Geography, as is the case with every other country, teaches much about Tunisia.
It is the Arab country closest to the heart of Europe, jutting out toward Sicily at the central Mediterranean's narrowest point. The slow-moving car ferry from La Goulette, east of Tunis, to Trapani in northwestern Sicily takes roughly seven hours. You can fly the distance in about an hour or so. Because of Tunisia's proximity to Italy, trade and politics between this part of North Africa and Sicily were often intermingled. In the medieval era, Christian merchants dominated the souks of Tunisia, even as Sicilian politicians in Palermo hatched plans for the conquest of Tunis. From the 9th until the 11th centuries, Sicily was ruled by Arab dynasties from Tunisia such as the Aghlabids. The divide between these two intimate neighbors on both sides of the Mediterranean hardened only with the Industrial Revolution and the invention of movable type, which created formalized states and different linguistic communities.
Tunisia was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire; the road network of the northern third of Tunisia today was in many places originally laid by the Romans. Tunisia was essentially Greater Carthage: an age-old cluster of civilization. And yet, as I've written previously, the occupying Romans made a geographic distinction that has lasted until today, and sheds light on the Arab Spring.
After the Roman General Scipio defeated the Carthaginian forces of Hannibal in 202 B.C. outside of Tunis, he dug a demarcation ditch that marked the extent of civilized territory. Still visible in places, it runs from Tabarka on Tunisia's northwestern coast southward and turns directly eastward to Sfax, another Mediterranean port. The towns beyond that line have fewer Roman remains and today tend to be poorer and less developed, with historically higher rates of unemployment. The town of Sidi Bouzid, where the Arab Spring started in December 2010, when a vendor of fruits and vegetables set himself on fire as an act of protest, lies beyond Scipio's line. We can say, therefore, that the Arab Spring began in the most European of Arab countries, yet in a part of that country that was relatively underdeveloped.
The divide between Sicily and Tunisia hardened only with the Industrial Revolution and the invention of movable type, which created formalized states and different linguistic communities.
In one sense, geography argues for Tunisia's cultural and political unity. Tunisia is not vast in the way of its neighbors, Algeria and Libya. Its topography is not riven to a great extent by mountains. There are no substantial sectarian or ethnic divides, all of which makes Tunisia relatively easy to govern. In fact, Tunisia, with its Roman-originated road system, is an authentic state, with real bureaucratic institutions and a real identity. Tunisia was the first place in the Arab world that came into contact with post-Enlightenment European thought during the 19th century when Ottoman officials based in Tunis such as Rifa'a al-Tahtawi went to study at the Sorbonne and brought back Western ideas.
This geographical and historical tendency was further buttressed by the dynamism of its post-World War II political leader, Habib Bourguiba. Bourguiba led Tunisians in a peaceful struggle for independence from the French in 1956 and created a strong secular identity for the new polity, allowing him to be compared with Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
But in another sense, Tunisia is plagued by divisions, which are partially geographically determined. In the 1970s and 1980s, I had the occasion to travel back and forth between Tunisia's austere interior plateau and its luscious and sprawling Mediterranean coast. The towns of the interior like Kairouan and Siliana were provincial and suffused with Islamic traditionalism. There you felt very far from Europe and in the bosom of Arab North Africa. The coastal towns, on the other hand, places such as Sousse and Hammamet, were teeming with flowers (hibiscus and bougainvillea) and with men and women dressed more fashionably by European standards. The coast, where the hordes of Western tourists congregated, belonged more to Mediterranean civilization than to North Africa per se. Then there were the interior towns further to the south, closer to the Sahara, like Gafsa and Medenine, which had a windblown, back-of-beyond aura placing them atmospherically in the African Sahel. Indeed, Tunisia is one big, small country.
While the Islamist tendencies tend to come from the interior, the situation is far more complicated than that. For example, the shantytowns on the outskirts of Tunis have, over the decades, been prone not to the Islamic traditionalism of a historic pilgrimage city like Kairouan in central Tunisia, but to the radical strains of political Islam, which actually challenge tradition. For it isn't only geographical differences that plague Tunisian politics, but a phenomenon like urbanization that has created an Islamist-trending underclass that feels alienated from the secular elites who are more firmly established in the coastal cities.
Then there is globalization itself, which acts as background noise to the Arab Spring in general. Globalization takes the form of Western-originated cosmopolitanism and materialism on one hand, to which Tunisia's secularists and moderate Islamists are attracted, and the form of pan-Islam on the other hand, to which more rigid Tunisian Islamists turn. (Most Tunisian Islamists are mainstream and are aligned with the most liberal of all Arab Islamist parties, Ennahda.) For in an era of instant electronic communications, Islamic ideological communities from Morocco to Indonesia can be united: so that the so-called Clash of Civilizations plays out both internationally and internally in individual states across the Arab world.
Whereas in states that have been, in terms of geography, more artificially conceived — Syria and Iraq, for example — stability has been guaranteed for decades by suffocating military dictatorships, Tunisia's post-colonial political history has been more subtle. Like Egypt, Tunisia is not geographically artificial and therefore did not require an extremist ideology to hold it together — the case with Syria, Iraq and neighboring Libya. But unlike Egypt, another age-old cluster of civilization, Tunisia has not had a robust military establishment to provide order. Because it was more European, and because Bourguiba himself was sufficiently enlightened, the Tunisian military was kept small and a lot of money was instead spent on items like primary school education and rural women's literacy. When Zine El Abidine Ben Ali replaced Bourguiba in 1987, his rule was backed more by the internal security services than by the comparatively weak military. Now that Ben Ali has been toppled, the internal security services are simply not sufficiently widespread to provide order in an emergency, and the military has no real tradition of doing such a thing. Tunisia, more than most Arab societies, therefore, is dependent on political consensus for its stability.
Tunisia is, ironically, too civilized to support the kind of authoritarian military-security establishment that provides order, and yet too politically underdeveloped for stable, efficient democratic politics. Thus, Tunisia will probably stumble onward for some years with weak governments, frequent demonstrations and strikes, and a weak security environment in its interior reaches. This will dramatically hurt tourism, which for decades was a mainstay of the economy. Tunisia will not have a new form of authoritarianism imposed upon it — a risk in other Arab states. Tunisians are, I believe, too sophisticated for that.
The best-case scenario for Tunisia is to emerge in some years as an Arab Portugal — a country of roughly the same size on Europe's extremity, which sustained more than a decade of political unrest following the toppling of its reactionary dictatorship in 1974, before achieving real democratic and economic stability. But unlike Portugal, whose only borders are with Spain and the Atlantic Ocean, Tunisia, even were it to achieve political stability, could still be undermined by security threats such as weapons smuggling emanating from its neighbors Libya and Algeria. In this sense only, is geography not a blessing for Tunisia.
The fact that Tunisia, with all its geographic and attendant developmental advantages, faces such a difficult road to political normality, testifies to the misplaced optimism of Western elites at the beginning of the Arab Spring over two years ago. Democratic culture, more common to the West than to other parts of the world, does not instantly sprout forth. It thrives on moderation and compromise, and moderation and compromise — even in the West — are often hard to come by. That's why instability in the Arab world is the new normal. Tunisia, perhaps the Arab world's most hopeful prospect, proves it.