During a short visit to Tunisia on the eve of the Baghdad “tipping point” in the war, I was exposed to the emotions and intellectual churning in a modern Arab society that have been stimulated by the American campaign to achieve regime change and more in Iraq. Discussions with diverse elite figures, government and private, civilian and military, provide some insight into how this war is being interpreted and internalized as a dramatic chapter in the region’s history.
First a word of introduction on Tunisia, with some sense of how Tunisians relate to Iraq, their points in common and their important differences. Like Iraq, Tunisia has a modern and quite secular elite, has made important achievements in raising the standard of living of most of its citizens since its independence in 1962. Its economic progress, quality of education and investment in health, housing and other physical quality of life measures are commendable. Also like Iraq, pluralism in national politics has not been encouraged; formal commitments to multipartyism in recent years have been subtly undermined by a security minded culture around the President, who has been in power for over 15 years. But in other signficant ways, Tunisia is dramatically different from Iraq. It is a peaceful, homogeneous, and largely nonviolent society. It has opted for security relationships with great powers (the United States and France) rather than invest heavily in a large national army. It poses no threat to its neighbors; to the contrary, it works hard in pursuit of greater stability in the North African region, and has to manage its relations with its larger and richer neighbors, Algeria and Libya, with some care.
So what did some of Tunisia’s most sophisticated citizens think of the war and the declared American agenda for the region after the war? Here are four themes that surfaced repeatedly in various discussions:
1. There is deep anguish and concern about the real American agenda. Those who consider themselves pro-American are startled by the notion that we are returning to colonialism, going backwards in relations between the west and the region, not forward to a more mature relationship. Some found the US discussion of democratization to be deeply cynical; the proof to them was that small Gulf dynasties that were willing to cooperate militarily were given a “free pass” on reform, whereas more modern politities that did not support the war would be held to a higher standard. In sum, it seems that the Arab states are not being respected for defending their own interests as they see them, but are being judged more on their willingness to abide by the rules set by the new master, the United States.
2. There is some quiet satisfaction in even this conflict-averse country that the Iraqis fought back, resisted the invasion. Even if the Iraqi resistance proves to be short-lived, Tunisians felt a frisson of pleasure at the scenes of Arabs defending Arab honor and self-respect. I was told several times that Iraqis were not fighting for Saddam, they were fighting for their homes, their land, their dignity. Some Tunisians were satisfied with even the short symbol of a few days of resistance fighting, while others thought it needed to continue so that the United States would get the message and be humbled a bit.
3. Educated Tunisians were quick to distinguish between America’s power, which is indisputable, and American authority or legitimacy in taking on its ambitious agenda in Iraq. There was support for France’s policy and its insistence on the formal UN process, and a relief that around the world, there is a demand for more attention to the international rules that govern war and political transitions. Arabs welcomed the sense of solidarity with non-Arab societies on the key issue of legitimacy for this war. Unlike the triumphalism already palpable in Washington, North Africans believe the U.S. may still have its comeuppance or will pay the price if its does not pay greater heed to international opinion and to a constructive role for the UN in the post-war phase.
4. Lastly, a select few among my interlocutors expressed the hope that change in Iraq would help deconstruct the pan-Arab myth. They hoped that, rather than lead to a tidal wave of change in the region, it would instead prove to be one more piece of evidence that there are diverse Arab experiences, and that each state is responsible for its own history and political choices. This may reflect both an anxiety about expectations for change, knowing that Tunisia falls short on some meaures of reform, and also a frustration at the difficulty of achieving Arab consensus. Tunisia’s own experience with its North African neighbors, in spite of shared language, culture and history, leads it to seek greater differentiation, not a simplistic model for change for the whole region.
I would be remiss to not mention the intense pleasure a few Tunisians privately expressed with the American project in the region. They want to have it both ways: an end to the strait jacket of conformity around the Arab myth, which has proved to be a rationalization for strongman politics, and a new era of pax americana, with moderates and liberals across the region empowered to pursue political change according to a western model of economic and political contestation and competition. For now, this seems to be an overly optimistic vision of the future. We should nurture such optimism as a valuable antidote to the prevailing anxiety and anger. Such optimism and willingness to identify with the noblest of American objectives in the region will be a critical condition for success, but it must be managed alongside a more complicated set of feelings that seems to be the more common experience in the Arab world today.