Tu­nisia’s tough les­son for MBS

Tehran Times - - INTERNATIONAL - By Shadi Hamid & Sha­ran Gre­wal

The no­tion of a Tu­nisian “model” is a con­ve­nience for Western ob­servers who still hope that all is not lost from the once heady op­ti­mism of the Arab Spring.

It of­fers, how­ever, lit­tle so­lace to Tu­nisians them­selves, who sense — cor­rectly — that their democ­racy re­mains im­per­fect. Tu­nisians, who haven’t lived un­der the sheer bru­tal­ity of Egyp­tian dic­ta­tor­ship or the col­laps­ing state struc­tures of Ye­men, aren’t com­par­ing them­selves to those coun­tries; they are com­par­ing them­selves—right­fully—to what they wish they could be.

In our con­ver­sa­tions with young Tu­nisians, we have of­ten pointed out that Tu­nisia, un­like its neigh­bors, is at least rel­a­tively demo­cratic. Our claims are of­ten met with skep­ti­cism. The Tu­nisian rap­per DJ Costa told one of us that: “We don’t have democ­racy in Tu­nisia. It’s like a man whose skin is dirty.

For months he hasn’t washed him­self, and then, one day, he puts on nice, ex­pen­sive clothes. But you know him, who he re­ally is.”

Well, who is he? Tu­nisia’s democ­racy is in­deed strug­gling. It is fail­ing to im­prove the econ­omy and re­duce cor­rup­tion, over­re­act­ing to ter­ror­ist at­tacks and post­pon­ing im­por­tant but po­ten­tially po­lar­iz­ing de­ci­sions. But Tu­nisia none­the­less con­tin­ues to stand out in ways that, for the re­gion at least, are un­usual.

That hun­dreds of Tu­nisians came out to protest the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man isn’t nec­es­sar­ily sur­pris­ing. But the im­ages still were strik­ing con­sid­er­ing how much rarer such protests—or protests, in gen­eral—have be­come in the Arab world af­ter the Arab Spring turned dark.

Un­der democ­racy, Tu­nisians en­joy the free­dom to protest Mo­hammed bin Sal­man for Saudi Ara­bia’s as­sas­si­na­tion of the jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi, its dev­as­tat­ing war in Ye­men and its crack­down on women ac­tivists. Rule of law, mean­while, isn’t just a nice idea but some­thing real and prac­ticed. The Tu­nisian Jour­nal­ists’ Syn­di­cate filed a law­suit urg­ing Tu­nisia to re­fer Mo­hammed bin Sal­man to the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court. An in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary re­sponded by be­gin­ning an in­ves­ti­ga­tion. And per­haps most im­por­tantly, Tu­nisians could do all of this with­out fear of gov­ern­ment ret­ri­bu­tion. These events are a small but pow­er­ful re­minder of what Tu­nisia, de­spite its flaws and its strug­gles, can still teach us. It may not be a model, but it is, and can con­tinue to be, an in­spi­ra­tion. And this is why—merely by ex­ist­ing—Tu­nisia rep­re­sents both an ex­cep­tion and a threat to a new but ever-au­thor­i­tar­ian Mid­dle East. It’s no mis­take that the only Arab Spring democ­racy is the one where peo­ple are protest­ing Mo­hammed bin Sal­man. Tu­nisia is the near-op­po­site of Saudi Ara­bia.

The Saudis’ killing of Khashoggi was the cul­mi­na­tion of a long list of sins and of­fenses, each of which have now come un­der greater scru­tiny.

Crit­ics have fo­cused on the Ye­men war and un­der­stand­ably so. The hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe un­fold­ing there is per­haps the most egre­gious ex­am­ple of MBS’s reck­less­ness. Yet Saudi Ara­bia’s in­creas­ingly de­struc­tive im­pact on the rest of the re­gion pre­dates MBS. From 2011, the Saudi au­thor­i­ties worked tire­lessly to strengthen dic­ta­tor­ships in the wake of the Arab Spring. Saudi Ara­bia in­ter­vened mil­i­tar­ily to crush the up­ris­ing in Bahrain, and pro­vided bil­lions to shore up the monar­chies in Mo­rocco, Jor­dan and Oman. In his new book “Into the Hands of the Sol­diers,” New York Times jour­nal­ist David Kirk­patrick pro­vides new and damn­ing de­tails on just how in­stru­men­tal Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emi­rates were in fo­ment­ing the 2013 mil­i­tary coup that ended Egypt’s demo­cratic ex­per­i­ment. In Egypt, they had a will­ing part­ner of the mil­i­tary gen­eral Ab­del Fatah al-Sissi. In Tu­nisia they thank­fully did not, and have—so far—been un­able to push Tu­nisia off its demo­cratic path de­spite con­sid­er­able eco­nomic and diplo­matic pres­sure.

To­day, Tu­nisia of­fers les­sons not just to its neigh­bors but also to the United States and Europe on how to deal with strong­men such as Mo­hammed bin Sal­man—not with busi­ness-as-usual, but with crit­i­cism, ac­count­abil­ity and a faith that jus­tice, how­ever slow and un­even, can be done.

It’s no mis­take that the only Arab Spring democ­racy is the one where peo­ple are protest­ing Mo­hammed bin Sal­man.

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