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Tunisia – The Imprisonment of Fahem Boukadous (Part Four of a series)

August 19, 2010

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Part One of the Series

Part Two of the Series

Part Three of the Series

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Tunisia..an example of the `Singapore Model of Development’ – Development Without Democracy

How much of the extensive system of repression in place today, to which the good people of Redeyef and

Sousse, Tunisia 1900

journalists like Fahem Boukadous have fallen victim, draws its inspiration, structures and roots from the period of French colonialism? I would argue a fair, if not extensive, amount. It is not only the economic structures of  that period (1881 – 1956) that were passed down to `independent’ Tunisia, but political and repressive structures as well. And then there is the pattern of pre-independence history, the internal power struggles between the `old’ and `neo’ Destour (Old and New Constitutional Parties) that greatly influenced the undemocratic one party system which exists in Tunisia today.

All of this converges in post colonial, modern times, into what in political economy is oftentimes referred to as `The Singapore Model’ of development, a model which encourages economic development at the expense of democracy. Although it has other aspects, economically this model emphasizes repression of wage demands to encourage export competitiveness; politically it is based upon one-party rule, to insure a consistent economic development policy that would be compromised by multi-party democracy with could entail different economic plans. It is also a model specific to peripheral and semi-peripheral countries within the global economy. Wage repression (keeping wages down) not only increases competitiveness but it keeps the costs of raw materials and basic food stuff (or the expenses relative to tourism) attractive to the core countries…an old and persistent pattern of core-peripheral relations in the modern world system.

Although Singapore is credited with the model, it probably is actually based on the Japanese development model of the late 19th century, which promised an almost military-like disciplined structure of development, with little political input from below – development without democracy.  Such a model was embraced not only by Japan, but also South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and to a great extent China and Russia today. More on all this later and how it has played out in Tunisia.

Such a model is explicitly bureaucratic, undemocratic, authoritarian and not just in Tunisia. Popular demands for increased wages and greater democratic participation are seen as threatening to the system and are opposed and repressed in a variety of ways – some subtle, others more brutal. Besides the obvious – that human and economic rights are being violated, despite the existence of a constitution – all this flies in the face of `the promise of independence’… and why it was that in the colonial period so many Tunisians were willing to risk life and limb to enter into the anti-colonial struggle. The promises of independence are not vague. To the contrary, they are very specific: greater prosperity and greater democracy for the great majority of Tunisian people, the promises of modernism – promises that could not be achieved under the framework of French colonialism.

Tunisia of the Protectorate

The French colonization of Tunisia formally started in 1881.

It was a part of the scramble for African colonies by different European states, and most particularly the British-

`Brik's a l-oeuf' - eggs fried in batter. Popular Tunisian food.

French competition to control access to the Suez Canal, gateway to India and the Asian trading networks, all this prior to the discovery and strategic use of petroleum as an energy source. Despite the fact (and perhaps because of it) that Italians were five to six times more populous in Tunisia than French settlers, French pressures gobble up and integrate Tunisia into the French sphere of influence were especially pronounced from Algeria, since 1830 a French colony.

In the late 1800s France attempts to expand its influence in Africa from its Algerian base in a number of directions – west to Morocco at Spain and Germany’s expense, eastward to Tunisia at Italy’s expense and southward (and then east) across the Sahara ultimately with an eye of controlling a portion of the East African coast, both along the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean at Britain’s expense.  In North Africa and the Middle East, the great scramble for colonies concentrated on what might be called the underbelly of the Ottoman Empire, those regions which were nominally under Ottoman control but easily picked off by this or that European power. First Algeria and then Tunisia were `ripe’ for the pickings.

Like so much of Africa at the time, Tunisia was a simple pawn in that great power game. Although not lacking in human resources – one of the most cultured, urbane places anywhere – its value was and has always been more strategic than economic in nature to France. The pretext for the French seizure was the failure of the ruling bey, or Ottoman governor, to repay loans or the interest on loans owed to France.  This provided the excuse for France to pressure the Tunisian government, to accept French domination, with the threat of severe military action had the bey not agreed. As happened elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, France literally took over the Tunisian treasury, reorganized its banking system in a way that today’s International Monetary System would be proud to give priority to repayment of foreign loans and essentially brought Tunisia `into the fold’ so to speak.

The French take over of Tunisia did not sit well especially with Italy, with its large settler community in the country, and whose islands lay within miles of the Tunisian coast. For the next 60 years, especially during the period of Mussolini’s rule, but starting prior to that, Italy had its own imperial designs that included Tunisia, In part to mollify the Italians, whose support France wanted and needed for European wars, and in part because there was no international support and concensus for France’s Tunisian land grab, France was careful to veil its ambitions, which were nothing less than to annex Tunisia as it had Algeria, behind a facade known poetically but inaccurately as `a protectorate’.

