Savir's Corner: Tunisia as a model

I believe we should be talking not necessarily of a new Middle East but of a new Mediterranean area of peace and coexistence.

Voters line up in Tunisia 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Jamal Saidi)
Voters line up in Tunisia 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jamal Saidi)
In early 1994, I visited Tunisia. I was sent there by then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and then-foreign minister Shimon Peres to pay condolences to Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership in the aftermath of the horrendous Hebron massacre committed by Baruch Goldstein.
It was obviously not an easy trip, but an occasion for me to get acquainted for the first time with the PLO leader, and to encounter a new Arab country. It is with the latter that this article will deal.
First impressions are important. I found Tunisia to be a mixture of Arab culture, Mediterranean charm and European flair. Azure is the dominant color – the sea, and the paint on many of the small houses; both decorated a calm and welcoming capital city. You hear a mixture of Arabic and French. The French connection is a constant presence. The population is young; women wearing a mixture of Western and traditional clothing, relative gender equality is quite obvious to the observer, especially in the workplace.
I do not know what precisely brought Arafat and company to choose Tunis as their refuge headquarters after the 1982 evacuation from Beirut, but it seemed to me in 1994, as it does now, that there is an affinity between modern Tunisia’s and Palestine’s way of life and aspirations. Tunisia, since its independence in 1956, has been a moderate country.
Its chief nation builder, Habib Bourguiba, called as early as the ’60s for the recognition of Israel and opposed Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalism.
Tunisia under Bourguiba, and to an extent and for a certain period, even under his successor Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, developed into a relatively liberal country – the most European in North Africa. Affordable education for all was early on a major priority, and in parallel many academic institutions were established. Relative, if imperfect, gender equality was prevalent. Islamist parties were outlawed, while people conducted a traditional Muslim life (98 percent of Tunisians are Muslims, which lends to its homogeneity) in a relatively secular society. The economy was and is based on trade with the European Union, primarily France, and a thriving tourism industry, due also to a beautiful 1,300-km. Mediterranean coastline.
Yet as the years passed the calm image of Tunisia became misleading.
Under Ben Ali, there developed a horrendous record of infringement of human rights, political freedom and freedom of the press. The economy deteriorated due to a regime policy that was elitist, totalitarian and corrupt. Poverty, the opposition to a ruthless dictator and the corruption of his cronies, led a shopkeeper by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi to set fire to himself on December 17, 2010, a fire that sparked a popular uprising against the regime and its security forces, and sparked what has been named the Arab Spring. The Jasmine Revolution was led by the young men and women of Tunisia, communicating and expressing their pro-democracy values on social networks.
“Down with the dictator” was the battle cry, and indeed on the 14th of January, 2011, Ben Ali was forced to step down, and ultimately he fled to Saudi Arabia.
The transition period to a new government was by far the most stable among the Arab Spring countries. The first democratic elections, held in November 2011, were won by a coalition of the relatively moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, which won the plurality, yet not the majority, in the Tunisian parliament, and by the smaller, moderate center-left Congress for the Republic party, led by a long-time dissident and human rights activist, Moncef Marzouki, who took the role of interim president on the 12th of December, 2011.
The new president, in speeches and deeds, emphasized that Tunisia would henceforth be a liberal democracy, guaranteeing the rights of women, a high-level of education and a rapprochement to the West, which is happening, at least in part.
As I discovered on my trip in 1994, the relations between Tunisia and the Palestinians were close, and still are. Not that Ben Ali lamented the departure of Arafat to Gaza, but the Tunisian population developed a strong empathy with the Palestinian people under occupation. Today the Palestinian leadership is to a large degree “made in Tunis” – Mahmoud Abbas, Ahmed Qurei and most key government figures in the Palestinian Authority spent many years in Tunis. Any conversation with Abbas convinces you that Tunis has rubbed off on him, a moderate, gentle man who places a high value on education and women’s empowerment and employment.
It is therefore to be hoped that within a viable peace process – something highly dependent on our government’s decisions in relation to settlements – a collaboration between the new Tunisia and the new Palestine would evolve, in the realms of freedoms, education for all, gender equality, Islam cohabiting with modernity and close relations with the West.
This is also true for the institution-building process in Ramallah, or east Jerusalem; why not have alongside the vast bureaucratic aid agencies of the UN, US and Europe, Tunisian consultants as well? The young generation of Tunisia could develop important academic, professional and touristic links with the youth of Palestine, and also possibly involve their Israeli peers in a meeting place of Jasmine, Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard and Ramallah’s Manara Square.
Given that the developments towards more open societies, albeit unstable ones, are occurring in many Arab countries on the shores of the Mediterranean, I believe we should be talking not necessarily of a new Middle East but of a new Mediterranean area of peace and coexistence – a kind of Pax Mediterraneo. A cornerstone of this would have to be a two-state solution between us and the Palestinians, with Palestine one hopes developing according to the Tunisian model on the eastern side of the Mediterranean. Cooperation among all Mediterranean countries as the EU had planned in the Barcelona process, including free trade zones with Europe and the development of infrastructure projects related to transportation, energy, water and tourism. Cooperation in the field of ecology, to harness the common treasure of the Mediterranean Sea. Such an arrangement should be influenced by the emphasis and gradual development of the commonalities in Mediterranean cultures, of relative tolerance and a state of coexistence between religion and modernity. For this, Tunisia can indeed serve as a model, as it has for the Arab Spring.
This opportunity was evident in the first ever online peace conference that was held by the YaLa – Young Leaders movement, founded by the Peres Center for Peace, in which 40,000 young Middle Easterners and North Africans participated, bringing the membership of the YaLa movement to 51,000, the biggest peace movement in the region. At the conference there was a highly impressive participation of nearly all Mediterranean countries – Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, all Maghreb and South European countries.
The conference adopted an agenda for the future from the young generation – an agenda of democracy, human rights and peace, and as one of the Tunisian participants, Samia Hathroubi, said in one of her comments – “We rejoice the new era of Tunisia moving towards freedom, liberty and fraternity (peace).” A new era for the region as well, one hopes.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.