What's happening in Tunisia

January 24, 2011

In News

The flight of Tunisia’s longtime president leaves the small country he ruled and robbed in upheaval. Its Arab neighbours wonder whether it’s the start of a trend


“TUNISIA now lives in fear,” Libya’s ruler, Muammar Qaddafi, told his people. “Families could be raided and slaughtered in their bedrooms and the citizens in the street killed as if it was the Bolshevik or the American revolution.”

Others seem less sure what caused Tunisia’s upheaval, where it will go or even what to call it. Some have labelled it the jasmine revolution. Close at hand, however, the continuing unrest in Tunisia, for long the most politically neutered of Arab countries, does not bring to mind the sweet-smelling flowers that men here tuck jauntily behind an ear. What’s happening reeks more of sweat, tear gas and burning rubber, and has brought Tunisians as much anguish as pride or pleasure.

It cannot quite be termed a revolution, at least yet. The main instruments of control for the past 50 years, the police and the ever-ruling RCD party (a French abbreviation of Constitutional Democratic Rally) are battered and wobbly but still standing. They face no strong, cohesive opposition, no charismatic leader waiting in the wings, armed with a mission or an ideology. Yet with 78 civilians dead by official count and with street protests continuing into a sixth week, it is certainly bigger than a revolt.

Everyone knows what started it: the self-immolation on December 17th of a despairing, jobless youth named Muhammad Bouazizi in the main square of Sidi Bouzid, a town in Tunisia’s hardscrabble interior. Yet there is a fierce dispute about what has sustained the revolt, encouraging furious protesters to the streets of prosperous coastal cities, galvanising near-moribund trade unions and opposition groups into action, and bringing about the dramatic scuttle into exile on January 14th of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, president for the past 23 years. And nobody is sure what Tunisia’s troubles will lead to: a transition to multiparty democracy, a military coup or a prolonged period of turmoil.

What is sure is that the Tunisian uprising has not only put an end to one of the more insidiously oppressive and comically rapacious strongman regimes in a region inured to them. It has also put Mr Ben Ali’s fellow rulers-for-life on notice that they, too, may suddenly find themselves without friends or a country. Mr Bouazizi’s public suicide has spread a grisly rash of copycat self-torchings across north Africa, from Mauritania to Egypt. Their acts of self-sacrifice hope to incite a spiral of events similar to Tunisia’s.

Perhaps they will. Given the extreme social stresses shared by many Arab societies, and particularly the anger of soaring numbers of jobless, jeans-clad youths against the ageing cynics in suits and uniforms that have for so long denied them a role or a voice, it is not too far-fetched to conjure a sweeping wave of change, much as in Europe in 1989.

Yet Tunisia’s circumstances are in some respects unique. With a population that is ethnically and religiously homogenous, recognised borders that are centuries old, and a tradition of centralised government that predates colonisation by France in 1881, Tunisia has more solid foundations than many Arab states. Despite the country’s paucity of natural resources, its 10.6m people enjoy relatively good standards of health, education and other public services. It has a high level of home ownership and reasonably solid national accounts. Its economy, integrated with the outside world as a magnet for investment in manufacturing, offshore services and tourism, has grown at an annual average of 5% for the past two decades.

That modest record of success, contrasting starkly with the messy dysfunction of Algeria and Libya, the oil-rich countries Tunisia is squeezed between, goes a long way to explaining why Tunisians have put up with their stifling political order. Mr Ben Ali did not invent this system. His predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, a passionately Francophone lawyer who led Tunisia to independence in 1956, created a paternalistic, monopolistic ruling party and a cult of personality during three decades of rule. Like Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk, Mr Bourguiba tried single-handedly to yank his country out of old ways, championing women’s rights and enforcing strict secularism.

When Mr Ben Ali, newly installed as interior minister, ousted the ageing but respected president in a palace coup in 1987, he was greeted as a needed breath of fresh air. Secularists and even liberals at first applauded his hounding of the Ennahda party, a mild Islamist movement, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, that had flowered in the chaotic waning years of Mr Bourguiba’s rule. On largely spurious charges of terrorism its leaders were either jailed or forced into exile, and the movement essentially eradicated.

