitalism artisanal rather than dynamic. Any company that grew in size and efficiency had a quiet knock on the door and the obligation to offer shares or directorships to the ruling elite. There isn’t a top rank international hotel in Tunis and the state-owned Tunisair runs planes that bring back memories of British Airways in the 1970s. Easyjet may start flying to Tunisia next year and the nation’s full tourist potential remains to be unlocked. Purists may look down their nose at mass tourism but it brings in €100 billion plus each year to France and helped Spain and Ireland to become modern economies.

The real problem in Tunisia remains politics not economics. The head of the chicken, Ben Ali, may have been cut off but the chicken continues to flap round with its old reflexes still fully operational. The Tunisian people themselves are rightly proud of their 14th January revolution. With very little violence a rotten regime went. A sacrifice by a young Tunisan killing himself (compare with the suicide bombing endorsed by Sheik Qaradawi and the apostle of Islamist jihad) sparked a people’s uprising. It was leaderless. It did not burn the US flag. It did not obsess about Israel. It was a Whitmanesque uprising, the people en masse, demanding a better tomorrow.

David Cameron and William Hague made friendly noises once it was clear which way the Tunisian uprising was going. As late as February, Hague was still defending the Bahraini regime and a few days ago Cameron was photographed with the Bahraini crown prince at No 10 even as a secret court in Bahrain was sentencing four pro-democracy protestors to death and Human Rights Watch was producing details of torture of women doctors in Bahrain. Saudi troops now control Bahrain. Syrian calls for democracy are being stifled. Meanwhile Iran meddles and promotes Shia separatism in order to reduce the demand for democracy to a 17th century inter-faith battle. Theo-politics trumps geo-politics as faith and belief in believers occupy more and more space in contemporary politics – as much in the USA, Whitehall, or Israel as in Muslim nations.

To be fair, Hague did give £1 million to help support democracy in Tunisia. But Britain is playing last-minute catch-up as neither DfID, nor Britain’s trade machine, had Tunisia on their iPads before this spring. Hague has cut grants for the British Council and all but halved the puny budget of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. DfID believes in developing everything save democracy. Like the guns of Singapore facing the wrong way, Britain’s overseas spend is focused in the wrong way, on the wrong objectives, and has no democratic input or democracy output.

The only message the Tunisians heard from London recently was that they were not welcome in Britain. 20,000 Tunisians sought refuge in the EU of half a billion and the anti-immigrant ranters were out of their box demanding an end to free movement within Europe. Theresa May said Britain did not want to accept any Tunisians. At Deauville, Sarkozy and Cameron had warm words for Tunisia but the real message from the Home Office, the Daily Mail and Immigrant Watch is that Tunisians are not welcome.

More than ever there needs to be a combined EU response to Tunisia. It is a small nation of ten million educated men and women that are not obliged to wear the patriarchal symbol of male dominance, the burka. There is a market economy though it needs widening and deepening and modernising. Tunisians can now say, write and meet as they wish. There are two new trade unions. The French-language press is wooden with little reporting. But new media are on the way.

Elections will be held on 24 July. The Islamist party now occupies a grand building paid for with Gulf money. Its leaders are invited to Paris and Washington and encouraged to model themselves on the AK Party in Turkey. 74 other political parties are registered. Opinion polls say most Tunisian citizens are keen to vote in what, after all, will be the first free election in their history. But none of those polled know who to vote for.

It is this political vacuum that needs to be filled. Tunisia needs a clear EU partnership based on free trade, investment, and visa-free travel as the notion that an EU of 500 million will be swamped by Tunisians is absurd. Tunisia needs political TLC, with visits by ministers and MPs, as well as by foundations, and thinktanks so that Tunisians realise Britain and the EU are on their side. Tunisians are fed up with being cast as France’s ex-colony and long for an opening to and a welcome from the anglosphere world. Is there a latter-day George Soros ready to support an open society project in Tunisia? Can the FCO and DfID find money to focus down hard on Tunisia and turn the 14 January overthrow of Ben Ali into an irreversible movement to create the southern Mediterranean’s first full democracy able to shape an economy which offers hope to the poor as well as elites? Who in Britain is asking, let alone answering, these questions?




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Denis MacShane MP

is a former Europe minister. His biography of François Mitterrand was published in 1982, and in 1985 he wrote a Fabian pamphlet, French Lessons for Labour

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