A Deep State of Mind: Tunisia’s Deep State Could be Combatted by Democratic and Social Reforms

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Photo Tam Hussein


Following the assassination of Chokri Belaid, many opponents criticized Ennahda, the ruling Islamist party, with either direct involvement in his killing or helping to create an atmosphere where such events could take place. The Ennahda party’s response to Belaid’s assassination was curious.

They completely rejected the allegation that they had had a hand in Belaid’s killing, but sidestepped the issue of political violence and suggested that the whole assassination was really about the Tunisian deep state. In other words, the Ennadha party said that the remnants of the previous regime were still involved in Machiavellian intrigue. Yet while Ennahda spokesman Seyyed Ferjani trumpeted the idea, the culprits were left unnamed.

Nevertheless, the thesis of a threat from the old deep state does have credence, according to Chatham House fellow and North Africa specialist Jon Marks. Marina Ottaway from the Carnegie Endowment think tank also shares this view; she argues that there are still significant remnants of the old regime in Egypt and Tunisia.

In fact, many political theorists take it as a given that the deep state exists in all countries in the form of bureaucracies and civil servants–so it exists no less in democracies than in other kinds of state. It is, after all, civil servants who keep the ship running in Western democracies when there is an election or during the formation of a new cabinet. Yet while many Western democrats are worried about the influence of these unelected civil servants, there is still an impression that the democratic character of the state is safe. This is partly due to of a culture of democracy cultivated over centuries.

However, with a fledgling democracy emerging out of the throes of dictatorship in Tunisia, this culture does not yet exist. It is likely that the state could succumb to a slightly less authoritarian style of leadership than that of Tunisia’s ousted president, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. This is an especially pressing possibility, as one of the biggest complaints in Tunisia is about the lack of security on the streets. As Rabia, a resident of the city of Sfax, said to The Majalla: “At least [during the Ben Ali era], you could walk around at night not worrying about crime.”

Youssef Cherif, a prominent Tunisian political commentator, points out that it is common among the elite to talk about having a less authoritarian version of Ben Ali. That Tunisians should think about compromising their hard-won democracy for dictatorship is not strange, as Kenneth J. Perkins, author of A History of Modern Tunisia, points out:
“Countless Tunisians who preferred protecting their personal privileges to safeguarding the rule of law looked the other way as the repression of the Islamists [under Ben Ali] proceeded . . . their tacit acceptance of the suspension of some citizens’ civil and human rights bound them to the regime.”

A certain segment of Tunisian society still views Ben Ali as a bastion of secularism and stability. A deep state formed of followers of the late president Habib Bourguiba, then, is a group that could still conceive of an undemocratic state.

The extent that the Bourguiban deep state still influences Tunisian politics can be illustrated by the behavior of the politicians of the former Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) and the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the country’s biggest trade union, traditionally seen as the modern Tunisian state’s main opponent. After the dissolution of the RCD, its members went on to form political parties in post-revolution Tunisia, with their political compasses pointing towards the Ben Ali era.

Beji Caid Essebsi, who held several important positions in Bourguiba’s government and was a founder of the secular Nida Tounis (Call of Tunisia) party, is in some ways an example of this. Following the killing of the secular left politician Chokri Belaid, Essebsi called for the ruling coalition to be suspended. He wanted the new constitution to be drafted by a special council of experts, because in his view the elected coalition had lost credibility. But to others, the prospect of a democratic constitution being drafted by a ‘special council of experts’ as a country emerges out of a dictatorship seemed dangerously close to the authoritarianism of the Ben Ali era.

Even more disturbing could be the revived relationship of Nida Tounis and the UGTT. In 1989, the UGTT leadership under Abdesalam Jerad made a pragmatic alliance with Ben Ali whereby fortunes were made in exchange for calling off strikes. Since the assassination of Belaid, the UGTT and Nida Tounis has tried to come to an accord. While these alliances are not wrong in and of themselves, for a fledgling democracy, what old supporters of the ancien régime do is extremely important. It is understandable that some, like co-founder of the Ennahda movement Rachid Ghannouchi, want to ban the old political elite from politics for ten years, as a cooling-off period before they are allowed to return to political life.

