Tunisia: The Last Days of Ben Ali

The wave of a peoples’ revolution has swept over Tunisia and pushed President Ben Ali to exile in Saudi Arabia.  A month of popular manifestations starting on December 17, 2010 with the suicide-protest of the young Mohamed Bouazizi, a college-educated street vender, and the police repression at his funeral has brought to an end the 23 years of control on Tunisian political and economic life of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.  He and  his powerful wife Leila Trabelsi left Tunis on January 14 for exile in Saudi Arabia while other members of the extended family who controlled large sectors of the economy have arrived in Paris. It is reported that the French government refused to accept Ben Ali in France fearing that the large Tunisian community in France — some 600,000 including many exiled human rights activists would react negatively.

Just a few moments before starting to write, I was sent a Facebook message giving the room number in an expensive Paris hotel of a member of the Trabelsi clan who had arrived on January 15 in Paris. The message was probably not sent so that I would buy welcoming flowers, and I was probably not the only person who received the message. The extended family of Ben Ali, his seven brothers and sisters, the children from his first wife, the children from his second wife Leila, her 10 brothers and sisters and other relatives have taken a share in a wide range of economic activities — banking, real estate, tourism, media, commerce. In addition, anyone wanting to set up a business in these sectors had to pay members of the Ben Ali-Trabelsi clan in order to get government permits etc.

Tunisia under Ben Ali was a police-state in the literal sense of the word.  There was a constant presence of the police with arrests, lengthy interrogations, torture and for those with luck, exile. The press and other media were closely watched and in some cases owned by the Trabelsi family.

Tunisia has had only two presidents since the end of the Protectorate in 1956.  The first was Habib Bourguiba and his Destourian Socialist Party.  At independence, the literacy rate was about 15 percent, but many of those considered literate had received only limited education at traditional Koranic schools and could not read secular works. In 1958, Bourguiba initiated educational reforms and a vast program of building schools and universities leading Tunisia to having today a well-educated Middle Class. Bourguiba also stressed education and employment for women saying “Female workers must be trained and given jobs. Work contributes to female emancipation.  By her labor, a woman or young girl assumes her existence and becomes conscious of her dignity.”

Jobs in government and the private sector opened for the newly educated by the departure of the majority of the French, Jewish and Italian populations between 1956 and 1966. There was also a significant possibility of migration to Europe, especially France, until the mid-1970s after which it became more difficult to get work permits.

In November 1987, Bourguiba named Ben Ali Prime Minister. Ben Ali, a General, came from the military and had no well-developed ideology or policy. Thus he continued the economic and social policies of Bourguiba. Shortly after having been named, in what has been called a “medical coup”, Ben Ali said that Bourguiba’s mental and physical health had made him incapable of governing. Ben Ali auto-proclaimed himself president promising to re-vitalize the country which had fallen into stagnation as Bourguiba had become increasingly senile but refused to delegate authority.

Ben Ali continued Bourguiba’s major policies. An emphasis was placed on developing tourism, but this opened relatively few jobs for the educated and led to speculation on land.  The agricultural sector, especially in the central and south of the country, had more people employed than needed for the level of production. There was migration to the cities and larger towns of the coastal area in a frustrating search for suitable occupations. The unemployment rate was high, and among the educated youth, unemployment, lack of social mobility, and the flashy life-style of those with links to political power led to demands for change.

The demonstrations of the past month seemed to have begun spontaneously, led by the young but with no known leaders.  The demonstrations had no links to opposition political parties, most of whose leaders were in exile, and there were few political structures.  There are no known Islamic groups, and Islamic influence seems to have been completely absent from the demonstrations and from the demands of the demonstrators.

For most French commentators, the model was “May 1968” which led to the end of the government of Charles De Gaulle.  Tunisia is a revolution of the people who wanted changes from the small political group governing, an end to wide-spread and highly visible corruption, and the creation of jobs.  Ben Ali, like De Gaulle, symbolized the system and so there was strong agreement on what everyone could agree upon “Ben Ali must go”. Unlike General De Gaulle, General Ben Ali had done nothing very special before becoming President.  Although he tried to develop a “personality cult” around himself with large pictures of himself in the streets and ever-present praise on the TV, Ben Ali had no real personality around which to develop a cult.

Now the issue is what structures the peoples’ revolution will give itself. If all goes as the constitutional order indicates, elections should be held within 60 days, the interim government being under the leadership of the Speaker of the Parliament. Since political parties had been prevented from operating — even the party of the President had only a name but no real structures — we will have to see how political factions are created prior to the elections.  There are a good number of different ideological currents in the opposition to Ben Ali, and there is no opposition leader who stands out as a “natural” next President.

The disintegration of Ben Ali’s government and power base has been closely watched in the Arab world.  Although Ben Ali was not particularly liked by his neighbors, political leaders in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Jordan can see the parallels without too much difficulty — a heavy-handed security state with diminishing popular support and growing demands from an educated, yet frustrated population. Peoples’ revolutions may be on the march.

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics www.transnational-perspectives.org and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva.