Adrian Hamilton: Welcome to another false election

Compared to others, Tunisian control is more discrete – but it's still a closed system

Thursday 22 October 2009 00:00

The young Tunisian was clear in his view. "No, I'm not going to vote this Sunday," he said. "What's the point? We all know what the result will be. In fact it would be the same result if nobody at all went to vote," he added.

Welcome to the world of North Africa where ageing autocrats use elections for the sole purpose of keeping themselves in power and their family in riches. Welcome indeed to countries right across the Islamic world from the Gulf through Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan and a great many other nations beside.

By these standards Tunisia could be said to be a relatively soft dictatorship or at least a relatively stable one. Compared to the violent oppression of it's neighbours, Algeria and Libya as well as Egypt, Tunisian political control is more discrete and more legalistic. But a closed political system it is.

This will be the 73-year-old president Abidine Ben Ali's fifth election since he seized power from the ailing father of Tunisian independence, Habib Bourguiba, in 1987 and had him certified as incompetent to rule. Nobody for a moment expects him to be seriously challenged. The rules of representation and legalising a party ensure that the governing party retains an unassailable majority in parliament and only a token competition in the presidentials.

Just as in Morocco and Egypt it is the authorities that control the elections by registering voters, counting the votes and declaring the results. Islamic parties are totally banned. Just as in the neighbouring countries genuine opposition can be quickly countered by laws against defamation of the state or insult to the president or nation. The government controls the airwaves, the administrators control the system.

The stifling of expression is made only worse by the pervasiveness of corruption. Bourguiba, who hero worshipped Ataturk and tried to emulate his modernisation of Turkey in Tunisia, left a legacy of equal rights for women, free state education and health and a centrally controlled economy. The women's rights survive. So too does the control of the economy. But free education and health has been edged out by private schools and clinics which entrench the rich in their privileges while the continued size of the state sector has morphed into a vast enterprise for rewarding friends, family and cronies. Little wonder that the one ambition of so many young men of the Maghreb is to get to Europe by whichever route is possible.

All sorts of academic studies, and reforming voices within the communities, have tried to explain just why it is that Muslim countries have failed to develop vibrant democracies or rapidly developing economies. There's the usual accusation that it is the fault of Western interference that left North African countries as the Middle East struggling to find a future for themselves. And any reading of even the most neutral of histories of these regions must make one blanch at the way in which they were occupied and abused in the last century.

But it is not the West, nor indeed is it Islam, that has caused the steady encroachment of corruption through the body politic. Decades of entrenched power have done that, as much south of the Sahara as north of it. Where Europe is at fault has been in the way that we have taken advantage of bribery to further our business interests.

For the politicians within Britain, the question of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi's release back to Libya was one of who should take the blame, but for anyone who cares either about the decency of Britain or its responsibilities abroad, it was truly obscene to listen to revelation after revelation of the way we sacrificed all our principles to ingratiate ourselves with a loathsome dictator who has oppressed his own people and kept his country backward for the last 40 years.

It's the wrong course for us and for them. The countries of North Africa aren't going to stay fixed in time for ever, however much we may want them to do so. Aside from the young King Mohammed VI of Morocco – at 46 now showing signs of a reversion to authoritarianism – the leaders are now growing old. Ben Ali is in his seventies, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is 81, President Bouteflika of Algeria is 72 and Gaddafi of Libya looks a very raddled 67. Although each is making every effort to ensure a seamless succession, their demise is bound to make things different.

How different is not easy to estimate. These countries have been held in their own constraint for so long, and have been deliberately encouraged to do so in the interests of Western security and stability, that it's almost impossible to say whether a vacuum in power ushers forth anarchy or moderated adjustment.

Radical Islam has been ruthlessly and brutally suppressed by the North African countries. But they, like so many other Muslim countries, are experiencing a broadly-based Muslim revival. Speak to any Arab of whatever class and the story is the same. Religious observance is on the increase from the mosque to the hijab. It's what happening in Turkey as well. It may prove a breeding ground for extremism, as some fear. Personally I think it's far more to do with self worth than external aggression although it could become anti-Western if we react as if it is.

But it's something we're going to have to live with, if only because its happening right on Europe's border and its visible expression in emigration is seen every day on southern Europe's shores. So far we're not even close to understanding let alone coping with it. President Nicolas Sarkozy's vision of a club of Mediterranean countries, which might have at least pushed forward some trade and aid policies, has instead proved just another of the French President's initiatives introduced to aggrandise himself and France.

He and Angela Merkel of Germany have made clear their determination to keep out Turkey – which holds the most approachable key to comprehending what is going on – on grounds that are implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, anti-Muslim. The EU's policy on immigration meanwhile is fractured, inhumane and more and more restrictive. Its trade approach is riven with commercial rivalry and straight greed.

Europe doesn't need a clash of civilisations but if we keep on like this we're all too likely to get one.

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