The fact that the remnants of the Bourguiban deep state still find themselves in the echelons of power is not strange. After all, the Jasmine revolution is less than three years old and Bourguiba had decades to build a state and populate it with his supporters. As a chairman from Haffouz rural council, Muhammad Ayyashi, told The Majalla: “There is currently a struggle between local councils and the central government. . . . We are facing severe difficulties in delivering services and we inevitably get blamed for the failure of central government.” There were similar stories from other rural council leaders who were interviewed. Most accepted the fact that revolution is only skin deep, but nobody agreed on what to do about the deep state. Some shared the view of Rachid Ghannouchi, that former senior regime figures should be excluded from politics for a period; others favored gradual change.

The problem, though, is that one cannot just remove the deep state, as the chairman of the rural commune in Echbika, Fethi Jemmi, told The Majalla. “The Tunisian revolution was largely peaceful, but it also meant that we inherited the whole administration intact and many of these civil servants are trying to hold on to the past and the privileges that they received.” These administrators have valuable skills, which the new transitional state cannot just purge. Thus Ghannouchi’s idea may simply be impractical and counterproductive, since these valuable skill sets are essential to the running of the new Tunisian state. In any case, purging the deep state would be analogous to slaying the Hydra–its heads will grow back angrier and more alienated than ever before. Instead, democratic Tunisia must adopt a long-term policy of reforming the deep state, counteracting its negative tendencies and reducing their power of organizations and bringing them to account through the judiciary.

There has to be an emphasis on the instruments that reduce the power of the deep state. It could mean breaking up oligarchies or unions like the UGTT and setting up rival trade unions and civil society organizations. It could also mean aiming for a federal governance model that combats the centralizing tendencies of the Tunisian state. Tunisia has an excellent network of commune councils whose leaders are in close contact with the local population. These elected members have local knowledge and are good instruments to implementing a more direct form of democracy and civil society activism. Perhaps it should be these communes that become the tool in preventing the authoritarianism of the deep state.

The Tunisian media is in dire need of a clean up, too; this important medium of democracy that serves as the agora, a forum for public debate, is still populated by the old guard. While social media and blogs have played an important role in the Arab Spring, they have played less of a role in Tunisia. According to Youssef Cherif, there were only 300 bloggers covering the Tunisian revolution. Social media is still the domain of the elite. The Tunisia Live news website for example, the only English Media organization, is progressive and pro-revolution, but it was set up by a small group of upper-middle-class young men and women.

While new media is pro-revolution, traditional print media and TV are still populated by an established old guard who have a long history of co-option. The best example is the case of Nessma TV, set up by the Karroui brothers and the Berlusconi’s Media Set channel. Nabil Karroui was hailed by the Tunisian press as a martyr for freedom of speech for broadcasting the movie Persepolis. But the Tunisian press coverage omitted the fact that Karroui was also an ardent supporter of Ben Ali, referring to him as his father while running advertising campaigns in support of the dictator. His channel was supported by Ben Ali in turn, in order to combat the rise of Islamism in the region.

Tunisian media is rife with debates, satire and criticism, but there have also been incidents where the media has been charged with willfully falsifying reports. While changes are certainly occurring, the Tunisian media is in dire need of new blood and regulators like the UK’s OFCOM that can hold them to account.

Redressing the educational disparities between the coast and the hinterland is also very important. In democratic theory, education not only socializes people, it also creates politically sentient beings. According to the Ahmed Wahibi, an inspector of education, the level of education in the hinterland is not of the same level as on the coast. According to an African Development Bank report, literacy outside Kairouan, for instance, is 44 percent. There is also a large discrepancy between the education provided in urban and rural centers. The Governorate of Sousse, for example, may have excellent schools in the main city, but there are schools in the interior that have nothing and where children walk ten miles in bare feet to class in order to study. Investing in education and teacher training to raise the level of education delivery is an important step in making these areas a part of the democratic process. Moreover, countless studies have shown that university students are usually proponents of democracy, so having independent higher education institutions will serve as yet another a useful counter against authoritarianism and encourage civil society activism.

However, in the midst of constitution drafting, it is the politicians who can set the tone by emphasizing the independence of the judiciary, and promoting due process and human rights, as Amnesty International has suggested. The new rulers of Tunisia have to put a greater emphasis on both in order to create a culture of democracy and reverse a culture of authoritarianism. But whatever it does, it cannot simply remove the deep state–it needs to get it on board and cultivate a new generation of Tunisian administrators who believe in a democratic Tunisia.

This article was first posted in the Majalla