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Tunisia: Magreb Center (Washington DC) Panel on Tunisia January 24, 2011, Georgetown University: Rob Prince Remarks

January 24, 2011

Notes: Magreb Center Event on Tunisia: January 24, 2011

Rob Prince

– Unusual moment..

– Much has been said, much left out…

Media concentrates on 3 themes..

1. the economic issues

– high unemployment including among university groups

– low wages in tourism/agriculture/mining/textile sector – also in state sector

2. Corruption of 2 ruling families

– Ben Ali and Trabelsi – who according to a WikiLeaks cable from a former U.S. ambassador- that they dominated some 50% of the Tunisian economy…

– stories of corruptionare legendary

– combine the breathtaking wealth accumulated by a few with the growing impovishment of the may and it created an explosive mix

3. Repression – a security force of 180,000 – military only 35,000 arbitrary arrests/rampant torture/harassment

Missing from these descriptions for the ost part or merely touched upon ever so gingerly are 2 themes that need to be explored, examined

a. the role of internationa economic institutions – especially the IMF and the World Bank – and to what degree their policies in Tunisian contributed to the country’s economic stagnation and to the current crisis

b. the long history of security and counter-insurgency arrangements between the US and Tunisia – ie, the role that Tunisia has played in the war on terrorism, including its participatin in extra-ordinary renditionas we as its contribution to formations like AFRICOM – which form a key but often underdiscussed connection between our countries.

– is this the kind of relationship we want/need to have with Tunisia – where `strategic military considerations’ form our basis for supporting the likes of Ben Ali… it seems that military concerns trump development and human rights interests every time


Concerning both U.S. and French relations with Tunisia and what role the two countries did or didn’t play in the recent events….

The details need to be fleshed out …

But some themes  have begun to reveal themselves, if only vaguely… I would talk about trends here…

What is interesting is that the public posture of both countries followed more or less similar trajectories…

  • Neither France nor the United States said much – if anything – about the protests for the first three weeks (in contrast to how both countries immediately jumped upon the social movements in Iran a year ago). That was rather curious
  • There were a few ambivalent statements by Hillary Clinton urging restraint on `both sides’
  • In France’s case, it appeared form the discussions in the French Parliament that the Sarkozy government was weighing intervention on the side of Ben Ali. But that did not materialize
  • Only when the tide had already turned against Ben Ali in such a dramatic fashion did the US or the French positions crystallize
  • Obama issued a strong statement supporting `the will of the Tunisian people’
  • France refused entry to Ben Ali’s entourage, which as is well known, was re-directed to Saudi Arabia

Looking more closely at this, it seems that in both cases from the onset of the crisis to Ben Ali’s departure that something approaching political paralysis/confusion seemed to reign – as if both countries were caught in `gridlock’ between vying proposals on what to do, reflecting the interests of different sectors of both governments.

In the end it was the flow of events itself and not clearly articulated positions or visions which won the day…and tilted both governments to support the changes, however gingerly or hesitantly..

The approaches of both nations remain tentative, waiting to see how the political situation in Tunisia evolves, and how far and in which direction will both the political and economic reforms go..

  • Ben Ali is gone but his ruling party, the RCD, is still fighting for its life,  and a piece of Tunisia’s future
  • Not at all clear at this point what the political landscape will look like nor what guiding economic and security vision will emerge from these changes.
  • That both countries are scrambling behind the scenes to minimize the damage to their somewhat different vested interests is taken for granted, the details of these maneuvers remain sketch at present


The United States and France have competing/cooperating with each other concerning Tunisia since the end of World War , since Bourguiba went to the United States to garner support for Tunisian independence, a gesture which both surprised and angered the French at the time


still there has always been something of a division of labor between the two

– as far as France is concerned, Tunisia is an important trading partner and source of investment (and profits). Some 1400 French companies do business in Tunisia. The US nothing like that

  1. Frnace also is the home of a large Tunisian (and otherwise N. African) population
  2. Add to this the historic ties, the impact of French colonialism which changed the country forever.

Even after independence, the structure of Tunisian and French economic relatins remained/ and remains essentially in tact – the Tunisian peripheral economy servicing the French core…

To what degree has this economc structural relationship played into the current crisis?

Is it possible that this structural relationship might evolve as a result of the current changes?

The United States…

As for the United States – true there is some economic investment/somecorporate interest in the place – but truth be told these pale in comparison to France…and in contrast to the size and scope of US military aid to the country – which has reached more than $630 million over the course of the Ben Ali years

These figures suggest something – that U.S. relations – when stripped to their core – are primarily military and strategic in nature. And these relations gravitate around two focii:

1  Tunisia’s role in pursuing U.S. broader M. E. counter insurgency goals

2. Africa – especially the U.S. race to secure a greater share of Africa’s oil and gas, and other strategic resouces…

Still the relations need to put in perspective…

– The most important U.S. strategic interests in the region are elsewhere. U.S. interest in Tunisia is more modest than its interest in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, even Algeria from where natural gas exports are steadily increasing

–  So Tunisia’s importance to the United States stems more in how Tunisia might contribute to enhancing U.S. influence in other parts of the region. Example – the U.S. is probably more concerned about possible echo effects that the current events might have elsewhere in the Middle East, than the actual impact they might have on Tunisia itself.


Right now the public posture of both France and the United States is similar – they are playing a `waiting game’

–          Waiting to see how the situation will play out in Tunisia economically and politically and how these events might effect the strategic interests of both.

–          They are both working actively behind the scenes to influence events in Tunisia to their approval,

–          As long as both feel their broader regional interests either mildly or minimumly undermined, I believe that both will not actively intervene aggressively

But what are the invisible lines that could provke a harsher reaction?

Not clear… but the ghosts of `the great ones’ are up there watching – Ben Barka, Lumumba, and in Tunisia’s case, Farhat Hached – looking down from their seats in heaven and watching…


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