The rise and fall of Tunisia's Ceauşescu

Image removed.

Socialist Unity, January 17, 2011 -- Picture sent by Twitter from Al Jazeera journalist Ayman Mohyeldin. Protesters hold up signs outside a trade union office saying “Protests must continue”, rejecting the fake “national unity” government.

[For more on Tunisia in revolt, click HERE.]

By Richard Seymour

[This article first appeared on Seymour's blog, Lenin's Tomb. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission.]

January 16, 2011 -- The revolution in Tunisia that began on December 18, 2010, went from being almost completely ignored in the British newspapers to being a sensational story of bloodbaths, gang violence, Israeli worries about "stability", and pleas for "restraint" from the foreign secretary in the space of a few days. At the top of the agenda for many newspapers has been the implications for tourism, Tunisia's number one growth industry, and thus for holidaymaking Britons. No surprises here. Whitey's travelogues in Arabia form a mainstay of the Orientalist canon, and the reduction of Tunisia to scenery and troublesome natives is in keeping with tradition.

Tunisia's development since the days of the Habib Bourguiba regime has been of interest to Euro-American journalists and academics principally in terms of how well its elite has been trained by enlightened tutelage, how reasonably it has imitated the white intellect and internalises and articulates "Western political concepts" such as constitutional sovereignty, democracy and free markets, with the emphasis strongly on the latter. Bourguiba was approved for aligning with the US during the Cold War, opposing Nasser's leadership in the region, and for attempting to maintain a space for economic liberalism (i.e. private capital accumulation) even when the state had to constantly intervene to make up for a weak bourgeoisie. If he ultimately failed in his attempts to reform Tunisia's economy along neoliberal lines, and defeat the growing Islamist opposition, he is nevertheless fondly remembered, where he is remembered at all, in the newspapers and scholarly journals of the West.

Ben Ali has been the recipient of benediction in the US and Europe, first, for his role in using state terror to break up the old corporatist order, and brutally forcing neoliberalism on a recalcitrant working class, and second, for his pro-US stance in the context of the "war on terror". With Ben Ali overthrown in a revolt led by the organised working class, those ruling-class forces that have hitherto feigned an interest in Middle East democracy are worried by the potential consequences for Algeria, Egypt and the other pro-US dictatorships in the region, a concern they choose to express in the idiom of "stability". And their fear is justified. For it concentrates within it the elements of the twin crises of global capitalism and of US imperialism.

* * *

Ben Ali's dictatorship, as the above suggests, took power as part of a global reconfiguration in capitalist property relations, as well as in response to specific domestic problems for the Tunisian ruling class. The latter have roots in the weaknesses of the state and the corporatist system built up under the Sahelian lawyer Habib Bourguiba, with the Neo-Destour party at its apex. The Neo-Destour emerged in 1934, as a competitor to the liberal-constitutionalist Old Destour in resisting French colonialism. The Old Destour was too moderate, and too effectively contained by the colonial powers, to be effective. Bourguiba did not himself initially seek full independence. Autonomous government and equality between Arabs and Frenchmen would have been his preference, but this was not a policy that was commensurate with the colonists' ends. Every effort at moderation on the part of anticolonial elites, every attempt to form a rapprochement with the colonists, seems to have failed. Thus, more often than not, the nationalist leadership was forced into militancy that it did not really want.

As with most nationalist parties resisting colonial rule in the Middle East, the leadership of the Neo-Destour was initially comprised of a small section of the intelligentsia, university graduates who resented the colonial jackboot and the Tunis-based grand familles who connived with the colonists. These educated elites were offspring of the emerging Sahel bourgeoisie, who needed to mobilise the peasantry and the emerging proletariat, without fundamentally altering the relations of subjection and exploitation in which the latter were held. As usual, there was an emphasis on regenerating national culture, and modernising the better to resist colonial domination. But, there was also the particular element of hatred for the crusading policy of the French Catholic church under Cardinal Lavigerie, the French empire's supernal advocate. Thus, the Neo-Destours emphasised the protection of Islamic traditions, attempting to mobilise them as elements of the national identity they sought to "restore".

From this nucleus grew a mass party, incorporating the Tunis proletariat, the emerging bourgeoisie and peasants from the interior. By 1937, the party had 100,000 members. The full-time cadres tended, like the leadership, to be university graduates. But while the leadership were products of the Franco-Arab education system, the intermediate cadres were graduates of the Zaytuna mosque-university. The new mass party out-manouevred its old Destour rivals, and participated in mass anti-colonial riots in 1938 alongside the CGTT, the pro-Destour trade union federation set up in opposition to the CGT which was dominated by the French Socialists. The alliance between the Neo-Destour and the trade union movement resulted from the routine discrimination against Tunisian workers by colonial powers, thus giving their demands a nationalist aspect.

This alliance would last well into independence. The 1938 riots were met with extreme violence, as colonial police shot dead 112 people and wounded 62 more. Aside from repression, one feature of colonial life that made resistance difficult was the designs of the fascist power Italy on Tunisia. Mussolini had been encouraging Italian agents to scope out the prospects for hijacking nationalist resistance to French rule, and the Destourians were wary of such predation. One of the sordid betrayals of the Popular Front government of France was to refuse to free the colonies, arguing that it could not do so in the case of Tunisia because it would immediately be taken over by Mussolini. Bourguiba argued that a free Tunisia would readily make an alliance with the French against fascism. And while the betrayal of the French Socialists and Communist parties led many rank and file Destourians to sympathise with the Axis, the Neo-Destour leadership's hostility to the fascist powers prevailed throughout WWII. This ensured that even after the Italian fascists had freed Bourguiba from a French jail, he spoke out against any illusions in an alliance with the Axis powers to defeat colonialism. Instead, he declared his support for France, and called for an alliance with the Allied powers.

It should be said that this stance did not hasten the end of colonialism when the war ended. The colonial powers continued to repress the anticolonial front. Bourguiba sought and gained the support of the newly found Arab League, but otherwise diplomatic initiatives yielded little. The French authorities granted minor concessions, such as forming a new government with an equal number of French and Tunisian ministers under the formal sovereignty of the bey (monarch). But this was in keeping with the treaty of protectorate, not a deviation from it. The Destourists were compelled to launch a guerilla war against the French, beginning in 1952. Coupled with joint action by the trade union movement, the struggle finally won independence in 1956.

* * *

The new regime under Bourguiba and the Neo-Destour would be a self-consciously modernising, secular, republican one. Though it introduced some redistributive measures, the new regime was bourgeois reformist rather than socialist. The trade union leadership supported the regime, but on the basis of principles of tadamuniyya, essentially cross-class solidarity in the interests of the nation. This was in no way inconsistent with widespread capitalist support for Bourguiba, or with the general trend toward corporatist rule in much of the world, or with the version of nationalism which the Neo-Destour propagated.

Bourguiba's education had inculcated in him a romantic view of French nationalism, which he venerated and sought to reproduce in Tunisia. His conception of the rational state was Napoleonic in most respects, with the single exception that it was to be non-militarist, as Bourguiba and his confederates could see no way in which Tunisia could be an effective military power, even regionally. Its foreign policy alliances would be pragmatic but tend toward support for the US and Europe, as Tunisia's ruling class generally stood aloof from the Arab nationalism sweeping the Middle East and North Africa at the time. Bourguiba worked hard to rebuild relations with the old colonial power, even after the emergence of the European Common Market started to raise barriers to Tunisian exports.

