Kaplan on Tunisia, or, defending autocratic stability

Robert D. Kaplan, author of many books including one dealing with Tunisia, has written a controversial piece on that country in the New York Times. Brian Whitaker has rightly taken issue with many of its claims some of which will be addressed in this post. Many Arab readers have expressed displeasure with it on Twitter and to this blogger by email and in conversation. It thus warrants comment.

As Whitaker points out, the thrust of the piece is that Arab autocracy is in many ways quite good for western security and for Israel. Kaplan’s piece argues additionally that the Tunisian uprising is likely to stay local for “pivotal reasons,” such as Tunisia not being an Arab country after all. This argument is bogus for reasons to be discussed below. For the purposes of this blog, it is the most problematic contention of all. Kaplan utterly misinterprets or misrepresents the remote history of Tunisia, ignoring its importance as the administrative and political capital of the Arab west during conquests and the importance of the Ottoman period in establishing continuity in the legitimacy of the state’s present boundaries. Previously this blogger wrote: “Be wary of bad ideas leveraged by the Tunisian example for political points in the US.” Kaplan uses the Tunisian example much this way though he is merely re-enforcing the conventional wisdom.

Kaplan’s argument about Tunisia’s particularities is summarized something like this: Tunisia’s cosmopolitan and settled past set it apart from other Arab polities. There is some truth in this but Kaplan’s way of writing makes it difficult to see how this is relevant today. Furthermore he jumbles the way any of this actually relates to modern Tunisia. It reminds the reader of Christopher Hitchens’s article on Tunisia from 2007.  

Start with a map of classical antiquity, which shows a concentration of settlements where Tunisia is today, juxtaposed with the relative emptiness that characterizes modern-day Algeria and Libya. Jutting out into the Mediterranean close to Sicily, Tunisia has been the hub of North Africa not only under the Carthaginians and Romans, but under the Vandals, Byzantines, medieval Arabs and Turks. Whereas Algeria and Libya were but vague geographical expressions until the coming of European colonial map makers, Tunisia is an age-old cluster of civilization.

Stop. Libya was a relatively vague expression where as Algeria was nothing at all until the French invasion (the country takes its name from the capital in Arabic and the country was divided into three Ottoman beyliks until 1830; Libya, too, was a series of Ottoman provinces until the Italian conquest). There is a relevant point here about Tunisia’s history relative to its neighbors: Tunisia was an administrative center while Algeria was a frontier society until it was forcibly centralized by the French occupation. The complications of that background — always being the eastern or western edge of authority bundled up in Morocco or Tunisia — help in understanding some of the problems Algerian society faces in terms of building a more cohesive polity (note that until the post-independence period political society was rural and mountainous as opposed to settled and urban as it has been in Tunisia for some time). Both Algeria and Libya had important nomadic or semi-nomadic tendencies that made foreign occupation difficult in Roman, Byzantine, Carthaginian, Arab, Ottoman and colonial times. Many of these have been solved through political creativity, economic forces (urbanization, oil rent, etc.) but they remain powerful forces in those countries in ways they are not in Tunisia. But also factor in that Egypt has a similar history of both urbanism, administration and “civilization”; so does Lebanon and Morocco. Tunisia is not at all unique in this respect.

Even today, many of the roads in the country, particularly in the north, were originally Roman ones. For 2,000 years, the closer to Carthage (roughly the site of Tunis, the capital, today), the greater the level of development. Because urbanization in Tunisia started two millenniums ago, tribal identity based on nomadism — which, as the medieval historian Ibn Khaldun says, has always disrupted political stability — is correspondingly weak.

After the Roman general Scipio defeated Hannibal in 202 B.C. outside modern-day Tunis, he dug a demarcation ditch, or fossa regia, that marked the extent of civilized territory. The fossa regia remains relevant. Still visible in places, it runs from Tabarka on Tunisia’s northwestern coast southward, and then turns directly eastward to Sfax, another Mediterranean port. The towns beyond that line have fewer Roman remains, and today tend to be poorer and less developed, with historically higher rates of unemployment.

Stop. Here Kaplan reaches too far back in time partly to establish credibility by showing familiarity with Tunisia’s Latinate history and partly to interest the reader in the story by referencing a more exotic feature of the region’s history. The point here is plainly superficial. The prevalence of Roman ruins has little to do with developmental inequality Tunisia. It is true that tribalism is weak in Tunisia and especially in urban areas. But Scipio has nothing to do with the urban-rural divide in Tunisia today. Part of this owes to the fact that coastal zones are almost always richer than those on the rural, agricultural interior in the Maghreb. City people in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and many other places have high standards of living, higher literacy rates and more education their their rural cousins. That this is the case in Tunisia has nothing to do with Roman settlement, Scipio Africanus, Hannibal or any other classical figure (Kaplan could have saved word space by cutting Scipio’s line out all together). That these disparities endure are partly the result of failures in recent official Tunisian development policy, the gap between ends and means in the post-colonial period. The irrelevance of the observation about the prevalence of Roman ruins is shown by the fact that the uprising spread rapidly into better off coastal towns and cities for political and economic reasons. This seems to have the purpose of giving an academic glossing to what is really a political argument about the efficacy of supporting authoritarianism in the Arab world.

