Geography teaches much about Tunisia, says Robert D. Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst at Stratfor.
It is the Arab country closest to the heart of Europe, jutting out toward Sicily at the central Mediterranean’s narrowest point.
Whereas in states that have been, in terms of geography, more artificially conceived –Syria and Iraq, for example — stability has been guaranteed for decades by suffocating military dictatorships, Tunisia’s post-colonial political history has been more subtle. Like Egypt, Tunisia is not geographically artificial and therefore did not require an extremist ideology to hold it together — the case with Syria, Iraq and neighboring Libya. But unlike Egypt, another age-old cluster of civilization, Tunisia has not had a robust military establishment to provide order.
Because it was more European, and because post-World War II political leader, Habib Bourguiba himself was sufficiently enlightened, the Tunisian military was kept small and a lot of money was instead spent on items like primary school education and rural women’s literacy. When Zine El Abidine Ben Ali replaced Bourguiba in 1987, his rule was backed more by the internal security services than by the comparatively weak military. Now that Ben Ali has been toppled, the internal security services are simply not sufficiently widespread to provide order in an emergency, and the military has no real tradition of doing such a thing. Tunisia, more than most Arab societies, therefore, is dependent on political consensus for its stability.
While the Islamist tendencies tend to come from the interior, the situation is far more complicated than that. For example, the shantytowns on the outskirts of Tunis have, over the decades, been prone not to the Islamic traditionalism of a historic pilgrimage city like Kairouan in central Tunisia, but to the radical strains of political Islam, which actually challenge tradition. For it isn’t only geographical differences that plague Tunisian politics, but a phenomenon like urbanization that has created an Islamist-trending underclass that feels alienated from the secular elites who are more firmly established in the coastal cities.
Tunisia is, ironically, too civilized to support the kind of authoritarian military-security establishment that provides order, and yet too politically underdeveloped for stable, efficient democratic politics. Thus, Tunisia will probably stumble onward for some years with weak governments, frequent demonstrations and strikes, and a weak security environment in its interior reaches. This will dramatically hurt tourism, which for decades was a mainstay of the economy. Tunisia will not have a new form of authoritarianism imposed upon it — a risk in other Arab states. Tunisians are, I believe, too sophisticated for that.
Robert D. Kaplan is Chief Geopolitical Analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical analysis firm, and author of the bestselling new book The Revenge of Geography. Reprinted with permission.
This extract is taken from a longer article at RealClearWorld. RTWT