The Neo-Destour party's platform initially consisted of a series of reforms designed to overcome the weaknesses inherited from France's predatory rule. The aim was to establish an independent centre of capital accumulation in Tunisia and, as had been the case with late-coming capitalist powers in Europe, this required strong state intervention to cultivate and nurture the very bourgoisie that would become the new ruling class. French colonists singularly uninterested in such goals had declined to develop an industrial base in Tunisia, instead focusing their surplus-extraction activities on agrarian and mining economies. So, the immediate course was to try to combine the necessary state control over utilities and direction of key assets, as well as the incorporation of organised labour into the state, with a certain amount of economic liberalism.

This was interrupted by a brief period of "socialism", modelled on the experiments in Egypt and Algeria, during the 1960s. The party was renamed the Parti Socialist Destourien (PSD). A new minister of planning was appointed in 1964, with responsibility for creating a new economic policy based on agricultural cooperatives and industrialisation led by the public sector. The minister in question was Ahmed Ben Salah, former UGTT leader. The trade union leadership, which had longed pledged its support as a crucial element in the power base of Bourguiba's government, had always been happy to participate in corporatist rule, and these reforms promised to raise the bargaining power of labour as well as improving social welfare. In truth, as in much of the Middle East and North Africa, such avowedly socialist measures would have accelerated the development of a bourgeoisie, albeit one integrated into the state.

But those elements of the capitalist class and mercantile elite that had formed another crucial component of Bourguiba's coalition were aghast, and the reforms came to little. In 1967, Israel delivered a knock-out blow to Egypt and its allies, and a lynchpin of radical Arab nationalism was devastated. Globally, neoliberalism was starting to emerge as a plausible solution to the existing impediments to capital accumulation. Ben Salah was dismissed in 1970, and eventually jailed. Thus, the "socialist" experience came to an end -- but the corporatist order remained in place.

In the 1970s, the regime embarked on a bid to liberalise the economy and pursue export-led growth. Import-substitution programs didn't stimulate growth due to weak domestic demand, and capital fared poorly in international markets. Foreign direct investment was in capital-intensive rather than labour-intensive sectors, so did not tend to improve employment. The country was suffering from a serious balance-of-payments deficit, only overcome by the temporary expedient of borrowing and rising hydrocarbon revenues. Demand for well-educated, skilled Tunisian labour in Libya and the Gulf states also meant that labour remittances boosted national incomes. This was the reason for the attempted liberalisation program.

But as in other corporatist societies, a radical left-wing was emerging in the trade union movement, challenging the wage freezes agreed by the union bureaucracy through the "social progress Charter", and potentially posing a serious threat to the regime's hegemony. Left wingers in the party and elements of the state bureaucracy were also hostile to the reforms for different reasons. Thus, the neoliberal reforms foundered on resistance led by organised labour. A general strike in 1978 had to be put down by the armed forces. Further confrontations included the food riots in 1983 and 1984. As oil revenues dried up, demand for Tunisian labour fell, and Tunisia's debt credibility collapsed, the class basis of Bourguiba's corporatist state was fracturing.

The International Monetary Fund intervened in 1986 with a "stabilisation" program predicated on structural reforms such as privatisation. To achieve this liberalisation, the trade unions would be politically neutralised, and the state's relationship to labour would take a bureaucratic-authoritarian turn, in order to break the possible sources of resistance to the new order. But it would require the dictatorial rule of the former military officer, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, to impose this agenda. Ben Ali thus took power when a couple of medics attending Bourguiba conveniently declared him medically incompetent, and thus constitutionally incapable of continuing to rule. The former head of the Italian military secret police claims the credit for having organised this smooth succession, on behalf of Bettino Craxi's Socialist Party administration. But it could not have worked if Ben Ali didn't have the backing of a powerful faction within the state and, on the face of it, a saleable agenda. That agenda was democracy.

* * *

From the second his "bloodless coup" was consummated on November 7, 1987, Ben Ali pledged that under his rule the country would be democratised -- just as he has been promising for the last few weeks until his final flight to the welcoming arms of the Saudi monarchy, a longstanding refuge for beaten despots. He would respect human rights, he said, and insist on the rule of law where Bourguiba had flouted it. This was his serenade to a country, and a region, on the brink of change. It seemed at the time that Algeria was about to go through a similar process of democratisation.

Ben Ali revamped the ruling party, which he now called the Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique, and amnestied thousands of political prisoners in his first year. He ratified the UN convention on torture, abolished the presidency for life, relaxed laws on the formation of parties and associations, and formed a new National Pact with the leading political and social organisations in the country. This period of relative laxity lasted for less than the two years it took for Ben Ali to coordinate rigged elections in 1989, from which his party emerged with 100% of the seats.

The UGTT, meanwhile, was effectively coopted again. Worse than that, it was subjugated. Union salaries had long been paid for by the state, but one source of independent action was the autonomous budget, paid for by a 1% tax on workers' wages, given to the unions each year. This budget was withheld after the 1984-5 food riots. The leadership around Habib Achour was removed, the old guard purged. Under Bourguiba first, then Ben Ali, the union effectively became a technocratic partner of the government in a bureaucratic process of implementing policy, rather than a labour union bargaining over wages and conditions. Politically, the left-wing was defeated in favour of a centre-left slate, reflecting an accomodationist attitude after 1989.

The old union leadership was coopted, but could still put up a fight if pushed. The new union bureaucracy under Ismail Sahbani was not even capable of that. They were the Blairites of Tunisian trade unionism. The "National Pact" itself, though MERIP reports it as an example of inclusion in the early days, was part of this subordination. It required that the unions accept new conditions that would dramatically weaken their power, exposing their members to wage loss, insecurity and price rises. Only a union that had been suitably beaten could be incorporated into such an agenda.

Aside from the trade unions, the two main potential sources of opposition to the new regime were the communists and the Islamists, and the government did not waste any time in tackling them. MERIP reports that the state "stepped up its repression against an-Nahdha and the Tunisian Communist Workers' Party (POCT). Late-night raids and house-to-house searches became commonplace in some neighborhoods. Stories of torture under interrogation and military court convictions multiplied. The campaign to crush an-Nahdha intensified in 1991 following an attack on an RCD office in the Bab Souika area of Tunis and after the government claimed that security forces had uncovered a plot to topple the regime. Susan Waltz reports that the government's extensive dragnet hauled in more than 8,000 individuals between 1990 and 1992."

Vilifying their political opponents as "terrorist" was a singularly effective way for the state to disarm criticism of its repressive measures. Dyab Jahjah has written that protesters in Tunisia fear the state will unleash its repertoire of false flag techniques today -- indeed, there are rumours (more than rumours now) of agents being captured in the capital. The internal security apparatus was also continually expanded, long after any plausible threat had been neutralised. Opponents were hounded with the use of phone tapping, threats, beatings and assassinations. Torture was practised systematically, with hundreds of cases documented by domestic and international human rights agencies.

Despite this, Ben Ali still claimed to be interested in democratising Tunisia, over time. After the 1994 elections, again held in rigged circumstances that guaranteed the continued control of the ruling party, Ben Ali argued that democratic transition had to be done gradually, in order to make it compatible with the country's long-term development and to avoid letting the Islamists in. But, he insisted, democracy was still on his agenda.

Globally, the dictatorship aligned itself with neoliberal institutions, acceding to GATT, then joining the WTO. Throughout the 2000s, it forged a closer relationship with the EU, under an agreement removing all tariffs and restrictions on goods between the two. France and Italy have been its main export and import partners in this period. Given his zeal in prosecuting the war against "terrorism" throughout the 1990s, which mission he took to the UN and the EU, Ben Ali was an obvious candidate to be a regional ally in the Bush administration's program for reconfiguring the Middle East in Washington's (further) interests in the context of the war on terror. Ben Ali thus joined Team America, alongside other lifelong democrats such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah.

