The Bush administration emphasized the principles of human rights and democracy in the Arab World as part of its comprehensive vision and set of objectives stemming directly from the shock of the September 11 attacks.
The U.S. desire to fulfill its promises led to the launch of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) in 2002. The goal of MEPI was to spread democracy and development by supporting relevant civil society institutions. Tunisia had bigger stakes in the initiative than other countries: not only was it one of the countries targeted by MEPI, but it also hosted one of its regional offices along with Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine.
Between MEPI and the New U.S. Diplomacy
The first director of the regional office in Tunisia, Peter Mulrean, did not hide his fears when he assumed his post, admitting to the press that his “mission will be difficult” and that his team was working against “an anti-American environment in Tunisia and the Arab World.” These comments followed talks with the Tunisian elite during his initial visit to the country. Several opposition party representatives and civil society leaders conveyed to him their “skepticism over the credibility of the U.S. message on democracy in the Middle East” and were highly critical of “the U.S. presence in Iraq and its silence over Israeli violations [of Palestinian rights],” as well as the legislative reversals on human rights under the Bush administration.
Promoting democracy and human rights in Tunisia was not limited to the MEPI office but was also evident in the work of the embassy, which was involved in building ties with officials and intensifying work with civil society.
Promoting democracy and human rights in Tunisia was not limited to the MEPI office but was also evident in the work of the embassy, which was involved in building ties with officials and intensifying work with civil society. This approach reflected the new realization that previous U.S. diplomacy had neglected civil society while exclusively working with government officials. This old approach did not provide the United States with insight into the social changes in the country nor did it alter U.S. image among the elite. Despite the difficulty of the mission due to the Tunisian elite’s stance, MEPI officials sought a dialogue with influential exponents in Tunisian society. They allocated funds and held training courses for programs in four areas: economy, education, women’s rights, and political freedoms. There was a positive response from the economic, education, and gender sectors. However, the greatest challenge was in the area of political liberties, an area that was central to the new U.S. plan.
The MEPI officials also alerted the Tunisian authorities to many cases of human rights violations in the country. Well-informed diplomatic sources revealed that Americans had intervened in resolving some of the pending humanitarian issues in Tunisia. Interestingly, the new diplomatic approach aimed at distancing the United States gradually from the Tunisian government. U.S. officials extended invitations to individuals and civil society organizations the government did not approve of. They also discussed with them topics such as political Islam, the role of Islamists in society and their relevance to democracy, which have been taboo topics in Tunisia for almost twenty years.
It was natural, therefore, for the Tunisian elite to show interest in the new U.S. policy and the MEPI office. Nevertheless, reactions continued to vary widely. Some expressed utter hostility toward U.S. policies. This hostility emanated from the ideological perceptions by a part of the Tunisian elite that the United States was always biased toward Israel in the Arab–Israeli conflict. Supporters of this stance did not believe that the United States was genuinely interested in democracy in the region or in Tunisia without an ulterior motive.
The second position, prevalent particularly among human rights activists, was the realization of the importance of the new U.S. policy in supporting human rights issues and pushing for democratic reforms. Supporters of that position believed that the Tunisian government feared U.S. criticism and took it more seriously than any other country’s disapproval. However, the supporters of this position completely rejected any funding from the United States.
The third position was that of organizations that had accepted U.S. funding. These organizations were fewer in Tunisia than in other Arab countries. The majority of them worked on gender issues and in development sectors and were not active in the human rights area.
The Tunisian government has not been receptive to formal or informal U.S. calls for reform conveyed through NGOs.
As for the outcome of the MEPI program, it has been limited. The Tunisian government has not been receptive to formal or informal U.S. calls for reform conveyed through NGOs. The desired reforms concerned human rights and freedoms, particularly freedom of association and media freedom, the right to form political parties, and the reform of conditions inside prisons, which have been under constant scrutiny.
Declared U.S. Intentions and Reality
After years of calling for democratic reforms and meeting rejection in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world, the Bush administration came to the following conclusions voiced by U.S. officials on different occasions:
- The United States has to make it clear that its role in the region through MEPI or other programs is not to achieve democracy but to urge Arab governments to reform and provide support to civil society organizations, which are the actors actually working towards democracy.
- Aware of how wary the Tunisian elite is toward U.S. policies on Arab issues in the region, the United States sought the help of NGOs in drawing regional plans, and utilized their expertise in working on the local level.
This change in U.S. policy is an attempt to overcome the obstacles mentioned so far. It is also an indirect response to a debate taking place within the Tunisian elite about a set of burning questions: Who will achieve democratic transformation, foreign or domestic forces? What kind of relationship should foreign and domestic organizations have while they work toward democracy? Political and civil forces in Tunisia share the idea that democracy must come from within and they are united in rejecting foreign interferences in local politics. However, agreement on these questions did not erase the differences in the way the Tunisian government, with its allies and Tunisian human rights groups, have dealt with the new U.S. policies. The government rejected U.S. efforts and accused those cooperating with U.S. officials or NGOs of reinforcing and empowering foreign meddling. Civil society organizations did not object to working with U.S. officials as long as cooperation was strictly in the interest of supporting human rights. Civil society groups dismissed the government’s accusations that they were inviting foreign interference and in turn argued that the government objections were simply a cover-up for its constant violations of human rights and the law.
The United States has to make it clear that its role in the region through MEPI or other programs is not to achieve democracy but to urge Arab governments to reform and provide support to civil society organizations, which are the actors actually working towards democracy.
If some U.S. officials think that the MEPI office in Tunisia and their reform policy have garnered some successes in the past few years after a rough start, the Tunisian elite, particularly those who support the initiative, believe otherwise. They criticize the initiative for limiting its role to funding projects, especially those run by organizations that were not previously known for defending and working for human rights, resulting in the creation of clientelistic organizations. Ironically, while independent Tunisian NGOs declined U.S. funding; it was organizations close to the government that received it.
For its part, the Tunisian government was able to minimize the risks the reform policy had on its stability by engaging in an antiterrorism national program. It enacted antiterrorism and money laundering legislation in 2003, using the legislation to try and sentence hundreds of young people in order to convince the U.S. and its European allies that there was a constant danger of terrorism in Tunisia. As a result, the United States and Europe overlooked many of the regime’s human rights violations, including the persecution and torture of activists, the refusal to recognize parties and associations, and the regime’s monopoly over media.
Thus the Tunisian government successfully evaded its U.S. partner, just as it had evaded the Europeans in the 1990s, when it had convinced them that Islamic fundamentalism was a present danger in the country as it was in Algeria. As a result, Europeans disregarded all of the government’s human rights violations, some of which went as far as torturing people to death.
In addition, the Bush administration’s own human rights record in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq, and evidence of torture in clandestine CIA centers made it easier for repressive regimes, including the one in Tunisia, to dismiss U.S. reform efforts.
It is safe to say that between the ideological obstacles in Tunisia and the government’s firm grip on power on the one hand, and U.S. double standards on the other, the democratic reform policy has not reached its intended goals.
It is safe to say that between the ideological obstacles in Tunisia and the government’s firm grip on power on the one hand, and U.S. double standards on the other, the democratic reform policy has not reached its intended goals. The Tunisian elite now waits to see what President Obama’s policies will bring, as many find him different from his predecessor in his political convictions as well as his promises on democracy and freedom.
Lutfi Hajji is a writer and human rights activist from Tunisia.