Thursday, September 27, 2007

Q&A: Developments in Tunisia

The following is a translation from Arabic.

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Question:

Certain recent events in Tunisia raise question mark as to whether the country is headed for a change? Some of these events are:

- The Tunis media, and especially the ‘Tunis News’ and ‘Al-Wasat-at-Tunisiyyah’ have carried news indicating that Zine El Abidine is suffering from prostate cancer and there are no hopes of a cure. He is also reported to have traveled secretly to Europe for treatment.

- In August 2005, a Tunisian diplomat Kamel Morjane, who was working with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), was appointed to head the Tunisian Defence Ministry. Soon after having taken charge as the MoD, Morjane began a fast-paced diplomatic campaign during which he concluded some very important agreements with the United States.

- In February 2006 the Donald Rumsfeld visited North African Arab countries including Tunisia, and Kamel Morjane reciprocated with his trip to the US later during the same year.

- In 2007, Nicholas Sarkozy, the new French President who is known to be close to the US, visited the region- this was his first trip outside Europe as president.

- In the month of July last, a delegation of US Congress paid visit to Tunisia.

- In late last July, a group of leaders belonging to the Tunisian An-Nahdhah Movement were set free.

- Recently, the US Deputy Chief of Staff Admiral Edmund P. Giambastiani, Jr. visited Tunisia last week and met with senior Tunisian officials, later a delegation of US officers followed his visit to Tunisia.

Does all this indicate that America has started to take a foothold in Tunisia?

Answer:

In order to clarify, we would remind you of the following:

1-Tunisia is one of the chosen areas of conflict among the colonial powers. This is due to its strategic location as well as its other unique features, it is considered to be a political laboratory for the Western States. It was under the British colonial rule and before that the French had colonised Tunisia militarily.

Having removed Habib Bourguiba in 1987 for being of an advanced age and unable to carry out the duties of governance, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who succeeded Bourguiba, followed his predecessor’s policies and remained consistently loyal to the British.

2-America exploited the tense relationship between Tunisia and Libya and in 1988 attempted to exert pressure against Zine El Abidine as well as tempted him in order to gain a foothold in Tunisia. The US provided him generous military aid of $ 61 million under the “Deter Aggression” programme. This was intended to lure Tunisia to support US against Col. Gaddafi and his Libyan regime by forming a front with the US. But Zine El Abidine Ben Ali quickly understood the game-plan and reversed his stand to improve his relations with the Libyan leader. The American reaction at this point was to curtail its aid to a paltry $ 8 million. Thus, America did not succeed in diverting Zine El Abidine’s loyalty from Britain to itself and Zine El Abidine remained loyal to Britain like his predecessor Bourguiba.

3-American has made several efforts and in December 1994 through the so-called "Mediterranean Dialogue" under the auspices of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which became very effective in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. It may be pointed out that this “Dialogue” also included Algeria, Egypt, the state of the Jews, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia; this is despite the fact that these are not member countries of NATO.

4-The European Union, on its part organized a conference of countries comprising the EU countries, the littoral states of the Mediterranean Sea, i.e. Algeria, Egypt, the Jews’ state, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, the Palestinian Authority. This was named as the “Euro Med” project and the meeting was held in Barcelona in November 1995. The European Union has been spent € 9 Billion on this project during the 1995-2000 period. As a result an alliance of 5 southern European countries (France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Malta) and the five countries of North Africa (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania), has emerged and is being called as the group of 5+5. This alliance has focused its efforts to fight against terrorism and illegal immigration. This is with aim of preventing the US from regaining any foothold of influence in the region again, currently this region accounts for a mere 2% of US foreign trade and less than 1% of its foreign investments.

5 - During this period Zine El Abidine’s regime managed to frustrate former American President Clinton’s attempt to penetrate Tunisia in 1995. The then Deputy Secretary of State Belletro visited Tunis in an attempt to integrate Tunisia in the American security plan for North Africa.

6-In 2000 when there was a change of guard in the American administration, its focused sharply towards the region, and pressurised the countries of the region top carry out a set of reforms. This was under the “Greater Middle East project”, yet the US has not been able to boast of any tangible results.

7 - The first success for America in the penetrating Tunisian security’s impregnable fortress was in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the US. It was then that the talk about having US military bases became quite well-accepted. The ‘Wall Street Journal’ on 10 June 2003 published a report quoting officials at the Ministry of Defence regarding the possibility of setting up of semi-permanent military bases in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, in the framework of proposed large-scale re-organisation for American forces, including plans for reducing the number of American forces stationed in Germany and moving them elsewhere.

The overseas opposition to the Tunisian regime insist that the American base in the region of Bizerte planned to be built in Siidi Ahmed to used as Airbase, while the other at Bahatar to be used as a naval base.

Tunisia has been participating in recent years in the meetings of a security patrol with the rest of North African countries and the United States, their stated goal is to fight terrorism and to pursue Al-Qaeda fighters in North Africa.

The United States has been using pressure tactics on Tunisia to seek its support in Iraq. On December 30, 2003, the American Council on Foreign Relations issued a report titled (Sanctuaries of Terrorism: Africa) in which Tunisia is included along with Egypt and Algeria among the States that represent a medium-term threat of terrorist activity threats.

