- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 22, 2005


By Georgie Anne Geyer

Stacey International, $27.95, 206 pages


Tunisia is the invisible nation of the Arab world in American eyes, and there is a very good reason why this is so: It confounds so many people’s hostile stereotypes of the Arab world.

Here, after all, is an Arab nation long colonized by a Western imperial power, France, with which it has been on excellent terms for decades. It is stable, it is prosperous, even though it has no oil deposits to fall back upon and, it has been reliably pro-Western for generations and, most important of all, it is a successful, functioning democracy.

Tunisia is — or, rather, should be — a textbook case for Bush administration policymakers wrestling with the dilemma of how to “drain the swamp” of Middle East poverty, extremism and religious fanaticism that produced the menace of al Qaeda and other implacable networks of international terrorism. Yet the vast herds of op-ed and editorial page writers who endlessly opine either about the need for the United States to impose democracy by fiat on Arab nations or about the impossibility of Arab countries producing successful democratic institutions themselves (and in reality, many Arab nations have, to a significant degree) never acknowledged Tunisia’s existence.

The most likely reason for this is sheer ignorance of the country and lack of any knowledge about it. But of course, Tunisia’s continued existence and success also for many people makes it what the late Charles Fort called a “damned” fact: A fact that is “damned” to be ignored because it flies in the face of so many popular prejudices. With the publication of this timely and extremely important book, however, ignorance of the facts can no longer be cited as a plausible alibi for such sweeping and plain wrong generalizations.

Georgie Anne Geyer, author of “Guerrilla Prince,” the definitive biography of Fidel Castro, is one of the great American foreign correspondents and a leading foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Times. In “Tunisia: A Country That Works,” she has produced an indispensable text for everyone who seeks lasting solutions for the supposedly intractable dilemmas of the modern Middle East.

This book is in part a travelogue — a colorful and insightful encounter with the successful Tunisia of the beginning of the 21st century, a vibrant success story profiting from the rise of a stable and prosperous Europe on the other side of the Mediterranean lake it shares. But the key to its importance lies in the lucid, concise history of modern Tunisia that Ms. Geyer includes. I know of no better introduction to the subject in modern American publishing.

Ms. Geyer explores in detail the career of Tunisia’s founding father, President Habib Bourguiba, who created an independent nation but then fell prey to the same kinds of authoritarian delusions that unmade so many would-be nation builders around the world in the post colonial period. Fortunately for the Tunisian people, as Ms. Geyer relates, Tunisia had its own Deng Xiaoping, an experienced veteran minister and lieutenant of Bourguiba’s who looked with horror on the incipient chaos his old master was inflicting upon their country and who, was able to win power and turn the nation back to a far more stable and hopeful course.

If there is one key above all others to Tunisia’s success in making the successful transition from the one party state it was after independence from France in 1957 to the multi-party democracy it is today, Ms. Geyer argues, it is that this process was fostered deliberately but gradually, and implemented in an evolutionary manner. Here, the insight of Abdelbaki Hermassi, Tunisia’s Minister of Culture and a sociologist by profession is of the greatest importance. “Either you are born into a democracy or you have to make it happen,” Ms. Geyer quotes him as saying. “And if you have to make it happen, you have to go step by step — and you only have so many years to do it.

Ms. Geyer does not cite the influential Russian political analyst and sociologist Andranik Migranian who warned even before the Soviet Union disintegrated at the end of 1991 that Russia would have to go through an era of autocratic stability and the cautious, slow creation of a genuine free market before it could successfully embrace Western-style democracy. But her book could be a textbook confirmation of Migranian’s deeply researched and wide-ranging theories. Today, Tunisia is a nation where 80 percent of the population is recognizably middle class.

Ms. Geyer is no Pollyanna and she explores in depth the social contradictions and controversies that preoccupy Tunisian society. But as the United States wrestles with the massive military commitment and ongoing toll of casualties it has experienced from an Iraq insurgency in which democracy has somehow stubbornly refused to spring instantaneously into being at our command, there is much to ponder in her considered conclusion:

“The question was not whether other countries had to go through a Tunisian-style process, but whether there was really any other way to do it. The indisputable fact is that, wherever development has taken place in the modern age, it has adopted certain quantities of the Tunisian way, and wherever it is seriously contemplated, it will have to consider the Tunisian lessons. it is not that the Tunisian experiment is perfect, but that it actually works, when so many others do not.”

Visitors to Tunisia today flock to the archaeological marvels of Carthage, one of the greatest seafaring and global trading nations of ancient history whose sailors appear to have explored south of the equator even in the time of the Classical Greeks. Today, however, Tunisia’s most valuable export is not raw metals or goods, but its own shining example of political, economic and social evolution. Like Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia in southern and Southeast Asia, it is a Muslim democracy that works. Ms. Geyer’s book offers a most welcome explanation as to why it does, and how other nations can profit from its example.

Martin Sieff is chief political correspondent for United Press International and a veteran journalist in covering the Middle East.

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