TUNIS, Tunisia—"If you wanted to support democracy in the Arab world, why did you begin with your enemies instead of your friends? Why Iraq and Iran? Why not us?"
It's an excellent question, and when it was posed to me a few days ago by Mokhtar Trifi, president of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights, I found it hard to answer. Trifi, whose dark suit and elegant French make him seem like the statesman he ought to be, does indeed seem a far better candidate for U.S. friendship and support than, say, the current prime minister of Iraq. Because Tunisia also seems, on the surface, much closer to the West than many of its neighbors, it also makes a curious example of what might have been.
Like Turkey, Tunisia is an avowedly secular Muslim state: Women in Tunisia have the right to divorce and to marry as they please. Most do not wear headscarves, let alone veils. The average income has risen in recent decades, and the middle class is relatively well-educated. On a Friday afternoon in the suburbs of Tunis, every other street corner seems to feature a lycée, from which pour crowds of bluejeaned teenagers, boys and girls, chatting and laughing. Ask them, and they will tell you that they feel themselves to be more Mediterranean than Arab, that they have a lot more in common with Parisians than with Syrians or Saudis.
But surfaces are deceiving, as Trifi—whose office is haunted by omnipresent goons, whose visitors are sometimes harassed, and who is occasionally beaten up himself—can testify. One French analyst, Béatrice Hibou, has described how the myth of "reform" has been used in Tunisia to disguise from the outside world the deepening corruption, nepotism, and stagnation of a one-party state, dominated by what is, in effect, a president for life. While French politicians speak of the Tunisian "economic miracle," party cadres connive to keep the best jobs in their own hands. Though the United Nations held its "World Summit on the Information Society" in Tunis in 2005, Tunisia deploys an Internet filtering and control regime draconian even by Arab world standards. The goons hang about the Internet cafes, too, hands stuffed in the pockets of their windbreakers.
Tunisians have also become masters of a certain kind of recognizable, Putin-esque, postmodern political charade, supporting a whole panoply of phony political parties, phony human rights groups, and phony elections. They talk of "democracy" and "reform" and, of course, "anti-terrorism." But break the mold in Tunisia—engage in genuine opposition politics—and you might find you've lost your state health-care coverage or even your private-sector job. The tentacles of the party reach deep, though actual violence is rare. Says Trifi, "It causes too much trouble." After all, violence could damage the benevolent image that draws so many European tourists to Tunisia's beaches.
In the short term, this sort of system has suited lots of people, not merely President's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's friends and relations. Most notably, it has suited France, Tunisia's closest business partner and former colonial power. In 2003, French President Jacques Chirac proclaimed that since "the most important human rights are the rights to be fed, to have health, to be educated, and to be housed," Tunisia's human rights record is "very advanced." More to the point, the French believe that the authoritarian Tunisian government is the only thing preventing a massive wave of illegal immigration to France.
Unfortunately, the authoritarian government is also producing potential émigrés. For, in fact, the most notable product of the Tunisian "economic miracle" is currently a lot of well-educated but unemployed young people. Once upon a time, the educated and the frustrated might have formed the backbone of a democratic revolution, just as they once did in South America and Eastern Europe. Now, the Tunisians look at Iraq and see that "freedom" brings chaos and violence. Which leaves them with two options: emigration or radical Islam. Or perhaps both.
No one knows the true extent of radicalism in Tunisia, because it is in the government's interests to exaggerate the size of the threat. Nor does anyone know the true extent of Tunisian radicalism in the suburbs of Paris. But there have been bombs, arrests, and reports of copycat al-Qaida groups. Thus has an apparently benign authoritarianism produced in liberal Tunisia, as everywhere else in the Arab world, precisely the sort of terrorist inclinations it was supposed to prevent.
So—once again—why didn't the West interest itself in Tunisian democracy 15 years ago, back before "democracy" became a negative term, back before the not-quite-free economy went sour, back before radical Islam became chic among the bluejeaned teenagers? The answers, as Trifi knows well, are clear: because democracy promotion was an afterthought that has never been an important U.S. goal in the Middle East. Because France, which has far more influence in Tunisia than we do, has never been remotely interested. And because no one in the West has ever been very good at thinking through just what the longer-term results of the authoritarian status quo might really be.