For the Benefit of the Tunisian People (I)

TUNIS/BERLIN | | tunesien

TUNIS/BERLIN (Own report) - The Tunisian government crisis is putting into jeopardy Berlin's current efforts to strengthen its position in North Africa. The German government has recently been trying to enhance its influence in some of the Arab countries by cooperating with Islamist forces, the Muslim Brotherhood circles in Egypt, and the Ennahda government in Tunisia. The aim is to guarantee "stability" in the aftermath of the overthrow of Mubarak and Ben Ali, through a transition to a new political system based on conservative Islamist social structures. German businesses are very interested in this "stability," for example in Tunisia, which, as a low wage location, is popular with German companies. Turkey serves as a model. Its ruling Islamist AKP party is strengthening Islamist structures, which, for example, can help to prevent strikes and other forms of on-the-job protests. By cooperating with Islamists, Berlin accepts the risk of enhancing the prestige of radical forces among them. According to experts, this is the case in Tunisia. The country's liberal and left wing milieus are resolutely protesting.

The Conflict is Escalating

Violent clashes are continuing in Tunisia, in the aftermath of the assassination of the opposition leader, Chokri Belaid. Tens of thousands took to the streets at the end of last week for Belaid's funeral, protesting against the Islamist dominated government. Islamists are suspected to be responsible for the assassination. Thousands of Ennahada supporters demonstrated on Saturday, protesting also against the French government's declaration regarding the assassination, which was considered to be interference in Tunisia's domestic affairs. The dispute between Islamist forces and their opponents is escalating. Initially, the Islamist Prime Minster, Hamadi Jebali, offered to form a "cabinet of experts" in the coming week. On Sunday however, three ministers from the government coalition liberal CPR (Congrès pour la République) party, resigned. How this will now develop is unpredictable.

The Zoo in German Children's Rooms

Because of the German government's cooperation with the Islamist dominated government in Tunis, developments in Tunisia are particularly relevant for Berlin's foreign policy. That country is very beneficial for German companies, as can be seen in the example of the stuffed animal toy manufacturer, Steiff. Steiff has around 900 employees, mostly seamstresses, in Sidi Bouzid. It was in Sidi Bouzid that the Arab Revolts began, following the self-immolation of the vegetable vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi. These seamstresses, according to a report, are working a 48 hour week "on Pfaff sewing machines" for an unrivaled monthly salary equivalent to 140 Euros. This is "less than in the Tunisian trade union controlled government companies." "The zoos in German children's bedrooms were mainly produced in Sidi Bouzid," summarizes the report.[1] Tunisian low salaries provide margins for companies, such as Steiff, which can be used to apply pressure to employees in other locations. Last year, when the Steiff factory in Portugal no longer satisfied the German company's profit aspirations, the headquarters in Giengen (Baden Wuerttemberg) decided to shut down the factory - delivering another blow to crisis-ridden Portugal.[2]

An Asia for Medium-sized Enterprises

Altogether, nearly 300 German companies, including those in the textile branch as well as automotive subcontractors, such as Leoni and Dräxlmaier, are using Tunisia's low wages to inflate their profits. According to an opinion poll carried out by the German Chamber of Foreign Trade, the 2011 uprising and strikes created difficulties, but did not lead to sharp declines. The poll contends that German companies are praising the low production costs and tax breaks for export companies - though both can also be found in other regions of the world. Tunisia's decisive advantage, according to three-fourths of all German companies, is its "geographical proximity to Europe."[3] A German textile producer is quoted as saying "Tunisia and the whole of North Africa" have "the opportunity of becoming a sort of Asia for the small and medium-sized European enterprises."[4] The political uprisings in the country are beginning to worry the German companies for the more distant future. According to the poll by the Chamber of Foreign Trade, whereas, 91 percent of the companies polled, found the "political and social stability" under the Ben Ali dictatorship to be the most important locational advantage in 2009, today, more than three-fourths consider the "lack of political and social stability" to be the gravest locational disadvantage.[5]

Restricted Trade Unions

This is Berlin's point of departure. The German government began closely cooperating with the Islamist dominated government in late 2011 - as it was simultaneously making overtures to the Egyptian government of Islamist forces, flanked by the German foreign minister's programmatic declarations. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[6]) The idea is to prop up a Turkish modeled system in the countries of the Arab world. The governing AKP party In Turkey has its popular support in the Islamist oriented segments of the population, linking their conservative views to an overly pro-entrepreneurial policy.[7] The European Parliament, for example, complained in 2009 that in Turkey, "the trade unions can only function with limitations."[8] Official reprisals against Turkish trade union leaders are repeatedly being reported, while the government's privatization measures are being forcefully implemented. If such a system could be installed also in Tunisia or Egypt, the social and political "stability" would benefit German companies like during the reign of Mubarak or Ben Ali.

Show Trials against Critics

Germany is also supporting the Islamist dominated Tunisian government through the so-called transformation partnership, which is aimed at offering German companies new profits and Berlin a stronger standing in this North African country. (german-foreign-policy.com will report tomorrow.) The price is the valorization of the Islamist forces, whose growing influence began to raise apprehensions with the Ennahda Party's electoral victory in October 2011. The Islamist dominated government has, "at best, hesitantly distanced" itself from attacks by violent Salafists. It has imposed new editorial boards, and initiated "show trials against critics, which were milked by the media," according to a short analysis by the SPD-affiliated Friedrich Ebert Foundation.[9] Under the reign of Ennahda Prime Minister Jebali, the social as well as the political climate is gradually shifting to favor the "Islamist forces - including the clearly anti-democratic and violence-prone Salafists." Liberal and left wing milieus are resolutely protesting, most recently, last week. Yesterday, Sunday, the government in Tunis was dissolved under the current pressure.

[1] Unternehmen im Demokratie-Test; www.faz.net 21.10.2011
[2] Último dia dos ursinhos de Merkel em Portugal; www.tvi24.iol.pt 05.02.2013
[3] AHK Tunesien: Lage und Perspektiven deutscher Exportunternehmen in Tunesien 2011/2012
[4] Unternehmen im Demokratie-Test; www.faz.net 21.10.2011
[5] AHK Tunesien: Lage und Perspektiven deutscher Exportunternehmen in Tunesien 2011/2012
[6] see also Vom Feind zum Partner, Kurswechsel, Vom Feind zum Partner (II) and The Muslim Brotherhood as Partners
[7] see also Die neuen Partner in Ankara, The New Partners in Ankara (II) and The Turkish Model
[8] Entschließung des Europäischen Parlaments vom 12. März 2009 zu dem Fortschrittsbericht 2008 über die Türkei
[9] Elisabeth Braune: Islamistischer Herbst statt demokratischer Sommer, FES Tunis Perspektive September 2012