The results of Ben Ali's authoritarian neoliberalism for capital were impressive in their way: GDP on a par with the European periphery, low public-sector deficit, controlled inflation and renewed creditworthiness. The financial sector was reformed and initially experienced a mini-boom. Significant sections of the public sector were turned over for profitable investment. A total of 160 state-owned enterprises have been privatised. The stock market capitalisation of the 50 largest companies listed on the Bourse de Tunis was worth $5.7 billion by 2007. Ben Ali's famously, corruptly wealthy family also made a mint from the boom. He himself became a darling of the EU and the US, conferring global prestige on his regime. The cost of all this to the working class, though concealed in some of the official figures, was just as significant. High unemployment, growing inequality, the removal of subsidies for the poor, rising housing costs and weaker welfare protections are among the added burdens of the Tunisian working class in the neoliberal era.

This does not mean that the average working-class person has experienced an absolute decline in income throughout this period. In fact, the development of the cities has meant more people moving from the poorer rural areas to cities and towns where absolute poverty is less common. What it means is that wage growth has been suppressed by the government, and made conditional upon productivity rises. In the private sector, liberalisation means that the discipline of the market has been used to extract higher productivity from the workforce. The total effect is that more of the wealth that has been generated has gone into the pockets of the very rich. In simple terms, it means that the rate of exploitation has been increased.

For as long as the political opposition was effectively suppressed, and for as long as the trade union movement was effectively subjugated, the old order could continue. But that in turn depended on the regime's ability to boast that it was creating a wealthier economy that would eventually benefit everyone. That is, the viability of the regime rested on the viability of neoliberal institutions, both domestically and globally -- and that is exactly what has taken a knock.

* * *

The first real signs of an independent civil society movement with trade unions operating separately from the state came on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Then, the trade union movement organised antiwar demonstrations -- relatively small in scale, due to repression and widespread arrests. There has also been activism in solidarity with Gaza, where some space to organise has been made possible by the regime's traditional two-state position. US power in the region has experienced a crisis with the occupation of Iraq and, to an extent, with the failed Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Had these ventures been successful on their own terms and at low cost, then the US might already have new client dictatorships in place in Iran, Lebanon and Syria. But this crisis helped rebuild oppositional movements across the region, and contributed, alongside domestic factors, to the emergence of a mass, militant working-class movement against Mubarak in 2007. It started to weaken the chain of pro-US rulers across the Middle East.

However, it was to be the global capitalist crisis, and its concentrated regional effects, that was to do for Ben Ali. The riots began in Sidi Bouzid when Mohammed Bouzazi poured petrol over his person and set himself on fire in protest at the police's confiscation of his fruit and vegetable cart. He was unemployed, and trying to make a living the only way he could.

Unemployment was already high during the boom -- it has exploded since the crisis began. In 2009, unemployment was officially estimated to be around 14%, far below the real rate. The suffering has spread beyond the working class and affected the growing layer of university graduates. The khobzistes (unemployed) responded to the suicidal protest of this poor man, saw their own fate in his, and exploded. Food prices have also been driven up by a number of factors -- wheat droughts, soaring oil costs, speculative bubbles. Millions of workers have been affected by this, another source of the growing protests.

But it is the intervention of the trade union movement, its bureaucracy hitherto prepared to act in conjunction with and as a tool of the regime, that decisively changed matters. The repressive response of the police to the protests, which had resulted in dozens of killings, was the immediate cause of the trade unions' involvement. The clampdown provoked the unions to embark on a general strike, contributing to the protest which resulted in Ben Ali's flight. But the repression itself highlighted all of the complex social conflicts that, with the application of bureaucratic violence, the police had been trying to solve. And it also exposed the weakness of the regime, especially when Ben Ali began to pose, once more, as a tireless friend of democracy, who was just about to bring about this new era of freedom if only people would have patience.

The trade unions thus demanded not only the freedom to organise, which is a huge step in itself, but also a "national dialogue" on the necessary economic and social reforms -- in other words, organised labour was asserting its right to have a say in the future development of the country in light of this crisis. You can say this is harking back to its Bourguibist days, but it's becoming far more significant than that.

Finally, sections of the military rank and file began to defect, and the rapprochement between the soldiers and the protesters indicated that the ruling elite was losing the battle. The social base beneath the Ben Ali regime had shattered, leaving him with only his security personnel and the super rich to support him. Probably, at that point, the ruling class pulled the plug, and Ben Ali escaped.

Now Jordanians and Algerians have joined the fight, motivated by many of the same issues. Palestinians are expressing hope and praise over this rebellion, as well they might. The forces of their oppression have been shaken, their regional allies emboldened. It can't be long before Mubarak has to face down another surging rebellion.

The Tunisian ruling class, however, is still in power. It is weakened, afraid, hesitant. But it is in power. US imperialism and its Zionist client retain the capacity to act, as does Saudi Arabia, one of the vanguards of reaction in the region. Ben Ali's internal security apparatus is unlikely to have disintegrated (looks like they're fighting with the army on his behalf even now), and it seems likely that he was forced out not only by elements of the state bureaucracy, but also by international players with an interest in Tunisia's development.

Still, the protests continue.... The revolution has an organised core of trade unionists and left-wing activists, not to mention some of the Islamists who have arrived late on the scene, but it has not yet convoked a new political leadership. What it has done, potentially, is begin the process that will clear out the repressive apparati, opening the way for the emergence of the kinds of mass movements that can overthrow not just Washington's row of dictators, but also the system which they uphold.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Wed, 01/19/2011 - 14:30


18 January 2011 Presseurop

AFP/Dominique Faget

Overtaken by events, slow in supporting the forces of democracy, the French government seemed to be backing the regime of Ben Ali to the very end. Today, it’s having a hard time justifying its position.

“Shifting overnight from total support for a dictatorship to backing the democratic movement that follows is no easy feat. Hence the confusion and embarrassment of the French government’s statements in recent days on the “Jasmine Revolution", writes Libération.

For Le Monde, French diplomacy, "forced to adapt to a chain of events that has overwhelmed it”, is left in a difficult position. It was thus not until 2 p.m. on January 15th, or 24 hours after the hurried exodus of Ben Ali, that the Elysee lined up for the first time on the side of those calling for a transition to democracy.  And it was “one day behind the United States" that France called for free elections as soon as possible in its former protectorate. It must be said, the paper recalls, that "all of Sarkozy's predecessors had shown before him, if not complacency, then excessive caution at the very least towards this former French protectorate."

"To justify their waiting game during the days of bloody police repression in Tunisia," continues Le Monde, French officials have proclaimed, in a statement from the Elysee, "a vague concept" – that of "non- interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state."

Alliot-Marie will find it even more difficult to backtrack

"The government is extremely embarrassed," notes Libération. Those principally accused by the press and the politicians: the Foreign Minister, Michèle Alliot Marie, who is being summoned to the National Assembly on January 18 to explain the inconsistency of French diplomacy not just in Tunisia but in Côte d'Ivoire as well. At the beginning of the revolt in Tunisia, Libération reports, the diplomats had proposed "the expertise of our security forces”, which would permit  "the right to demonstrate without endangering security.

"Michèle Alliot-Marie will find it even more difficult to backtrack, given that no-one in the government has been in hurry to support her", says Libération. While the opposition on the left is denouncing "a diplomacy of cynicism,"  the Minister of Defence, Alain Juppe admits that "we have no doubt underestimated the degree of frustration of people living under a dictatorial police state.

“The French government is now focused on getting back on track,” observes La Croix. But the newspaper considers that "it is for Europe to take the lead, as did the chief diplomat of the EU, Catherine Ashton, in promising to support Tunisia in its efforts to build a ‘stable democracy’  and to prepare and organise elections – before conferring on the new Tunisia, on a day we hope will come soon, the ‘advanced status' that would strengthen the relations between the two shores of the Mediterranean, as equals.”

