Soon, Mr. Jomaa will resume his persistent quest for money and financial support, an initiative that is starting to look more and more like a gamble. So here he is going back to convert America to his side, taking with him all the hopes and incurring all perils. No other time has had such intensity, such a solemn character. In the future, to avoid experiencing new cruel disappointments, propitiatory ceremonies that aim to ward off the poor luck hanging over the traveler and his country should be organized during each of his missions.
After the Arab tour — which was quite disappointing, let’s be honest — it is the turn of the United States to welcome the head of state, who, as [Jomaa] expects, will not fail its reputation as the most generous country in the world, in terms of giving money and volunteering. Except that the benevolence that earned the U.S. this title only applies to Americans turning a profit. As far as international assistance, it’s a different story. Currently, U.S. foreign policy is entirely shaped by the urgency of the global economic and financial crisis that is sweeping over everything, [leading to] the Obama administration having to ask China — whose sake depends on the U.S. staying afloat — to follow through with its financial support by purchasing U.S. Treasury notes. Thus, nothing is more uncertain for the head of [U.S.] government, having to solicit the help once again of a country that no longer burdens itself with diplomatic artifice or considerations that require leverage to concede that yesterday’s superpower is today losing steam. Mr. Jomaa should also here be expecting Obama to admit that times were hard, and that the crisis mercilessly dictates its law to everyone. In the meantime, and to avoid unnecessary distress, let’s recall that the United States is no longer ruler of the world, doesn’t carry as much weight as it did yesterday, and no longer has the means to continue with the hyperactive foreign policy that it had thus far been implementing. The U.S. is less and less interventionist, which doesn’t stem from some isolationist will or because they have somehow become supporters of nonviolence, but because — like us — [their country is] broke.
Let’s now propose, by way of a travel memorandum, a brief historical summary of the United States’ Tunisian policy since the fall of Ben Ali’s regime. These elements are certainly useful but quite depressing for Mr. Jomaa, as they reveal the erratic strategy of an American administration that, at any given time, has only contemplated international relations from the angle of protecting its own economic and commercial interests or maintaining its own security, even if it meant threatening the balance of the planet and sacrificing everyone on earth.
As a relentless defender of economic liberalism, for whom the world is just an enormous market for its products, the United States has never stopped promoting, by helping and assisting developing countries, the principle of moderation — no matter the nature of the regime. Just yesterday, the Americans considered Ben Ali an ally, a moderate Arab leader and a partner in the fight against terrorism. Tunisia was then declared a “friend country” because of this infamous principle and the dictatorial nature of its tolerated regime. Flattered to receive this qualifier, which opened up possibilities for them, authoritarian regimes remained insignificant entities for the United States, a collection of nations ready to make any compromise — [nations that] preferred submission to rebellion, recommended dialogue over conflict, did not contest the supremacy of the big leaders, were dedicated to an immobility [that became] synonymous with decline, and for whom the term “moderate” qualified only as a veil that hides their merciless tyranny. All they needed to do was serve U.S. interests and be aligned with U.S. policy. Moderation was, for a long time, the weapon of the most powerful and those who had an interest in maintaining such a political order.
Contrary to all the values advocated by American democracy, the U.S. also learned to adapt itself to all principles of authoritarianism and poor governance: rigged elections, corruption, nepotism, mafia regimes, torture and the muzzling of the press. Benefiting from great indulgence, to the U.S., dictatorship simultaneously represented a discriminatory and flexible notion, which sometimes resembles the Iranian regime and sometimes the frightening tyranny of Saddam Hussein, without ever questioning [the issue as] it pertains to its allies in the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who never stopped imposing their obscurant vision of Islam and giving their support to jihadi groups — though these were sworn enemies of the U.S.
On Jan. 14, Americans were freed of their double standard and their hypocritical rhetoric, because both the corruption of the Ben Ali family and the collision of interests between the two countries, especially after the WikiLeaks revelations, was acknowledged and became a considerable source of frustration. The best-informed country in the world suddenly became aware that the political regime in Tunisia, seen as moderate and secular, was in reality an oppressive regime — smugly protected by the American administration as long as it maintained a defense against radical Islam — with whom the Americans closely collaborated within the domains of security and information. The State Department waited until Jan. 11 to express its “preoccupation” with the repressive violence. The departure of Ben Ali put an end to the unbearable wait-and-see regime, and so we committed to the [plan of a] revolt by the people to the West who appeared to be pacifists, who were not obsessed by religious questions in their thirst for liberty, and were exasperated by corruption, hated inequality and demanded democracy for all with no exceptions.
Since Clinton, the American administration has been conscious of the rise in power of Islam and of violence, and that the Ben Ali regime, secular and modern but also corrupt, would end up disappearing one day and that a changeover would have to be prepared from that point onward. Through discrete diplomacy, they started contacting certain figures in Islam who, in their eyes, became the only credible and acceptable opposition — all the while avoiding worrying their precious ally, to whom they incessantly expressed their unconditional and indefatigable support. A very effective way to kill two birds with one stone. The horror of Sept. 11, 2001 revealed to Americans the amplitude of the threat against vital U.S. interests. There are apparently two Islams for them now: a violent, jihadi, irredentist one and a moderate, borderline apolitical one.
The void left by the Ben Ali regime was the result of the absence of a secular opposition that could ensure the changeover, due to a lack of time and lack of perspective for the construction of a political party. Oppositely, the Islamic movement, though late on the protesting scene, could take advantage of the legitimacy in opposing Ben Ali in the clandestine years during which he acquired an important clientele both from his social accomplishments and from his impeccable organization. All these reasons should convince the Americans to bet instead on Rashid al-Ghannushi’s party and promote the victory of his movement during the elections, rather than on the dozen secular, spread-out parties that did not represent very many people. A new type of moderation was validated, this time represented by a religious party, elected democratically but without any political or management culture. After all, an administration that took complete charge of the threat of radical Islam, a moderate Muslim government that was democratically elected and that recognizes the right of the state, would constitute for them the best ideological defense against extremism. They then decided to make it a live model of a possible Islamic alternative for the eyes of the world, one that was both pacifist and egalitarian. But incompetence, corruption, military development and the incapability to fight against poverty and social exclusion weakened this exemplary government and debilitated its legitimacy. Pressed by hard factions within the party, the Ennahdha [movement’s] leaders found themselves faced with a dilemma with no solution: to lean on the benevolent support of the Americans in order to protect and maintain their power, despite their incompetence, or turn their back on America and bow to the strategy recommended by the party’s hardliners.
The attack on the American embassy in Tunisia, following the assassination of Chris Stevens and three members of the U.S. Consulate team in Benghazi, Libya, showed that anti-American sentiment would not be appeased as Washington was hoping, by betting on the power of the moderate Muslims elected by the people and who seemed ready to work with the U.S. against extremist Islam. Those who had been promoting the awakening of the more radical Islam for the last 40 years once again found themselves betrayed by the very people whose interests they wanted to newly support in the region — a strategy that crashed and burned on Sept. 11, 2001. It is a political debacle that recalls the one in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter contributed to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, just to let the merciless law of the ayatollahs take power in Tehran.
Up until now, is Tunisia as the window into pacifist Islam still a priority in American foreign policy? Under which label will Mr. Jomaa, once rejected from Ali Laarayedh’s government, present himself to the Americans to plead his case, now that Islamists are no longer in power? A secular one? Modernist? As a repented Muslim? Or as just a technocrat without any etiquette who only has the uncertainty of the future as the center of his political existence?