Oh, for the quiet diplomatic life

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Tim Wigmore discusses the future of Tunisia with Hatem Atallah, the ambassador to the UK

Seldom can the refrain ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ have been less appropriate. In the space of less than a month in December and January, Hatem Atallah went from representing an apparently secure regime to one suffering from chaos and, on January 14th, ending. Tunisia is now moving – it is hoped – towards genuine democracy.

It seems remarkable that the same man could be the ambassador for countries with such palpably different aims and interests. But such is the life of the professional diplomat. Relatively softly spoken, one can’t help admire his palpable self-control – the sight of Atallah losing his temper must be rare indeed. He appears extraordinarily unruffled by proceedings, and has continued “representing my country and the reality of the country” amidst all the turmoil. He describes the role of a diplomat as such: “we do not participate in the making of any kind of policy, but we represent that policy to the outside world”.

Surely, given that the two regimes have so little in common, you can’t serve both? Atallah, obviously, doesn’t agree – to him, serving his country is his job, and he’s strictly not political. When I facetiously ask him whether he’d carry on as am ambassador if the revolution was overturned tomorrow, he says simply, “I don’t think that will happen”. And given that he served the old, US-supported but quietly corrupt, regime for 23 years, it’s definitely fair to describe Atallah as a diplomat first and a democrat second. Not that this distinguishes him from anyone else of his profession; witness American support for innumerable ‘favourable’ regimes with less commitment to democracy than Thirst Lodge to female decency.

Atallah provides some fascinating insights into the Tunisian revolution. Youth are absolutely fundamental to his explanation – he describes the events as “youth driven entirely”, and “bottom up” in nature. The reasons for the discontent of the youth are complex, and a large part stems from economic factors – fundamentally rising unemployment and increased prices of basics. Atallah convincingly asserts that the revolutionary movement “started on an economic basis, and took a new political direction as it grew”.

He emphasis that Tunisia’s youth “demanded more political freedom”. The problem for the previous regime was that “society is highly educated” and “there is a high rate of literacy” so was not content to continue to have no voice in the development of the country. One must wonder whether, in making not inconsiderable efforts to educate its people, the old Tunisian regime were in fact creating the conditions whereby their rule would be overthrown.

What was crucial in the effectiveness of the protests was the depth of popular support for the demands. It was because of this that, when the revolution came, it was “spontaneous”. Furthermore, as this became apparent, the old regime increasingly recognised that it would be impossible to carry on as before. Hence the ‘revolution’ was notably brief. While many argue that it is still going on, the most important phase was less than a month long. On December 18th last year, Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation set of a wave of protests that culminated in the head of state, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, resigning on January 14th. The hope is that genuine democracy will take root in Tunisia, and Atallah is adamant that “things will go all the way” in this regard. He “doesn’t think the revolution can be overthrown”, for the reason “it is a widely popular revolution” which he claims enjoys overwhelming support.

This brings us to the rather delicate question of what happens next in the country. Often when there have been revolutions, what has happened next has been particularly catastrophic for the country in question, as the often bloody examples of decolonisation in Africa attests to. Yet Atallah, whilst recognising the potential danger of this, is adamant Tunisia will not now descend into complete chaos. He emphasises “Tunisian has never been known for extremism, or any kind of political violence.” His vision for peaceful reconciliation involves “the legal process being used fully”, bringing those who were corrupt in the old regime, or brought “physical harm” to Tunisians, to justice. He wants “everything done according to the law”, as part of the process towards cleansing the country from the previous regime. But when a regime has been in power for over 23 years, as Zine’s had, there will be a lot of people incriminated by association. Tunisia’s great challenge is to bring the most obviously corrupt to justice, but to do so without instituting mass purges of a sort that would be to the detriment of creating a new democratic ‘normalcy’ in the country.

No one would claim Tunisia’s task will be easy, including Atallah. While emphatic that what will be put in place there is a “fully fledged democracy”, he admits to uncertainty. “What kind of system will be put in place? No one knows.” There are currently “committees working on a variety of options” for Tunisia’s future, such as whether there should be separate elections to determine the President and the make-up of Parliament.  It is hoped and expected that there will be fully open elections in the summer. There is some tradition of democracy in the country, but given that the most recent election, in 2009, saw President Zine returned to office with apparently over 89% of the vote, this is clearly a somewhat limited one.

The Tunisian revolution, or whatever one wishes to call it, was the first of a ‘wave’ of Middle Eastern protests. The temptation in the west has certainly been to say they have all been interconnected, and will inevitably follow in very similar trajectories. But it is a view Atallah takes issue with, saying “each country is different”, and “there is no connection” between the protestors in each. When asked whether the media in the UK, and the west more generally, have a tendency to construct a narrative of the Middle Eastern revolutions in which there is a degree of homogeneity that is lacking in reality, he passionately describes the dangers of doing so, saying “I hope not. One size fits all does not work. It would be a mistake to look at all the countries from each angle.”

Part of Atallah’s role is to help the British government recognise this diversity, and also that they can help in the “transition” phase. Given how Britain have responded to events, it’s fair to say he’s been tremendously successful. The UK was the first country to downgrade the safety risks of travelling to Tunisia as a tourist, while it is the only country so far to lift travel restrictions on all of Tunisia. William Hague was also the first foreign minister to visit the country after January 14th,something Atallah isverygrateful for.

That Great Britain has such a close relationship with Tunisia – even more so than France, their old colonial power – comes as something of a surprise, and is testament to the importance of Atallah’s work in this country. Being an ambassador is certainly not just another 9-to-5 job.