EU quiet on North Africa’s “stakeholders”

The EU may express “solidarity” with the Tunisian people, but it is quiet about the rest of North Africa, headlines the EUobserver. Refusing to be drawn in regarding the fate of other regimes in the region, foreign affairs spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic declared that "We cannot speculate on situations that are not ongoing." However, as the Brussels based website notes, as recently as this weekend “four suicide protests similar to the previous death of 26-year-old graduate Muhammad Bouazizi in Tunisia, took place in Algeria, while a pair also occurred in Mauritania and Egypt. Riots have swept Algeria in recent weeks over soaring food prices. In response, the government has lowered the price of cooking oil and sugar.” When pressed Ms Kocijancic declared "We are following the situation in Algeria closely. We have called for calm and restraint ... and called on the Algerian authorities to continue meaningful dialogue with all stakeholders.” Stakeholders?

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Thu, 01/20/2011 - 15:54


Tunisia’s Wall Has Fallen

Nadia Marzouki

January 19, 2011

(Nadia Marzouki is a Jean Monnet Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.)

Check out clasic MERIP articles on Tunisia:

Fred Halliday," Tunisia’s Uncertain Future", Middle East Report 163 (March-April 1990)

Nigel Disney, "The Working-Class Revolt in Tunisia," Nigel Disney, MERIP Reports 67 (May 1978)

For the first time in decades, Tunisia is free of one-man rule. The extraordinary events of December 2010 and January 2011 have been nothing less than a political revolution: The consistent pressure of popular fury forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali first to make an unprecedented promise to relinquish power; then pushed him to step down; and finally halted an attempt at unconstitutional transfer of power, setting the stage for elections to be held at an undetermined date in the near to mid-term future.

The uncertain aftermath has begun: Three days after Ben Ali’s January 14 departure to exile in Saudi Arabia, the caretaker head of government Mohammed al-Ghannouchi announced a “national unity” cabinet composed heavily of members of the long-time ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique (RCD), who will retain (at least for now) the ministries of interior, defense, foreign affairs and finance. Opposition parties classified as “legal” under Ben Ali also acquired posts. The announcement came after a night of gunfights reported around the presidential palace, opposition party headquarters and major banks, as well as drive-by shootings elsewhere in the capital of Tunis. The Guardian, citing human rights activists, attributed the attacks to militias made up of security men loyal to Ben Ali, while Ghannouchi said on state television that “the coming days will show who is behind them.”

Much more consequential were the protesters outside the presidential palace on January 17 voicing their anger at reports that RCD members would be part of the interim cabinet. The protests were dispersed with water cannons, but popped back up when the cabinet was named. Several opposition members of the interim cabinet, three of them affiliated with the countrywide labor federation, the Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), promptly resigned their posts amidst renewed “RCD out!” demonstrations. Ghannouchi and others have now tried to quell the unrest by announcing their own resignations from the RCD, though not from the interim government. The outcome is very much in doubt. In any case, however, the original and remarkable achievement of Tunisian demonstrators stands: Ben Ali will not be back.

“Bread, Water and No Ben Ali”

The fast-paced and utterly unexpected fall of Tunisia’s dictator originated in what at first looked like a jacquerie of hungry, disenfranchised youths. Quickly, however, and spontaneously, the protests became overtly political as well as economic. They were certainly not the result of top-down manipulation by a specific party pursuing a ready-made political agenda, as the regime tried to pretend.

On December 17, Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year old street vendor from the town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire after police confiscated his merchandise, telling him he did not have a permit to sell his goods. The desperate gesture of this under-employed university graduate immediately sparked protests throughout the country. Anger at the status quo ignited within Tunisians of all generations, social classes, professional categories and ideological sensibilities, despite the forceful police crackdowns, which likely killed some 200 people. (The UN said on January 19 it could confirm some 100 deaths, including 42 in a prison fire that claimed the lives of many protesters, but this number is almost certainly too low.) The uprising began as a movement against unemployment and high prices, particularly for food, but it rapidly transformed into a revolution demanding civil liberties and the ouster of the man who had long suppressed them. “Bread, water and no Ben Ali,” the crowds chanted.

Accustomed to setting his own schedule, Ben Ali was compelled by the protests to address the people three times in one month. He first attempted, on December 28, to pass off the unrest in the usual manner of autocrats as the work of “extremists.” On January 11, chastened, he pledged to create 300,000 jobs, hoping to calm the streets with state largesse. Two days later, he finally acknowledged the political nature of the protests, telling the country he would not run for reelection in 2014, freeing all protesters who had been arrested and lifting restrictions on the media. The unanimous verdict of the Tunisian people was: too little, too late. In the early afternoon of January 14, Prime Minister Ghannouchi announced that the president was temporary unable to perform his functions and that he would take over until new elections could be organized. Opposition figures, however, immediately pointed to the breach of Article 57 of the constitution, according to which the speaker of Parliament, and not the prime minister, assumes the presidential role in cases of vacancy at the top. On the morning of January 15, the Constitutional Court, Tunisia’s highest authority on such matters, declared that “the post of president is definitively vacant,” leading Ghannouchi to give way to Fouad Mebazaa, the parliamentary speaker, who promised to hold elections within the constitutionally prescribed period of 45 to 60 days. The opposition forces vociferously object, and want to delay the elections to six or seven months from January to allow more time for logistical arrangements and campaigning.

The Tunisian events, though surprising to most everyone, are not a random outburst of frustration. Rather, they represent the logical consequence of an unsustainable formula for fake political and economic stability, the very formula that many Western policymakers have lauded as the “Tunisian miracle.” While dramatic, the self-immolation of Bouazizi (who later died of his burn wounds) was only the trigger rather than the cause of the protests, whose roots are much deeper and older.

Ben Ali’s international backers often portrayed his rule as beneficent. In April 2008, on an official visit to Tunis, French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared that “some people are way too harsh with Tunisia, which is developing openness and tolerance in many respects.” “The space for liberties is progressing,” he continued.[1] Sarkozy was echoing the sentiments of his predecessor Jacques Chirac, who had argued when visiting Tunisia in December 2003 that “the first of human rights is the right to eat…. From this point of view, one has to acknowledge that Tunisia is in advance of other countries.” Since the late 1990s, meanwhile, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, European countries and the United States have singled out Tunisia for systematic praise as a model of economic reform in North Africa. In 2008, for example, the World Bank called Tunisia a “top regional reformer” in the domain of easing access to credit and the Bank’s present country profile marvels that the Mediterranean nation has doubled its exports of goods and services over the last decade. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, president of the IMF, stated in November 2008 that the “Tunisian economy is going well” and that Tunisia is “good example for emerging countries.”[2] On both the political and economic counts, however, the reality has been much darker.

Following his 1987 coup, which removed the long-time “president-for-life” Habib Bourguiba, Ben Ali methodically stamped out the few political and civil liberties that Tunisians had managed to attain. He was a master of staging demonstration elections that returned him to power with more than 90 percent of the vote. After two such sham electoral victories in 1994 and 1999, he amended the constitution in 2004, eliminating the three-term limit on the presidential mandate, so that he could run again in 2009. The RCD won every legislative election in this period in a landslide. Through the party apparatus, the regime carefully tracked the activities of labor unions, student associations, women’s rights groups and media outlets, as well as dictated the content of cultural events. The program of state surveillance manifested itself at three levels: First, political activists were subject to severe repression and intimidation at the hands of the police. Tunisia was among the most heavily policed states in the world, with about 100,000 policemen in uniform in a country of 10.4 million. Torture of political prisoners has been repeatedly documented and denounced by domestic and foreign human rights organizations. Second, the president’s party established a very complex and pervasive regime of monitoring of ordinary citizens, described by the French political economist Béatrice Hibou as a “control grid” (dispositif de quadrillage). A Tunisian citizen had to take care not to incur the local RCD watchdog’s wrath in order to conduct her ordinary life undisturbed. Officials might otherwise interfere with her enrollment at a university, her exams, her wedding or her desire to open a restaurant or shop, buy property, give birth in a hospital, obtain a passport or even buy a cellular phone. Third, and due to the intrusive state measures, paranoia spread among the populace. After 23 years of internalizing fear, Tunisians became their own censors.

