I may have gone a bit overboard with today’s video. It packs what I’ve learned from the three books on Tunisia I have read over the past month into one video, and it may be a bit overstuffed. Even given that, I can already see the angry comments talking about everything I’ve missed. Tunisia has an incredibly complex and lengthy history that led to the successful country it is today. I hope I’ve done it a bit of justice with this video!
Happy New Year!
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there! Last time I celebrated the continued success of Tunisia’s system of representative democracy. It’s the most complete success story of the Arab Spring so far, and nine years in, it is smashing stereotypes about Islamic and Arab countries. But a lot of people question whether it can really serve as an example for the rest of the region. Today we will ask whether Tunisia is just too different to provide any useful lessons for the rest of the Arab world.
First off, let’s address the concern that would be dominating the comment section if this video focused on Algeria. Many in North Africa insist that they are not Arabs, but members of the ethnic group known as the Berbers or Amazigh. This indigenous population was there long before the Arabs came 1400 years ago, and the majority of Tunisians are descended from the Amazigh people to some degree. This is important to talk about, but I don’t think it makes Tunisia that different from other countries in the region. Despite the propaganda efforts of a century’s worth of Arab nationalists, it’s not like any other country in the region is pure Arab either, whatever that might mean. Maybe some of the Gulf countries are, but even there I would be suspicious. All of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa are a bewildering mix of peoples.
But there are a lot of things that do make Tunisia different. One of the most important is it’s extraordinary durability as a political unit. Many of the countries in the region had their borders forced upon them by European imperialists just 100 years ago. Well the Tunisian border was set by invaders too. But their invaders were Roman, and those borders were set 2000 years ago rather than 100. There have been expansions and contractions since of course, but some of Tunisia’s modern border really does date back to the time of Scipio and Hannibal.
Tunisia has been subject to invasion after invasion, but it’s small geographical size, and consistency as a unit, means that these changes have tended to effect most of the country equally rather than leave different contending cultural pockets. 99% of the country practices, or doesn’t practice, one type of Sunni Islam. In many colonized countries, the European language was limited to an elite. Some writers claim that French had a much wider impact in Tunisia than elsewhere.
The high degree of unity helped Tunisia have a better experience under French imperialism than most. The first Tunisian constitution dates back to 1861, 20 years before the French took over. They also abolished slavery in 1846, long before France or the United States did. Throughout the French protectorate, the Tunisians held on to their own monarch, who nominally had to be respected according to treaties the French had signed. This made the politics much more complicated for the French, and gave Tunisia a better bargaining position at every step of the colonization process.
This brought more benefits for Tunisia. Like their constitutional history, elements of Tunisia’s modern education system also date back to the 19th century. Tunisia’s strength allowed them to better resist the French, but paradoxically made them more open to European influence. Kicking the French out didn’t require as much time and violence as it did in Algeria, so there wasn’t as much bitterness. Even directly after independence Habib Bourgiba, the country’s first dictator, was happy to work closely with the Capitalist West, making Tunisia one of the richer arab countries, even though it didn’t have much oil. Tunisia’s location, close to Malta and Sicily, has prompted many to see it as as much a Southern European country as an Arab one. Tunisia was run by dictators from independence in 1956 to 2011, but they were pretty benevolent dictators, and they ruled through their own security and police force instead of Tunisia’s small and delightfully non political army.
To sum up, Tunisia has a lot of advantages. It’s easy to see why, out of the whole Arab world, Democracy emerged there first. But do all these advantages mean that it’s silly to expect other Arab countries to be able to pull off the same thing? I don’t think so. In fact, Tunisia’s leading position makes me think of a European country you may have gotten sick of hearing me talk about.
The United Kingdom was also a trendsetter when it came to representative institutions. A civil war and a bloodless revolution in the 1600s gave them a strong parliament while the rest of Christendom was still struggling under absolute despots. It took a while, but representative government spread from the UK to the rest of the European world. And the UK was just as different from its neighbors as Tunisia is.
Tunisia has an almost uniquely stable population and ancient borders. The United Kingdom is an island. Tunisian Islam has many unique elements. England literally has its own version of Christianity. Tunisia is richer and better educated than a lot of the Arab world. That was true of the UK as well, but the gap between the British and the rest of Europe was much larger.
I could go on. Again and again in world history we see one country take a lead in a region because of a number of advantages. Their success makes it clear What s possible, and blazes a path for others to follow. The UK did it for Europe. Japan did it for Asia. The Arab world now has its own leader in democratization. That’s a fantastic thing.
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