- Why Tunisia?
It is by now the received wisdom that the so-called Arab Spring has produced only one success story: the tiny North African nation of Tunisia. Conflicts rage in Syria, Yemen, and Libya; Egypt has returned to the bad old days in which mock elections convert generals into presidents; and everywhere there seems to have been a dramatic constriction of the Arab political imaginary. Where once it seemed reasonable to yearn for freedom, today a cheerless stability represents the extent of most Arabs’ hopes. Against this uninviting backdrop, Tunisia looks like a triumph—even with its double-digit unemployment, a simmering Islamist insurgency, and a longstanding divide between a wealthy cosmopolitan coast and an impoverished provincial interior. That country of eleven million is the only one of the Arab League’s 22 members that today earns a rating of Free from Freedom House, and if the successful conclusion of its recent municipal elections is any indicator, its nascent democracy seems to be inching toward that enviable state known in the democratization literature as “consolidation.”
What is it about Tunisia? This by now oft-asked question has produced two broad answers. The first holds that Tunisia’s democratic transition was practically inevitable, the product of its large middle class, its proximity to Europe, its comparatively liberal culture, and a host of other factors besides. The second views Tunisia’s success as something of a minor miracle, wrought by talented politicians blessed with no small measure of luck. The first suggests that, among the polities touched by the Arab Spring, only Tunisia could have made it to democracy. The second suggests that what happened in Tunisia could have happened elsewhere, and may yet. Into this discussion comes Safwan Masri. He is clear about which side he is on. “The conditions for change in Tunisia,” he tells us, “were different. The ingredients present [there] [End Page 166] . . . have been many generations in the making. They cannot be easily replicated. Factors that are specific to Tunisia have led the country to where it is today” (p. 291).
Masri knows Tunisia. Seduced, as so many of us have been, by the Arab world’s only democracy, he has made it his business to dive into that society, traveling there repeatedly and interviewing practically everyone who matters. The result is a deeply learned, sensitive, and searching book. Although social scientists will find much to quibble with in the book’s evidence, its argumentation, and its conclusion that the Arabs are doomed to a continuation of the doleful status quo, Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly is an essential document for those who wish to understand the Arab Spring’s lone (if tentative) democratic victory.
Masri’s central argument is simple: Tunisia is alone among Arab states in achieving democracy because it is culturally distinct from the rest of the Arab world. “Tunisia,” Masri wants us to know, “has been non-Arab and non-Muslim longer than it has been either” (p.104). Its roots lie neither in the Arabian Peninsula nor in the birth of Islam, but in the city-state of Carthage, founded in the ninth century B.C.E. by seafaring Phoenicians from present-day Lebanon. Tunisia (or, more correctly, Carthage) became a great civilization (eventually writing a constitution that Aristotle allegedly thought “one of the best balanced in the Mediterranean world” [p. 96]). Nonetheless, it was conquered in the second century B.C.E. by the Romans (who, Masri tells us, helpfully dug a long trench to separate the province from what would later become turbulent Algeria). The area fell to the marauding Arabs only in the seventh century C.E., after fifty years of what Masri celebrates as “tenacious defiance” by the local Berber population (pp. 102–103). In Masri’s telling, this long non-Arab, non-Muslim history—much like that long Roman trench—served to mark Tunisia as something apart from the rest of the Arab world and to insulate it from the ideological squalls—such as pan-Islamism and pan-Arabism—that, in his view, have devastated that world.