Repression, however, is not the only factor accounting for the resilience of the regime. Rather, the longevity of the authoritarian system has come about through a combination of coercion and consent, what Hibou, in her book La Force de l’obéissance (2006), called a “security pact.” By the terms of this tacit deal, in exchange for relatively easy access to credit and consumer goods, the Tunisian people were expected to acquiesce to the lack of civil and political liberties. Credit and consumption, indeed, were a large part of the “Tunisian miracle.” The regime had compromised the old productive base of the economy by adopting the usual IMF and World Bank recommendations to sell off and downsize public-sector industries and agricultural cooperatives. In its place grew a more contingent economy of textile enterprises and call centers operated by foreign investors, who offered short-term and low-paying jobs, and tourist resorts on the country’s sun-splashed beaches. Tourism and call centers, where Tunisians record the orders of Western consumers, are two of the main exports in the World Bank’s accounting. The promise of credit, which as elsewhere was to have aided Tunisians in starting small businesses, has proven ephemeral, in part due to rampant corruption: Persons with connections in high places took the most lucrative opportunities for themselves. Under Bourguiba there was a strong and dynamic middle class, highly educated and entrepreneurial. The corruption and bad governance of Ben Ali’s reign have contributed to the increasing pauperization of this middle class and the dramatic rise of unemployment, especially among university graduates. Forty-six percent of youth who have university degrees, as Bouazizi did, have no jobs commensurate with their education. The avarice of the president and his wife’s relatives gradually alienated Tunisian and foreign investors, who were tired of paying a tithe to the reigning family, and preferred relocating to the more transparent Gulf countries. The so-called economic success story of Tunisia became a nightmare for the Tunisian people.

When the protests erupted in mid-December, press coverage referred to them primarily as social movements, a “revolt against misery and corruption”[3] or, as the satellite channel Europe 1 put it, a “revolt of the youth.” The protesters’ motives were assumed to be limited to economic frustration and despair of social advancement. Initially, commentators insisted as well that the demonstrations were disorganized, almost random, lacking in structure and direction. Most important, the movement was alleged to be unsustainable: In the absence of leadership from formal opposition forces, many analysts argued that it could not succeed. As late as January 11, French journalist Christophe Ayad described an “alternative” to Ben Ali’s regime as “difficult” to envision, explaining that “all the opposition formations, no matter how respectable, are anemic (exsangues).”[4] Earlier, on January 6, the reporter Marie Kostrz defined the Tunisian opposition as completely “disconnected from reality” and assured her audience that the “political void created by Ben Ali leaves no illusions for Tunisians: No one argues that the regime will collapse in a week or in a month.” Her article quoted an analysis by the political scientist Vincent Geisser, who claimed that “change won’t be radical, and will come from inside” the regime.[5] Despite all these negative predictions, the popular movement not only continued, but also turned into a revolt that ended the 23-year tenure of a brutal dictator.

Stereotypes Challenged

The last month’s events were propelled by an organic convergence of various currents of discontent. Successively joining the unemployed graduates who started the movement were students, lawyers, bloggers, artists, hackers, housewives, children, doctors, professors and shopkeepers—each group harboring specific grievances and using its own symbolic vocabulary, but all united in overall purpose. These divergent clusters of protest coalesced into a movement of civil resistance with stunning speed, adapting along the way to the regime’s tactics of repression.

The transformation of Tunisia’s “First Family,” as the US ambassador in Tunis called them in cables revealed by Wikileaks, into an extraordinarily predatory power is the key to understanding why the “security pact” identified by Hibou dissolved so rapidly and with such seeming ease after 23 years. The middle class and the professional bourgeoisie (among them, the lawyers, professors and doctors who joined the protests) stopped accepting the pact as it became clear that one side was no longer honoring it. It may be argued that, in contrast to such countries as Syria, where the Asads and their relatives are also steeped in corruption, the reigning clans of Tunisia got so greedy that they lost their ability to redistribute even a small portion of the booty among the upper reaches of society. They neglected to keep the complicity of the bourgeoisie in place. Beyond the cross-class dimension, three aspects of the popular uprising were particularly critical.

The first, which has attracted somewhat breathless coverage in the West, was information sharing. The state-run media was, of course, a fount of disinformation, and the regime exerted great effort to muzzle other media and prevent citizens from learning the details of what was happening. On several occasions in the past, the state has blocked the websites of foreign media outlets and shut down the Internet reporting efforts of Tunisians themselves. Police intimidation of journalists and warnings to foreigners to stay indoors were largely effective on this occasion, as well, in keeping the foreign media mute. The major exception was the Qatar-based satellite channel Al Jazeera, which consistently braved the police in the streets and won over many Tunisians with its strong emphasis on the protest movement story from its very inception. The Tunisian events were not simply another illustration of the mighty “Al Jazeera effect,” though, since much of what this and other channels broadcast was made possible by a unique collaboration with Tunisians. There has been no official Al Jazeera bureau in Tunisia since 2006, when, incensed by the channel’s coverage, Ben Ali recalled the Tunisian ambassador from Doha. Especially at the outset, the channel had to rely on amateur videos, photos and interviews sent in by Tunisian protesters themselves.[6]

In December and January, more to the point, Tunisian youth managed to share critical information with each other, including live audio and video, about the exact unfolding of events. Using such Web 2.0 platforms as and other social media, the movement broadcast its own news of kidnappings of protesters and its own summaries of the analyses of international observers, as well as the time and location of upcoming demonstrations. The protesters also used these devices to compare notes on the respective roles of competing security institutions, such as the army and various police units, giving them insight into the progressive weakening of the apparatus of repression. The Tunisian events have accordingly been dubbed the first “Twitter revolution.” In his last speech, delivered on January 13, Ben Ali offered to stop censoring YouTube and other Internet outlets, provoking a swift and dismissive response. The majority answer on Twitter and other social media platforms could be summarized as follows: “We don’t want free YouTube or virtual democracy. We want a true regime change, conditioned upon the departure and eventual trial of Ben Ali, and the organization of free elections.” Perhaps misled by years of complaints about Internet restrictions, Ben Ali appeared to believe that the protesters’ demands were about means of communication, rather than politics and justice.

The intense public debates that characterized the past month did not take place solely on the Internet, however. They also occurred in the streets, which were transformed into a sort of large coffeehouse where excitement at the recovered freedom of speech coexisted with fear under the threat of state violence. Indeed, hundreds of people were killed and injured. Yet in addition to, and taking precedence over, the brutality, a remarkable sense of happiness, loquacity and humor filled the streets of cities like Tunis, Gafsa, Sousse and Sidi Bouzid. Each demonstrator tried to outdo her neighbor’s story of regime depredations, not only describing her personal confrontation with deprivation and everyday corruption, but also proposing a line of political analysis and formulating predictions about the future. Institutions that had been de facto instruments of the regime adapted to this awakening of civil society in very short order. For example, the UGTT, which supported Ben Ali from the late 1980s forward, changed its attitude entirely. Beginning with postal workers and primary-school teachers, numerous local and regional chapters of the UGTT organized grassroots-level debates about the course of events. The sense of collective delight that emerged from this recovered right to speak was a challenge to the widespread notion that the “Arab street” is a space of little but anomie and diffuse anger.