The town of Sidi Bouzid, where the recent revolt started when a vendor of fruit and vegetables set himself on fire, lies just beyond Scipio’s line. Tunisia is less part of the connective tissue of Arab North Africa than a demographic and cultural island bordered by sea and desert, with upwardly mobile European aspirations.

Stop. This is one of those sophistical lines that pops up in the New York Times opinion pages frequently to offer authors a veneer of erudition without dealing with the facts of an issue (and designed to form a cliche is popular geopolitics). Tunisia, perhaps more than Libya or Morocco indeed forms part of the “connective tissue of Arab North Africa” a consistent base from which Arab culture and civilization have spread and maintained in North Africa. There could never have been an Arab North Africa without Qayrawan or Tunis in the same way that there could have been no Roman North Africa with the conquest, extermination and rebuilding of Carthage. The vicinity of Tunis is a key geopolitical focal point in the imperial history of North Africa (and in its military history of the Mediterranean, too, as the Punic Wars, Arab conquest, Bani Hilal invasions and World War II show). And in the Arab history of the Maghreb it is a central point. Notice that the Ottoman style of rule — in the form of the northeast Mediterranean royal house — endured in longer Tunisia than in any other part of the Maghreb (at a cultural and symbolic level this very true, in the hard sense it is less so if one remembers that Tunisia was a French protectorate with a bey from the late 19th century while Libya was actually Ottoman until the inter war period but the beylik set up in the 1700s remained in place in Tunisia until 1956, outlasting Mohamed Ali’s in Egypt). Tunisia may be unique in many ways but these recent distinctions do not make it an “island,” in the Arab world. At the cultural level Tunisia is some some ways more “Arab” (whatever that means) than Morocco, having a smaller Amaizgh/Berber minority and an institutional history more closely linked to eastern Arabo-Muslim currents less thoroughly upset by French colonial policy.

Tunisia was the base for the Arab conquest of the rest of North Africa and matters as much in the history of the Maghreb as Moroccan dynasties or Egypt. Tunisia is a hard knot of cartilage in the “connective tissue of Arab North Africa,” not an island surrounded by sea and desert. This is true culturally, where it is perhaps the most thoroughly Arabicized society in the region, and politically where it has hosted numerous Arab security and political summits and offices – the PLO, the Interior Ministers conference and so on. Kaplan seems conscious of the fact of Tunisia’s Arab history but disinterested in the facts of that history. That Tunisia, like Morocco, hopes to improve its economic condition through trade with Europe is undeniable. Both countries, sitting right on Europe’s doorstep, have pursed more aggressive European policies than oil and gas rich (and politically bizarre) Libya and Algeria. But this results from differences in their colonial history (both were French protectorates whose colonial experience though often brutal was not as violently traumatizing and disorienting as Libya and Algeria’s). But in terms of their economic orientation (and their European policies are just that, economic; both countries have become more repressive than “European” in terms of politics as they have moved on in their European processes) they are no different from their neighbors, both doing the bulk of their trade with Europe rather than with each other or the rest of the Arab world; a legacy of colonialism in the French and Italian forms rather than the Roman.

Tunisia has a relatively large middle class because of something so obvious it goes unremarked upon: it is a real state, with historical and geographical legitimacy, where political arguments are about budgets and food subsidies, not the extremist ideologies that have plagued its neighbors, Algeria and Libya. It is a state not only because of the legacy of Rome and other empires, but because of human agency, in the person of Habib Bourguiba, one of the lesser-known great men of the 20th century.

Bourguiba was the Arab Ataturk, who ruled Tunisia in a fiercely secular style for its first three decades after independence from France in the mid-1950s. Rather than envision grandiose building projects or a mighty army, Bourguiba devoted generous financing to birth control programs, rural women’s literacy and primary-school education. He cracked down on the wearing of the veil, actually tried to do away with Ramadan, and advocated normalizing relations with Israel more than a decade before Anwar Sadat of Egypt went to Jerusalem. Yes, he was an authoritarian, but the result of his rule was that Tunisia, with moderate political tendencies and no serious ethnic or sectarian splits, has been poised since the 1980s for a democratic experiment.