Visits by the Congress and American officials during the last couple of years is within this context and are aimed as the ‘Carrot & Stick’ policy of pressure and incentive to cooperate with the US to enable it to gain a foothold in Tunisia.

However, such American pressure did not succeed in dragging Tunisia to go along the US, in fact these American moves are no match for the British policy of ‘no visible confrontation’ with America, though it continues to frustrate American efforts from behind the scenes.

The British are fully aware of America’s interest in Tunis as well as the entire North Africa. Just as the British arranged the transfer of power from Bourguiba to Zine El Abidine, who was allied to them, similarly they are now working to arrange the transfer of power to a successor to Zine El Abidine who can be trusted to follow in his footsteps. At the same time they are keen to present this succession as neither pro nor anti-American. The British thus hope to pre-empt any mounting American pressure on Tunisia. It is with this view that the British choice has fallen on Kamal Morjane in order to soften the Americans since Morjane is seen as more acceptable for America than Zine El Abidine. It must be remembered that Zine El Abidine’s ailment is not exactly terminal and he may survive to complete his tern in office which is until 2009. But by projecting Morjane as the future leader, they aim to calm the Americans and thus ease pressure. This is the British’s conventional tactic to retain influence in a country where there is pressure from other sources. This is similar to what they did in Libya in order to sustain the Libyan regime in the face of mounting US pressure. The British simply appeared to cave in and indicated that they would stop arming Libya, pave way for surrendering the accused in the Lockerbie trial and paying for the damages and claims pertaining to the case. All of this was designed to preempt American arguments to continue pressure on Qaddafi, or at least ease the tension.

Thus projecting Morjane as the successor to the ailing Zine El Abidine who does not have much time left, especially since the British sources have exaggerated his ill-health as we he were terminally ill. As mentioned earlier, this is designed to calm the Americans that Morjane is on his way to power. To understand this aspect well, let us recollect some information on Kamal Morjane, who is currently at the Ministry of Defence:

1. Kamal Morjane is a proficient diplomat.

2. Despite being very a familiar and known face as a result of foreign assignments that he has held, his role as a member of the ruling party is largely unknown.

3. He is closely linked to the current Head of State Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, both from the city of Hamam Sousse, and Morjane’s wife is the daughter of Zine El Abidine’s brother-in-law. Zine El Abidine’s reputation is that of a fox and it is due to his trust in Morjane that the post of Defence Minister is given to him.

4. By virtue of holding external posts for long years, Morjane has earned the respect of the international community and carved a niche for himself.

5. Due to his being away from the internal politics of Tunisia, his name is not linked to the crimes committed by the Tunisian regime against the state and its people, even though he has defended Tunisia during his speeches at the international for a, especially the UN. Thus he is seen to be more acceptable in the global context as well as in Tunisia itself.

Thus, it is likely that he will be more acceptable to the Americans.

It has been observed recently that Kamal Morjane will do everything in his power and use every means available to him to promote himself before the forces to whom he may not be acceptable despite or because of his experience, international standing and internal influence. The political campaign launched by Kamal Morjane is full of reassuring messages about his person, and that he would not act against the international community and especially American interests, hoping thus to be able to neutralize the United States from actions against him or obstructing him.

This was about Kamal Morjane, as for Sarkozy, who undertook his first state visit out the EU to the North African Arab region, the expected change in the Tunisian leadership was not prominent. The visit was basically focused on to the "Mediterranean Partnership", so much so that Morocco refused to receive Sarkozy without any explicable reasons. It is more likely that his visit was more for strengthening France’s cultural influence in the region than for exercising any political pressure on Tunisia. This visit was in the framework of his visits to the regions of British influence and it appears to have been coordinated with them as such. To this extent, Sarkozy’s visit to Tunisia was similar to his earlier visit to Libya.

As for the release of 21 political detainees at the end of last July following Sarkozy’s talks during his visit to Tunisia on Human rights and political prisoners, these detainees were released on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Tunisia, and are not related to Sarkozy’s visit as such. Such gestures were more for the purpose of political expediency and in tune with American calls respecting human rights and democratic reform than having any relation to Sarkozy’s visit. There is an exception though and it is that of the release Mohamed Abbou, a known defender of human rights champion. Sarkozy is known to have discussed his case during his meeting Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. As for the other twenty released are understood to be belonging to the an-Nahda Movement. They were let off despite the restrictions placed on them by the Tunisian Ministry of Justice.

In conclusion; we can say that Kamal Morjane was brought to the Ministry of Defense earlier under instructions from the British, to calm American pressure on the regime in Tunisia and thus be prepared to take up the presidency when the need arises without any internal or external surprises. It is like cooking for the banquet on slow fire.

In the end, we could conclude that the ensuing reforms in Tunisia are likely to be in tune with the American desires if not entirely to their taste. As also are the corrective measures with regard to the human rights issues etc... And so on. But at the same time it will be rather premature to assert that America has succeeded in finding a foothold or is on the verge of establishing its influence there. Tunisia is still firmly loyal to the British and the Europeans, its’ security wall is intact and is resisting US attempts at penetrating it, and as long as the military and security services in state are able to control the situation under the leadership of the pro-British politicians, the wall will resist American attempts.

21st Sha’ban, 1428 A.H
3rd September 2007 C.E.

Source - The official website of Sheikh Ata Abu Rashta

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