A surprisingly under-covered aspect of the Tunisian demonstrations is the impressive visibility of women, also in contrast to stereotypes about the “Arab street” that propagate the image of a male-dominated public space. These stereotypes are closely tied to others about religion. Along with his fellow dictators, Ben Ali had long gulled his backers in the West with the idea that if the “Arab street” was ever opened, it would be filled with enraged Islamist men, calling for the imposition of shari‘a law and the intensification of gender inequality, if not also jihad. Yet at all the major demonstrations leading to Ben Ali’s flight from the country, men and women marched side by side, holding hands and chanting together in the name of civil rights, not Islam. The national anthem, not “Allahu akbar,” was the dominant rallying cry, and the women were both veiled and unveiled. The tone of the protests was rather one of reappropriating patriotic language and symbols: Women and men lay in the streets to spell “freedom” or “stop the murders” with their bodies and worked together to tear down and burn the gigantic, Stalin-style portraits of Ben Ali on storefronts and street corners.

The question now is how this confluence of social actors will respond as the transition away from Ben Ali jerks forward. Certainly, the announcement by Ghannouchi that the RCD would retain the key ministries in the interim cabinet was widely perceived as a mockery of the uprising and an insult to the dead and wounded. Thousands of people have streamed back into the streets, despite the curfew maintained by the army and police, chanting for the dissolution of the RCD and the resignation of the prime minister and all members of the caretaker government who were part of Ben Ali’s regime. The public debate now appears to structure itself around two major trends. Some argue that it is crucial to give the interim government a chance to organize itself and achieve some measure of stability, while the bulk of the people denounce the illegitimacy of the interim arrangements and demand “a new parliament, a new constitution and a new republic” right away. Such was the slogan of the thousands of protesters marching in the streets of Tunis on January 19. Although the situation remains very uncertain, at publication time it seemed that the balance of power in the streets favored the detractors of the interim government.

The persistence of protest following the departure of Ben Ali secures a momentous legacy for the events in Tunisia: In terms of political symbolism, this revolution is the equivalent for the Arab world of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. It has shown, if nothing else, that the region’s many dictators do not have to rule until they die, whether of natural or unnatural causes. No matter what happens over the coming weeks and months, and even if it is interrupted or “stolen,” the Tunisian revolution has set a dramatic precedent for how democratization from below might begin.


[1] Quoted in Marc Semo, “La volte-face tardive de la France,” Liberation, January 17, 2011.

[2] Oumma, January 13, 2011.

[3], January 13, 2011.

[4] Christophe Ayad, “Autour de Ben Ali, la politique du vide,” Liberation, January 11, 2011.

[5] Marie Kostrz, “Revolution de jasmin: qui pour remplacer Ben Ali en Tunisie,” Rue 89, January 6, 2011.

[6] Le Monde, January 19, 2011.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Fri, 01/28/2011 - 15:13


Amy Aisen Kallander

January 26, 2011

(Amy Aisen Kallander is a historian of Tunisia and assistant professor of Middle East history at Syracuse University.)

The January 14 departure of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali amidst popular protests was a long overdue demonstration of the possibility for genuine democratization in the Arab world. Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor whose self-immolation set off the protests, tapped a deep vein of anger in Tunisian society at police harassment and the general arbitrariness of the state, but also at severe, endemic economic inequality sharpened now by rising global food prices. It remains to be determined, however, to what degree the toppling of Ben Ali will transform Tunisia into a representative democracy whose citizens enjoy greater economic opportunities. Ben Ali was the head of a system of one-party rule, and that system did not board a private plane along with him and his immediate entourage as they headed into exile.

As Ben Ali’s personal grip weakened, the international headlines blared news of the deep corruption and extravagant privilege associated with the former dictator’s clan. His family’s extensive control of the economy, reaching into banking, telecommunications, import-export, cars, agriculture and food distribution, petroleum, tourism, real estate and nearly every other sector, has long been an open secret in Tunisia. Two of the family heavyweights, Ben Ali’s son-in-law Sakher al-Materi and his brother-in-law Belhassan Trabelsi, also fled the country in mid-January, and Tunisian authorities claim to have rounded up others since then. Yet dismantling the structures that facilitated the concentration of political-economic power in the hands of Ben Ali will be a difficult task. In fact, while Ben Ali exploited the system to unprecedented personal and family benefit, the consolidation of one-party rule dates to the tenure of the first president of independent Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba (1956-1987).

Protesters from across the country continue to gather in front of the Interior Ministry and prime minister’s offices in the capital of Tunis, demanding that Ben Ali’s ex-lieutenants withdraw from government. Their hope is to secure a firmer guarantee of real change in how the country is ruled.

One-Party Rule

Notwithstanding the occasional bouts of nostalgia for Bourguiba, the hero of Tunisia’s independence struggle from France, it was under his reign that the ruling party, the Neo-Destour (later named the Socialist Destour Party), became synonymous with the state. Bourguiba controlled the judiciary, placed arbitrary limits on press freedoms and allocated such minimal prerogatives to legislative assemblies that there were few checks on his power. He initially faced opposition within the Destour, and armed resistance led by Salah Ben Youssef, whose assassination he personally ordered in 1961. Secularization programs such as the nationalization of the Zaytouna mosque-university and the reform of family law reduced the influence of religious authorities. Labor unions and women’s groups that had actively contributed to the anti-colonial movement were brought under state control and incorporated into the party apparatus. For instance, the National Union of Tunisian Women, founded in 1958, gathered together women from nationalist parties and independent women’s groups, one of which voluntarily disbanded. Following the adoption of a 1959 law requiring civil associations to obtain a government permit, the remaining independent women’s organization, affiliated with the communist party, was denied a permit and then outlawed in 1961. The first honorary president of the National Union was Wassila Ben Ammar, who Bourguiba married in 1962.

After 1963, the Destour was the only legal political party. The membership rolls grew to some 2 million, and soon party branches became the only visible form of communal association. Electoral legislation, gerrymandering, intimidation, ballot stuffing and selective distribution of voting cards promised Bourguiba winning margins of 90-98 percent. In 1975, Bourguiba revised Article 40 of the constitution, declaring himself “president of the republic for life.” Despite this maneuver, and despite the absence of any credible opposition, Bourguiba’s domestic practices were rarely questioned by his Cold War allies, who accepted his self-presentation as modern, Westernized and democratic. Ben Ali, who served as prime minister and interior minister in the 1980s, took advantage of Bourguiba’s weakness, ousting him in 1987 in what is often called a medico-constitutional coup. Ben Ali had Article 40 altered, adding the condition that presidency for life could last only as long as the president was mentally and physically capable to serve. He then called in doctors to affirm that Bourguiba was incapable. State propaganda has subsequently glorified the coup as “the change.”

When Ben Ali moved into the presidential palace, he promised to follow through with “change,” starting with political pluralism and enforcement of constitutional limits on terms in office. To distance himself from the Destour and its legacy, he re-baptized the party in 1988 as the Constitutional Democratic Rally (in French, the Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique, or RCD). Nonetheless, he was the only candidate in the 1989 and 1994 presidential elections, in both of which he received over 99 percent of the vote.[1] In 1999, he got over 99 percent again, despite having permitted two minor politicians to run against him in a sop to his mild foreign critics. With the constitution limiting the president to three terms in office, Ben Ali’s parliamentary allies amended this clause in 2002, so that the only limit was the candidate’s age, with the maximum set at 75. Running in 2004 and again in 2009 with more handpicked opponents, he received 94.5 percent and 89.6 percent of the vote, respectively, and when the protests broke out he was preparing to modify the constitution yet again in advance of the 2014 poll. As for the parliament, the commission drafting the electoral lists was appointed by the RCD, which also ran the polling stations and counted the ballots behind closed doors.