Stop. Again, that Tunisia has geographic legitimacy today has relatively little to with Rome. Far back it comes from Carthage and more closely it comes from the reforms and legacy of Ahmed Bey on which Bourguiba was able to build upon. Ahmed Bey compares roughly to Egypt’s Mohamed Ali (Brown’s The Tunisia of Ahmad Bey, 1837-1855 is an interesting book on the man and his times). But Kaplan is right to credit many of Tunisia’s social achievements to Bourguiba’s program. But he misses the point on the military. Bourguiba, a lawyer, kept the military small because it was a potential alternative locus of political power that might destabilize the power of the Neo-Destour and it must be remarked that he went about an aggressive program of sucking up all the other potential sources of opposition on coming to power, abolishing the monarchy, quarreling with the formidable UGTT labor union and other elements in civil society. Bourguiba cannot in any way be credited with producing a Tunisia with “no serious ethnic or sectarian splits” for these things were minimal in Tunisia to begin with. The Berber minority was already heavily Arabicized before independence and urbanization and traditionally condescending attitudes toward that culture helped speed the process along and would have existed in Tunisia as they did in Algeria and Libya with or without Bourguiba. The only significant sectarian split in the country has traditionally been between those who follow the Maghrebi Maliki school of jurisprudence and those who followed the Ottoman Hanafi one favored by those of Mamluk background. The tiny Ibadite and Jewish communities were the notable minorities and still are, the Jewish one much reduced in size since independence. Arab and western writers remarked on the moderation of the Tunisians, townspeople mostly, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Tunisia, with a small population and ethno-sectarian homogeneity had a social background ideal for nation-building and modernization theory.

In 1987, while faced by an Islamic rising, Bourguiba became too infirm to rule, and was replaced by his former interior minister, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, essentially a security boss with little vision, much like the Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Ben Ali’s strategy was to keep order, which largely meant killing and torturing Islamists and other dissidents.

But before we dismiss Mr. Ben Ali entirely, we should keep in mind that for many years he presided over a growing economy and middle class, with progress penetrating to the areas beyond the fossa regia. What happened was classic development theory: rising expectations along with uneven economic growth that led to political upheaval. Unlike Bourguiba, who was always revered as the man who led the country to independence, Mr. Ben Ali had no particular cachet to save him, despite an outrageous personality cult, and his extended family was famously corrupt.

Stop. This is basically correct as far we know. But this passage serves as a set up for the real point of Kaplan’s article: why Arab regimes are really not that bad. Tunisia offers an exceptional example in which authoritarian leadership actually raised the quality of life for ordinary people while cultivating real human capital — entrepreneurs, doctors, workers rights, literacy and so on. One cannot boast of such notable achievements for the leaders of Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan or Syria. The Arab countries Kaplan is interested in are not in the Maghreb with Tunisia, anyway. And they have had to do with a whole host of other problems that Tunisia has been on the far periphery of. But this is the point:

[I]n terms of American interests and regional peace, there is plenty of peril in democracy. It was not democrats, but Arab autocrats, Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, who made peace with Israel. An autocrat firmly in charge can make concessions more easily than can a weak, elected leader — just witness the fragility of Mahmoud Abbas’s West Bank government. And it was democracy that brought the extremists of Hamas to power in Gaza. In fact, do we really want a relatively enlightened leader like King Abdullah in Jordan undermined by widespread street demonstrations? We should be careful what we wish for in the Middle East.

Stop. This is to be expected from Kaplan, whose interest in geopolitics is American and whose writing on big ideas is sometimes interesting and sometimes frustratingly unimaginative. His recent book, for instance, is quite interesting from the American perspective while his writing on the Arab world tends to boil down to the problem the above passage discusses: Israel and its complications. One has difficulty considering the fragility of Mahmoud Abbas’s government without considering the legitimacy problems it faces given the circumstances around its own election (Hamas, anyone?). An obvious problem with Kaplan’s argument here is that it suggests western policy rely on strong personalities rather than legitimate positions and decisions that may be more durable at the end of twenty or thirty years of one man rule. But this is an argument hard to refute with if one is narrowly concerned with the Palestine problem. Popular demonstrations could reverse important policy achievements for some western governments. And it is indeed the policy of the United States to rely on strong men to get its way. One can easily debate the importance of the Israel problem in non-frontline Arab states (and one can debate the geopolitical value of a place like Lebanon or Israel to the United States’ national interest in the first place). Undermining that element of American Middle East discourse might upset the utility of the kind of autocratic stability theory Kaplan is writing to support. Whether supporting inept autocrats like Egypt’s Mubarak (no fruits of Egyptian mediation is some time) or video-game savvy ones like King Abdullah (who is more useful in terms of counterterrorism than making progress on Palestine) has “worked” is a question that begs asking; this may just be a function of the hand of particular dictators the region and the Americans have been dealt.

