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Tunisia and the IMF: Ennahda's Mana From Washington (Part Two)

April 22, 2013 ·

Despite reservations, both Washington and Paris have decided that, when it comes to Tunisia, the horse they are going to ride is the Ennahda party.

Despite reservations, both Washington and Paris have decided that, when it comes to Tunisia, the horse they are going to ride is the Ennahda party.

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Read Part 1.

"I get by with a little help from my friends."
-- Lennon, McCartney

News reports suggest that Tunisia and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are 'very close' to coming to terms over a $1.78 billion loan to the North African country to help navigate it through the current stormy economic seas. In the short term, there is no doubt that an accord of such a large amount to such a small country will help the country get through the next few years, and help stabilize what has been an unstable and increasingly unpopular transitional government. But at what price to the country's medium and long term future? Rosy IMF projections that, with the loan's help, the Tunisian economy will grow by 4.5% next year are hardly credible.

Tunis Brique, a l'oeuf maker.There seems to be something of a 'rush to the finish', an effort on both the IMF's and Tunisian government's part to wrap up the negotiations as soon as possible. It is as if they are looking over their shoulders nervous that, as the agreement's terms get out, opposition could grow among the Tunisian people, thus the mutual effort to get the whole thing over with as soon as possible. There is  mounting concern within Tunisian civil society about the agreement, both in terms of the process which has been typically secretive and the "structural adjustment conditions" that the country will be forced to submit to in order to fulfill the Tunisian part of the deal.

In traditional IMF fashion,  the negotiations were very much 'under wraps' with virtually no input from anyone other than one member of the Tunisian Central Bank and another from the finance ministry. But in this post-Ben Ali age of Tunisian freedom of speech, it turned out to be difficult to impossible to hide the agreement terms, which several talented Tunisian researchers have been able to unearth.

The Political Significance of the IMF Loan

It is easy to get lost in the somewhat complex economic details of such agreements (although we will look at them shortly) At the same time, sometimes lost is the political significance of the agreement. It is nothing less than a 'green light', 'a seal of approval' – for the current direction of the Tunisian political leadership – most specifically, the Ennahda Party (Islamic Party) which dominates the ruling coalition and the political and economic direction of the country. The two other parties represented in Tunisia's ruling coalition, the Congress for the Republic (President Moncef Marzouki's party) and Ettakotal (Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties) are much weaker, and their political will more or less circumscribed by Ennahdha. [i]

News of an impending agreement comes just at the moment when the Ennahda-led coalition government needs it most. In February, a popular opposition leader, Chedli Belaid, was assassinated at his home in Tunis. Belaid has been a critique of Ennahda's collusion with the country's Salafist elements, and the drift away from Tunisian democracy which has accelerated under Ennahda. The angry demonstrations that followed, which placed responsibility at the door of Ennahda, charging something between neglect and complicity very nearly brought down the coalition government.

While it survived, former Ennahda Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who attempted to broaden the government's social base, was forced to step down. Jebali was replaced by another Ennahda bureaucrat, Ali Laarayedh, who was moved over from his post as interior minister. Key to forcing Jebali out was Ennahda Party leader Rachid Ghannouchi, who conveniently holds neither formal government nor party post, but is, for all intents and purposes, the gray eminence behind the scenes.

Ennahda survived the crisis, but barely. It managed to scrape by with a little help from its friends…in Washington and Paris. Its popularity tumbling in the polls, the economy stagnant – in worse condition than when Zine Ben Ali fled – Salafist thuggery growing and unimpeded, Ennahda needed something dramatic to reverse or slow its growing unpopularity among the Tunisian populace. Like mana from heaven – or more aptly from Washington – coming just in the nick of time, the IMF delivered the economic and political oxygen Ennahda needed to retain its hold on power.

Ennahda's Mana From Washington

Whatever their hesitations, both Washington and Paris – which together have considerable influence over IMF decisions – have decided that, when it comes to Tunisia, the horse that they are going to ride is Ennahdha.  This is the central political message of the IMF loan. Washington's support for Ennahda comes in spite of unimpeded storming and partial trashing of the U.S. embassy in Tunis last September in which the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior was unable to stop the riot, despite prior warning of danger, including a warning from U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia Jacob Welles that went unheeded.[ii]

Although some may wonder why the Obama Administration would support Ennahda, knowing well its working relationship with the country's radical Islamic militants of Salafist and Wahhabist persuasion, it is not as strange as it might seem at first. When it comes to working in tandem with U.S. regional strategic and economic goals, the Ennahda Party has never wavered. As we say, they know well on what side their bread is buttered. On economic policy, Ennahda continues, and with this IMF loan, even intensifies, Tunisia's commitment to neo-liberal economic policies – i.e., keeping the Tunisian economy open to global finance and corporate penetration.