In the wake of Ben Ali’s flight to Saudi Arabia, interim premier Mohammed al-Ghannouchi, caretaker president Fouad Mebazaa and several of their minister colleagues have resigned from the RCD, and the party’s central committee has been dissolved. In addition to demanding employment and economic change, the demonstrators call for the RCD to be dismantled completely and then banned. Even those steps, however, will not automatically consign the everyday practices of one-party rule to the past. Whichever formation organizes the new elections that Ghannouchi has promised needs to prove its commitment to an electoral calendar as well as to a form of pluralism that is more credible than what Ben Ali allowed. Individual candidates will need to engage with Tunisian citizens across the socio-economic spectrum and outside the northern and coastal regions of the country, so that they can claim to represent a wider swath of the population than the educated upper class. 

Patrons and Clients

Over the years Ben Ali also developed ways of consolidating power outside the realm of formal politics, seeking to capture economic resources, often at the expense of ordinary Tunisians. The best example of this phenomenon is the National Solidarity Fund, known by its account number 26-26. Founded by the president in 1993 as a program of rural development underwriting improvements to infrastructure such as electricity lines, roads and health clinics, the Fund is kept afloat by an undisclosed portion of the state’s annual budget as well as contributions from the general public. In principle, these contributions are voluntary. Civil servants pay the equivalent of one day’s salary per year, farmers chip in 1 percent of their annual profits and business owners contribute an amount tied to the number of people in their employ. The major trade union of artisanal craftspeople signed an agreement stipulating an annual contribution as well. In practice, the donations are not optional. Those who refuse to donate are faced with all manner of difficulties in their routine dealings with the state bureaucracy, as well as the threat of audits of tax records and other forms of overt harassment.

Meanwhile, the Fund’s record in the field is disappointing. Critics have pointed out the cracks in the hastily paved rural roadways and the holes in the expanded electrical grid: There is still no electricity for families who cannot afford to pay the monthly bills.

The main problem with the Fund, however, is its utter lack of transparency. The Fund has been under the direct authority of the president, who alone has managed it, and kept no accounts. According to official estimates, the Fund collected an average of $15-16 million per year in the late 1990s, yet the few economists who have attempted to calculate their own figures surmise that businesses alone contribute between $24-38 million on an annual basis. While state-run stations have televised the occasional home repair, and boasted of the number of families assisted, the better part of the Fund’s income is thus unaccounted for.[2] Monies have also been distributed in an arbitrary, clientelist manner under the aegis of the RCD. Committees of residents in the disenfranchised zones serve in a consultative role, but the decisions about who will get the funds are made by RCD deputies and elected officials who are members of the party.

Whether Ghannouchi or old opposition figures returning from exile, Tunisian politicians have been vocal in swearing to take clear steps toward transparency in government and eliminate corruption from the highest echelons of power. Tunisians have heard these impassioned speeches before, and the proof of course is in the pudding. In a country where corruption and clientelism have governed behavior for so long, it is not obvious that even sincere political change at the top will be able to uproot them.


Perhaps the most encouraging front of the ongoing tumult in Tunisian society is freedom of expression. With Ben Ali and the RCD omnipresent, Tunisians have long struggled to make their voices heard. Newspapers were owned by members of the “First Family” and were self-censoring, while foreign dailies that were at all critical of the regime did not arrive at kiosks. Journalists who did speak out, such as Tawfiq Ben Brik, were hounded by the police, frequently arrested and often chose exile. The government, of course, wrote the content of most radio and television broadcasts, and even attempted to limit the programming accessible on satellite television. On one occasion in the summer of 2002, while an exiled opponent was speaking on an Arabic-language station based in England, power was cut throughout the capital. Tunisian dissidents increasingly turned to the Internet, but there a similar scenario applied, with the unique server in the country controlled by the government.

When Internet cafes sprang up in Tunis and other cities in the late 1990s, Zouhair Yahyawi created one of the first open forums online for discussion and debate. In mid-2001, his site TuneZine featured political cartoons, the occasional parody of the president (referred to by his initials as ZABA), commentary pieces from Tunisians across the political spectrum and an open letter to the president from his uncle, Mokhtar Yahyawi, an outspoken judge. The younger Yahyawi posted a poll asking visitors to the site if Tunisia was a democracy, a kingdom, a prison or a zoo. The majority said it was a prison. In response to Tunisia’s first cyber-dissident, the regime arrested him in 2002, throwing him in jail, where he was subject to ill treatment and torture. Released late in 2003, in poor health due to prison conditions and a hunger strike he had undertaken while he was imprisoned, Yahyawi died of a heart attack in March 2005. He was 36.

Over the past decade, the regime grew more and more adept at policing the Internet. Cited as one of 12 countries in the category of “Internet Enemies” by Reporters Without Borders, Tunisia was also ranked third on a Forbes magazine list of “the world’s most Net-repressive regimes.” The government regularly blocked access to the webpages of opposition groups, exiled dissidents and human rights organizations, as well as a number of blogs, YouTube and DailyMotion. Applying sophisticated software, the regime presented a user trying to view those sites with a standard “404 Error” message on the screen. More recently, the government adopted the tactic of “phishing,” sending out fake e-mail messages designed to harvest the passwords for the Facebook pages and blogs of activists and then deleting the content.

The online censorship extended to the work of Tunisian rappers, who have used their medium to complain of hunger, the unequal distribution of wealth and police brutality. In the spring of 2006, four teenagers in the western town of Kef were arrested for downloading an MP3 of a rap song critical of police violence. Though they were minors at the time, they received sentences of three to four months in prison. In January, Hamada ben Amor, a 21-year old rapper from Sfax, was arrested and detained for three days. One of his songs, “President, Your People Are Dying,” had become the unofficial soundtrack of the protests, whose participants affectionately nicknamed him “El Général.”

Despite the crackdown, the Internet was used strategically by the protesters to spread word of demonstrations, for instance, several in Bouazizi’s town of Sidi Bouzid that were covered cursorily or not at all by state-controlled media. As was customary when there were protests in the south and west of the country, the police had closed off the roads leading in and out of the city. In response to the wave of state phishing expeditions, an anonymous hackers’ collective threw its support behind Tunisian cyber-activism in an “Operation Tunisia” that successfully broke into and disabled several government websites. The government answered by making a number of webpages available only in Tunisia, and on January 6 arrested three bloggers, Hamadi Kalutcha, Slim Amamu and Aziz Amami, to dissuade others from writing personal online journals.

Since Ben Ali’s departure, Slim Amamu has been released and accepted an interim cabinet position as secretary of youth and sports. Formerly blocked sites are now accessible, the newly promoted editor of the major newspaper al-Sabah is a person less known for being under the thumb of Ben Ali’s son-in-law al-Materi, and formerly banned books published by Reporters Without Borders and Tawfiq Ben Brik have appeared in at least one bookstore. Yet Tunisians continue to be skeptical of official media and the misinformation campaigns sponsored by the interim government. As for Internet censorship, Amamu tweeted from a meeting with the ministers of interior and communications that it may be harder to undo than he had imagined, since technicians who answered to Ben Ali personally had access to the infrastructure of the Internet. It is unclear what the precise technical problems are, but Amamu has subsequently said that he is unblocking the censored websites one by one.

