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.