Dispatch

Tunisia Steps Out

How the little country that sparked the Arab Spring is becoming a regional player for the first time.

TUNIS — Back in 2005, Tunisia, then an autocratic police state, spent months gearing up to host the World Summit on the Information Society, a U.N. conference on communications and the Internet. Don't worry if you haven't heard of it -- no one else has either. But it said something about the priorities of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the president of 23 years who fled into Saudi exile in January 2011, that the conference was then the highest-profile international event for quite some time in this diminutive Mediterranean country whose successful revolt inspired the Arab Spring.

Seven years and one revolution later, Tunis is making its final preparations to host the "Friends of Syria" meeting on Friday, Feb. 24. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with her British and French counterparts and representatives from more than 70 other countries, will descend upon the Tunisian capital to discuss what can be done about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The summit is taking place in the coastal suburb of Gammarth, the same place where the Syrian National Council -- the most prominent of Syria's opposition groups -- held its first congress back in December.

Most attention to post-revolutionary Tunisia has focused on the domestic tussle over the role of religion in state and society and on the economic malaise that lay at the root of its uprising. But Tunisia's approach to the Syrian uprising is also a sign of a more self-confident country seeking to reposition itself overseas as well as at home. With Syria facing a long, grim battle ahead, Egypt's revolution only half-complete, and Libya too preoccupied with internal strife to play much of a regional role, Tunisia is slowly starting to flex its modest but newly democratic muscles.

In early February, the interim government, formed after Constituent Assembly elections last October, took the surprisingly proactive step -- and one unthinkable under its predecessor -- of expelling the Syrian ambassador and severing official relations with the Assad regime. Libya followed suit a few days later, while demonstrators in Cairo and Algiers demanded their governments take similar action. "We need to send a strong message to the Syrian regime that they have to stop the open killing of innocent and civilian people," explained Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem.

Last week, Tunisia's new president, Moncef Marzouki, flew around North Africa in a bid to revive the long-floundering Arab Maghreb Union between Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, and Morocco. He may well face a hopeless task in trying to patch up Algerian and Moroccan differences over the Western Sahara, long an obstacle to forging any deeper Maghreb integration, while relations between Algeria and Libya remain chilly after the former's lackluster support for the Libyan uprising. Yet the Feb. 18 meeting of Maghrebi foreign ministers in Rabat, Morocco, was the first since 1994, and the leaders of all five countries have agreed to hold a summit in Tunisia before the end of the year, something Marzouki said he hopes "would revive the bygone aura of the Maghreb region."

Tunisia's post-Ben Ali repositioning is also about moving out of a Parisian orbit, one long associated with the ancien régime and not helped by French policy during the uprising. As protests were spreading across Tunisia's downtrodden hinterlands in late 2010, French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie was taking complimentary flights on a jet owned by one of Ben Ali's associates. Days before the Tunisian president fled, she appeared to suggest that France offer its crowd-control "know-how" to help quell the protests. And even after Ben Ali departed, Paris scarcely concealed the suspicion with which it regarded Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that went on to win the most votes in the October polls.

Although Tunisia's relations with its former colonial power will always be strong, given the deep commercial and cultural ties between the two countries, the relationship now has a different hue. Like several senior members of Ennahda, Foreign Minister Abdessalem lived in British exile for many years and caused a stir in January when he required an interpreter to hold talks with his French counterpart, Alain Juppé. Some even think that the French language is in terminal decline. "La Francophonie est-elle en danger en Tunisie?" asks a headline on the latest cover of a glossy women's magazine called Femmes de Tunisie. The answer is no, but just as Paris is no longer the overwhelming foreign string-puller in Tunisia, so is French no longer the only foreign language in town. English is reportedly gaining traction in language schools and universities, new Anglophone blogs and news sites are cropping up, and, over time, Tunisia might even become a trilingual country in the same way as Lebanon.

Despite Tunisia's dynamic approach to Syria and the Maghreb, no one is suggesting that the country will become a regional power broker. It has many domestic uncertainties to contend with. Unlike the Gulf states, it cannot dispense the liberal sums of money that are usually required to seal any major diplomatic breakthrough in the Arab world. It cannot use its own pan-Arab satellite television channel as a foreign-policy tool, nor can it spend lavishly on international branding or PR.

But all that may be to its advantage. Tunisia is detached from the geopolitical quagmires in the region. Its interests are not directly caught up with the Iranian crisis. It is not an oil producer. It does not share a border with Israel. These sorts of qualities led to the relocation of some 7,000 members of Yasir Arafat's PLO to Tunis in the early 1980s after being evicted from Lebanon and to Tunis's becoming the temporary base of the Arab League after Egypt was suspended following Anwar Sadat's 1979 peace deal with Israel.

At another time of upheaval, this non-threatening country might play a similar role. Tunisia has made a far smoother transition from autocratic rule than Egypt, Libya, or Yemen has. Tunisian politics and society hang in a volatile but arguably healthy balance between the secular and the religious. The state has the institutions, albeit young and fragile, of a functioning democracy. Its uprising was the most organic and homegrown of any in the Arab Spring, requiring neither an external spark nor a foreign intervention to give it critical mass. Tunisia may not be perfect, but in a region lacking in role models it can provide far more real-life lessons than Qatar, for instance, which arguably has little to offer other than money and moral support as it seeks to bolster its international clout. Similarly, any renewed Maghreb union -- however unlikely -- could provide a counterweight to Gulf influence and would certainly have money to throw around.

All this is part of the ongoing reshuffling of alliances, rivalries, and blocs in the post-Arab Spring world. Where Tunisia stands will only later become clear. But the country has many assets that could help it become more than just a neutral venue for regional conferences.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

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