Ennahda: Partner of the Obama Administration, Strategically and Economically

While Tunisia's strategic role in the region remains modest, still it plays an important role. America's Tunis embassy is a communications center for the Mediterranean and North Africa – a potential 'lily pad' from which U.S. military forces could 'jump' into sub-Sahara Africa (or elsewhere) if the situation presented itself. More importantly is the embassy's role collecting intelligence from throughout the region.

In other ways Ennahdha has made it clear 'which side it is on'. Much of its foreign policy is geared towards cooperation with U.S. strategic goals. The government's posture towards the crises in Libya and Syria suggest the kind of role Tunisia plays. Two examples:

• Recently there have been a spate of news stories of Tunisian youth dying fighting with Islamist rebels in Syria. Some reports suggest that it entails hundreds of Tunisian youth; at the very least, Ennahda has turned the other way and not interfered with Salafist recruitment, transfer to other places in the Middle East and training of these youth.  There are some allegations that Ennahda's role is more active. "Three young men from my village (near Sousse) will be buried today," a Tunisian friend wrote. "They died fighting in Syria," he went on, noting that a forth villager, a 22-year-old fighting with Islamic rebels, had died a few days prior. "They (the Ennahda-led government) promised us training, work, dignity, – in a word – 'a future' but they lied, betrayed us, and trained our youth to become assassins."

• Under Ennahda pressure, an incident which, among other things, revealed the powerlessness of Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki to protect Khadaffi's foreign minister, Baghdadi Al Mahmoudi, who had sought political asylum in Tunisia. In a sop to the U.S. and NATO, Ennahda turned Al Mahmoudi over to the Libya's National Transitional Council. One of Marzouki's closest advisors, Ayoub Massoudi, resigned over the handover, criticizing the Ennahda government as a 'theocratic dictatorship.' As a result, Massoudi was indicted and faces a military trial.

It is true that the new Tunisian government has initiated a new, more hostile posture towards Israel although that seems more for domestic public consumption than a real change in policy, and Israel knows it. Tunisia's Israel policy parallels that of Turkey, i.e., verbal criticisms but strategic cooperation through U.S. CENTCOM and NATO formations.

If its contribution strategically to Washington is somewhat limited, still, the Ennahda government is falling in line. The same goes for economic policy; actually where it concerns economic integration, Tunisia pre-and post-Ben Ali shows little to no signs of change. The Tunisian economy remains open to foreign corporate and financial penetration. The policies that led to the 2010-11 crisis, the cause of which were, in large measure, economic remain in place and intensify. Tunisia's continued vulnerability to the labile whims of structural adjustment will continue.

IMF Agreement Ties Tunisia's Hands Economically to the Neo-Liberal Economic Policies of the Past/La Lutta Continua

The proposed agreement – the details of which I will look at in depth in the third part of this series – essentially commits Tunisia to the neo-liberal economic path it has been on since 1987, when Zine Ben Ali first came to power. Ben Ali might be gone, but a policy of privatization of state resources, open capital markets, de-valued currency, wage repression, lifting of subsidies (already started), and cutting government spending for social programs will continue and with it the continued deepening suffering of the Tunisian people.

The situation I see developing in Tunisia looks something like this: the IMF loan will give Ennahda some 'living space' and in the short term they will be able, probably to cling to power. But in the medium and long run, their hold is untenable for their have failed to provide a vision for the country's future. All the old shortcomings – the economic stagnation, corruption, and not least, repression will once again show their faces and perhaps in an aggravated form.

Unable to deliver economically, but kept in power by the IMF loan in large measure, Ennahda, having all but destroyed the political coalition which came together to drive Ben Ali from power, will find, more and more, that, like Ben Ali, it too will have to resort to heightened repression to keep order; one can see the outlines of their policy –  in part they will continues to use their Salafist allies as brownshirts, to break up possible democratic coalition.

Under the veil of religion, there will be increasingly repressive legislation limiting freedom of speech, action. The labor movement, women's rights movement, the integrity of the country's higher education systems – all institutions, social movements that are already under fire – will be further reined in one way or another. All this will be done while Washington sings its song about human rights, but supports those in Tunisia who undermine them.

And as the history of structural adjustment almost always shows, the polarization, class and democratic struggles will intensify. Like my friend Jaco, a Tunisian Jew, said last summer when I asked him how he saw the situation in Tunisia playing out, "Before it gets better, it will get worse…but it will get better."

La lutta continua.


[i] For example, the position of the Tunisian presidency, held by Marzouki, has lost most of its power in the post Ben Ali era. That power has been transferred largely to the Tunisian prime minister – an Ennahdha member.

[ii] Interview with Abdelfattah Mouru, considered 'the number two' man behind Rachid Ghannouchi in the Ennahdha Party structure – in Denver, September 2012.