La Mission Civilisatrice…

France's `civilizing mission'... an excuse for plunder and exploitation

In the end a protectorate is essentially a colony, but it sounded somewhat softer. A `protectorate’, in principle, will some day be its own independent country. France was supposedly `protecting’ Tunisia – administering it, `modernizing’ it – the usual colonial drivel – until it could stand on its own two feet, much as a regent would `protect’ an aspiring adolescent monarch, not yet mature enough to rule on his own. While much of Europe was opposed to open French annexation of Tunisia at the time, a French `protectorate’ had a less ominous ring – to Europeans at least – , less permanent in nature. It suggests that somewhere down the line the protectorate, when it had `matured’ and `was ready’, would gain independence and go its own way politically. And of course the French, who always had a way of covering what was little more than brutal colonial exploitation with a lovely linguistic twist, would be happy to cut the chord and `offer’ Tunisia independence… La Mission Civilisatrice in action.

How touching.

Of course all that was for public consumption; the reality – if not as brutal as Leopold’s Congo – was quite different. Call it what they would, Tunisia became a French colony. While it maintained the facade of political autonomy, every detail of life in the country was overseen by French governor general. The economic, legal and political systems of the past were, for all practical purposes, dissolved. The formal period of the French Protectorate in Tunisia did not last that long in the broader scheme of things – only 62 years. But in that time period, the old economic and political system was nothing short of pulverized, and the culture itself traumatized, so much so that the transformation has been permanent. The key elements of the colonial system forced upon Tunisia by France

In sixty five years of French rule, a rather short amount of time if truth be told,  a radical reconstruction was forced on the country, not without great trauma, from which it is still reeling in pain today.  Thus it was that the Tunisia of old, like so many societies that fell victim of colonization the world round, was pulverized, reworked and restructured to become what it is today – despite all the talk to the contrary – a peripheral zone of the world market (read – capitalist) economy – a producer of basic food stuff and raw materials (in Tunisia’s case phosphates, citrus fruits and other food stuffs) for a European – predominantly French – core.

Again, as elsewhere, all this was accomplished with virtually no input on the part of the Tunisian people themselves, who from the outset of the protectorate, until the day in 1956 when they won independence, protested, resisted in whatever ways they could. It is true, up to a point, that neither the process by which Tunisia was colonized nor its movement for independence were characterized by the levels of unthinkable and savage violence that their neighbors to the west in Algeria experienced.

That said, the `protectorate’ was no cake walk; it was harsh, at times brutal and France found it necessary to institute nothing short of a police state in Tunisia for most of the colonial period. Small gestures of openness, democratization – little more than crumbs in the overall scheme of things would be followed by severe repression. What might be called `soft repression’ – legal limitations, arrests, curfews, banning of political parties and press mixed with cocktails of political assassination, judiciary execution, or as in the case of those Gafsa area miners, military repression where the French military forgot the niceties of legal execution and just opened up and fired on striking miners.

What are some of the repressive characteristics of the French colonial period that continued past the birth of Tunisian independence in 1956?

  • circumscribed freedom of expression. While there was limited freedom of expression even during the colonial period, it was, as today, heavily censored. During the colonial period censorship targeted the voices of Tunisian independence. It was illegal to call for an end of French colonialism. Today it is illegal to criticize the Ben Ali government or even to report upon it in an unfavorable light. Formally freedom of expression existed in both periods; in fact it didn’t in the past, and doesn’t now
  • a vast government inspired intelligence network to monitor domestic developments. The French police and intelligence services have long been among the world’s most pervasive and intrusive, monitoring social developments, social movements that challenge their authority. The Tunisian intelligence network is based largely on the French model. In an age of advanced communication it includes the monitoring of all forms of communication, be it cell phones, computers or whatever. Add to this today, the support that Tunisia gets on intelligence matters from the United States and France through its security partnerships in the war on terrorism.
  • constant efforts to split the opposition so as to turn it on itself, weakening unity. An old tactic. During the French colonial period, the French excelled at keeping the modernist, pro-Western reformers and the religious movements at odds with each other. The struggles between the different tendencies of the independence movement (old and new `Destour’ , or Constitutional Party) were so intense in the period just before independence in the 1940s and 1950s that they were in armed conflict with each other almost as much as they were engaged in struggling against the French. The armed clashes – which affected the Algerian national liberation movement even more – were especially intense as independence approached. The French hand in these struggles was not insignificant. These pre-independence internal struggles did not end with the dawn of independence by any means. So long term bitter antagonisms were set in place that continue until the present.
  • the harshest physical repression – extensive use of torture, targeted assassination, government open firing on crowds, execution by firing squad or guillotine – came down on the Tunisian labor movement. The 2008 repression of the Redeyef social movement for jobs and an improvement in the economic conditions of life in the Gafsa phosphate mining district was not the first time that the Tunisian working class faced government submachine guns. Of course in 2008 it was Tunisian security forces that open fired while prior to independence it was a French led security force. Strike actions in the mines – with casualties – was not uncommon during the colonial period, especially during the 1930s. Mass popular expressions of independence were also crush with machine gun bullets as they were in Bizerte. While much has been reported on the extensive use and abuse of torture by the French in Algeria, far less publicity has surfaced concerning torture in Tunisia during the colonial period which was also extensive. And it is with the extensive use of harassment and torture of its own people that the Ben Ali government most resembles the French colonial authorities.

to be continued

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