From the perspective of the American national interest (and its dysfunctional understanding of the Arab world) Kaplan is correct. Democracy could pose a serious problem and popular challenges to American allies just the same. Tunisia was a second tier ally of the United States in the Arab world; Ben Ali was not so close an ally as the King of Morocco or Jordan or Honsi Mubarak. The official American response should help observers gage the level of priority the United States puts on its relations with North African countries (and keep it in mind when hearing about how Algeria is now a pivotal American ally in the region (and keep in mind that Morocco is still America’s number one ally in the Maghreb and there is no sign anywhere that that has changed); that means something different in North Africa than it does in the Levant or Central Asia). Much emphasis has been placed on the American response to the Tunisian uprising itself; this is relatively unimportant in the broader Arab context. Barack Obama can congratulate the Tunisian people for ousting Ben Ali and right after reassure Hosni Mubarak that America really does support him. In terms of American policy it appears that what happens in Tunis stays in Tunis. The North Africa policy’s issue sets are specific and distinct from the Middle East policy as it relates to Iran or the Israeli problem. The Americans have narrow interests in North Africa and their influence and interest in the Maghreb is overshadowed by France’s. American interests there are security oriented and because France has the lead there is more room for engagement on democracy or civil society. Note that France was never “concerned” about the uprising; it wanted it crushed. Anglophones indignant that the United States cooperated with Ben Ali’s regime in view of its corruption might do well to also scrutinize France’s complete indifference to the issue and the active indulgence of its political class there. This is perhaps more serious in practical terms. One should not kid: western security interests in North Africa and the Middle East trump all other concerns at the policy level. One can argue very well that these might do well to be re-priotized in some way but the are what they are. For a better framing of the crises facing Arab leaders from the classical period Kaplan and others might do well to put Scipio in context  by reading Sallust on Cataline and Jugurtha during the time of the Social Wars.

11 thoughts on “Kaplan on Tunisia, or, defending autocratic stability

  1. Interesting analysis, but I take issue with the following: “At the cultural level Tunisia is some some ways more Arab than Morocco, having a smaller Amaizgh/Berber minority and an institutional history more closely linked to eastern Arabo-Muslim currents less thoroughly upset by French colonial policy.”

    This is as simplistic and reductionist as Kaplan’s attempt at cultural analysis. How did you come up with such a conclusionswithout thorough systematic historical, sociological, anthropological or linguistic study?

    Tunisia is as institutionally affected by french colonial rule as Morocco. The legacy of the makhzen as a sharifian apparatus was in fact buttressed by French colonial project. By yout logic, Tunisia is also not that Arab, because it was affected by both Ottoman nominal rule and French colonial administration. I don’t understand your analysis there Kal.

    • The point of that is to illustrate how ridiculous it is to try to separate these countries from the Arab context arbitrarily — designed for effect. But I think it is easily said that Tunisia is proportionately less than Morocco demographically. Point is if you’re going to try to say someplace in North Africa isn’t Arab, Tunisia is the last one you want to “cut out” and that there are better candidates — dubiously — than Tunisia. So you are seeing the analysis there. That’s the whole point. That sentence was also meant to include Algeria. Basically pointing to the absurd.

  2. I just think that these categorization of “Arabness” are post-orientalist and empirically useless to advance any analysis. I am glad you are as dismissive of them. Great analysis.

    • I agree very much. I also object to the juxtaposition of supposedly positive political/cultural characteristics and supposedly “Arab” ones like you see in Kaplan’s writing here and in Christopher Hitchens’s.

  3. The problem of both Kaplan and Hitchens is that they are totally Americano-centred (is that a word?). Their analysis and their public are both completely focused on America’s sort term interests. Their knowledge might be impressive in some areas, but they lack the proper perspective to understand, let alone analyse and explain to a larger public, the intricacies of both the Maghreb and the Middle-East.

  4. I don’t think it is useful to reply to Kaplan’s historical analysis with more history; in both cases it wrongly assumes that an ‘Arab essence’ predetermines people attitudes and behaviors. The easiest answer to Kaplan is: Somebody is Arab if s/he thinks and says s/he is Arab. And the reverse is true. If you think you are a Berber and not an Arab, so be it. Tunisians think they are Arabs, then they are. Messoud Ould Boulkheir says he is Arab, so be it. Would Kaplan like me to say that he is not a real American because of [insert any bogus historical reason here]? I bet not. He’s American if he thinks he is. End of the story.
    As for Kaplan’s “ony autocrats have made peace” argument: the easy reply to him is: you have never tried democrats yet! Give democracy a chance.

    This blog is excellent. Very good work.

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