Islamists and the War on Terror

The international media has given disproportionate weight to the potential for an Islamist resurgence in Tunisia, particularly considering that elections have yet to be scheduled and that the most prominent representative of Tunisian political Islam, Rashid al-Ghannoushi, has yet to return from exile. In fact, Ghannoushi cannot return until his 1991 sentence of banishment is lifted, and the interim government has given no signal that they intend to do so.

Both Bourguiba and Ben Ali were masters at exploiting the so-called Islamist menace to crush various forms of political opposition and garner foreign aid. In the 1980s, when Ghannoushi first organized under the banner of the Islamic Tendency Movement, the movement’s base of support was middle-class, urban and young. Ghannoushi, a schoolteacher with a degree in philosophy, took pains to make clear his support for democratic process. Accused by the regime of being Iranian agents, the movement was steadily alienated from the political system, however. Under Ben Ali, it removed any reference to Islam from its name (in accordance with state regulations banning religion from politics) and became the Renaissance Party, or al-Nahda. Still, it was denied official recognition.

After Ben Ali had orchestrated his first sham election as president, he offered a panoply of new excuses for not legalizing al-Nahda. And then Algeria’s dirty war began. Similar to al-Nahda, Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) voiced its intent to participate in democratic government.  The FIS won a number of municipal elections in 1990, a clear sign of Algerians’ dissatisfaction with their own one-party rule, which dated from their independence from France in 1962. In 1992, with national elections imminent, the FIS was poised to make major inroads into the ruling party’s monopoly. The army intervened, canceling the elections and banning the FIS. Much of the ensuing civil war was a macabre performance directed by the state and the military. Not only did the regime label any opponent (such as the army sub-lieutenant who assassinated the president in 1992) an Islamist sympathizer, but security forces infiltrated -- if not founded -- the the Armed Islamic Group that was the Islamists’ main combatant force. The military perpetrated attacks against civilians that were blamed on Islamists, of which the massacre at Bentalha is only one example. Eyewitnesses in Bentalha point the finger at the army, which was present during the massacre, refused to intervene on civilians’ behalf and even prevented residents from fleeing.

Assassinations and full-blown civil war across the western border of Tunisia provided Ben Ali with ample reason to renew the crackdown on al-Nahda. Arson at the RCD’s office in Bab al-Swiqa, a working-class neighborhood in the capital, was blamed on al-Nahda, though according to Amnesty International the guilty party was never solidly established. In any case, the regime used the fire to justify mass arrests, with an estimated 8,000 people imprisoned between 1990 and 1992. Many of them were tortured; at least eight deaths were reported.

After Algeria calmed down, the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington presented Ben Ali with another perfect opportunity to silence political opposition to Western applause. Tunisia enlisted in the US-led war on terrorism, and its activities stretched far beyond the domain of al-Qaeda and its supposed local affiliates. The regime deployed the police force to hassle women who wear the headscarf, for instance, denying entry to campus to veiled students. The police also followed men out of mosques and on one occasion blocked the streets surrounding the Sahib al-Taba’ mosque in the Halfaouine neighborhood of Tunis in order to round up worshippers at Ramadan prayers. As Human Rights Watch wrote in its 2007 country report, “The government uses the threat of terrorism and religious extremism as a pretext to crack down on peaceful dissent.” With the assistance of the Pentagon, which provides training to Tunisian forces, the regime has arrested hundreds of youths on suspicion of involvement in terrorism, only rarely charging them with specific crimes.

As Jeremy Keenan has meticulously demonstrated, the Algerian regime has manufactured much of the present “Islamist threat” in North Africa, which goes by the name of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib. Keenan has documented, for example, that the 2003 kidnapping of 32 European tourists in the Sahara, attributed to al-Qaeda’s North African franchise, was coordinated with the complicity of the Algerian military and secret police. By opening a new front in the war on terrorism in northern and western Africa, the US intended to secure army bases and access to natural resources, including petroleum and natural gas in Algeria and Nigeria. The Algerian regime, for its part, hoped to increase its international standing and obtain sophisticated military equipment.[3] It was thus sadly predictable that when Mohamed Bouazizi’s dramatic suicide sparked a series of demonstrations, Ben Ali claimed it was all the work of terrorists and radical Islamists. Whatever formation emerges to govern post-Ben Ali Tunisia will be strongly tempted to renew enlistment in the war on terrorism, which remains a key US interest in North Africa and, thus, holds out the promise of continued aid flows.


The near-comprehensive surveillance of political activities that followed the September 11 attacks was accomplished thanks to the bloated police force maintained by Ben Ali. In 2002, one human rights association estimated that the number of police officers was around 130,000, in a country with a population of 10.4 million. The current force is more than three times the size of the police under Bourguiba (who were about 40,000 strong), and comparable to the ranks of police in France, with its 60 million inhabitants. While the police force has many officers who are dedicated to law and order as a career, and many of middle-class origins, many other young men have simply joined it for lack of other economic options. Since job creation was not keeping up with unemployment, Ben Ali opened the ranks of the police to most anyone who came calling. Policing was attractive to young Tunisian men who wanted to marry and move out of their parents’ houses, but had no other marketable skills that would enable them to save the necessary cash. While salaries were not high (and a number of police officers took second jobs under the table, many as cab drivers), Ben Ali’s de facto jobs program served to inflate the number of officers to the present level. The working-class basis of at least certain sectors of the police force is evidenced by their joining in protests against the interim government on January 22 and by their demands to be unionized.

Ben Ali’s reliance on the police to control other Tunisians persisted to the detriment of investment in the military, the classic guarantor of regime stability in the Arab world. The army’s role in the December-January unrest that led to Ben Ali’s ouster is the subject of intense interest. Gen. Rashid Ammar, the chief of staff, is said to have refused to order troops to fire with live ammunition against the demonstrators. Days after he refused, Ben Ali was compelled to pull up stakes. There were signs, however, that the army was growing hostile toward the president long prior to Ammar’s refusal to shoot, which earned him a few days of house arrest before he was reinstated by the interim government. It seems that a plot brewed against the Ben Ali regime in the spring of 2002. A plane crash that year killed Ammar’s predecessor, Gen. Abdelaziz Skik, as well as 13 other senior officers. That so many of the top brass were traveling in the same plane is seen as more than fortuitous for Ben Ali and his clan. An official inquiry into the cause of the crash has still not made its findings public.

In the aftermath of Ben Ali’s overthrow, Tunisians are preoccupied with the lack of security in the towns and cities. Snipers, said to be Ben Ali loyalists, plague the inhabitants of the capital and other towns. In the absence of a police force that truly exists to serve and protect, ordinary citizens have formed local community patrols to watch over their neighborhoods. Assuming that its own motivations are purely professional, as most Tunisians believe, the army is too small and poorly equipped (it has only 12 helicopters) to police the capital, let alone the entire country. The first task of interim government in Tunisia is thus to reestablish order, as a prelude to proving that elections can be free and fair and can empower someone other than a new dishonest elite. Though Ben Ali and members of his extended family have fled, much of the system that sustained his 23-year rule remains worrisomely intact.


[1] Vincent Geisser, “Tunisie: des élections pour quoi faire? Enjeux et ‘sens’ du fait electoral de Bourguiba à Ben Ali," Maghreb/Machreq 168 (April-June 2000).

[2] For details, see Eric Gobe, “Politiques sociales et registres de légitimation d'un Etat néo-patrimonial: le cas tunisien,” in Monique Selim and Bernard Hours, eds., Solidarités et compétences: idéologies et pratiques (Paris: L'Harmattan, 2003) and Béatrice Hibou, “Les marges de manoeuvre d’un ‘bon élèlve’ économique: la Tunisie de Ben Ali,” Les Etudes du CERI 60 (1999).

[3] See Jeremy Keenan, The Dark Sahara: America's War on Terror in Africa (London: Pluto Press, 2009).

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