Sadly, rather than subsequently broadening freedoms, the ex-policeman crushed them, infiltrating watchful RCD party hacks into trade unions, university faculties and other once-independent institutions. Benalisme, as Tunisians sometimes dubbed his style of rule, brought with it increasingly farcical elections, an absurdly adulatory press and dread of the pervasive, petty and vindictive security services. During Algeria’s bloody civil strife in the 1990s, Tunisians joked of a plump, sleek Tunisian dog fleeing across the border and meeting a ragged, starving Algerian one. “What on earth are you doing here?” asked the Algerian dog. “I came here to bark,” was the forlorn reply.

Tunisia came to have more police than France, a country with six times more people. With few real threats to the state to combat, Mr Ben Ali’s bloated security service specialised in such tactics as planting evidence in order to blackmail suspects. Taxi drivers commonly sought protection by joining the RCD or working as police informants. “Going too often to the mosque could mean a summons to State Security,” says one. “They could lift your licence, and put you through hell to get it back.”

Those hungry relatives

Benalisme also brought corruption, particularly at the level of the president’s own family. With time the web of influence extended both to the husbands of Mr Ben Ali’s four adult daughters and to the many relatives of his second wife, Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser whom he married in 1992. Between them, the Trabelsis and Mr Ben Ali’s sons-in-law came to control a huge slice of the economy (see diagram). In recent years their tentacles penetrated deep into Tunisia’s financial system, extracting sweetheart loans from once-respectable banks.

For a society that remains mostly poor or tenuously middle class it was not the possession of big assets that rankled so much as the flaunting of baubles, such as the flashy cars and villas in Tunisia’s most exclusive districts. What grated most with Tunisia’s small elite was the upstart first family’s habit of elbowing out competitors and flaunting of power. Giving a cut to one of the favoured circle came to be seen as de rigueur in order to gain a licence or agency quickly. “Of course I brought in a Trabelsi, without his even asking,” a Tunisian economist recalls a business acquaintance declaring defensively. “Its just a tax, so I don’t have to pay other taxes.”

Mr Ben Ali himself feigned ignorance of such things despite the rising smell, and the rising cost to the country of such shenanigans. An American diplomatic cable from 2008, revealed in early December by WikiLeaks, described the ruling family as the nexus of corruption and a quasi-mafia. Tunisian investors wary of getting caught in this web preferred to forgo business ventures and instead bought property or stashed funds abroad, continued the cable, so dampening growth and helping to sustain high unemployment.

A report this month by Global Financial Integrity, a watchdog group, corroborates this assessment. “The amount of illegal money lost from Tunisia due to corruption, bribery, kickbacks, trade mispricing and criminal activity between 2000 and 2008 was, on average, over $1 billion a year,” it estimates. That is a substantial sum for a country whose GNP barely reaches $80 billion at purchasing-power parity.

The sprouting of fancy shopping centres, yacht marinas and housing developments along Tunisia’s breezy coast provided a shiny veneer of prosperity. Even bleak provincial towns and the slums around prosperous cities look tidy by the standards of other developing countries. But the exterior sheen conceals a growing sense of anomie, compounded by swelling unemployment and material expectations fed by rising educational standards.

Ezzeddine Larbi, a former World Bank economist who left the country to live abroad, found that unflattering economic statistics were routinely suppressed or massaged. He reckons that unemployment, officially put at 14%, is closer to 20% for university graduates, and 27% overall for the 20-29 age group. Such numbers are not unusual for the region, but other factors exacerbate the problem in Tunisia. Its economic model, based on undercutting European labour costs, means that many of the jobs on offer are unskilled and unrewarding. University graduates do not aspire to be waiters, call-centre operators or garment stitchers. At the same time, Tunisia’s tidiness and success at building a middle class mean that a black economy cannot absorb legions of street vendors and house servants, as in Egypt and Morocco.

This partly explains why Mr Bouazizi poured petrol on himself. A university graduate, he had tried to scrape a living selling vegetables from a stall which was confiscated by the police. When a few young men rioted in protest at his action, poorly trained policemen responded violently. Protests spread to nearby towns, and several youths were killed by police gunfire, further raising public anger.

Mr Ben Ali was not insensitive to the brewing trouble. He visited Mr Bouazizi in the hospital where he lay dying, offered compensation to his family and sacked the provincial governor as well as a government minister. The unrest might have petered out but for an unexplained escalation. On January 8th the toll of deaths from police gunfire suddenly surged, from fewer than ten to more than 30.

Many assumed an order had been given to stamp out the unrest with terror. The fury spread to Tunisia’s coastal cities, growing as gory imagery relayed by cell phones and the internet clashed with the sanitised blandness of state television. Actors that had previously stayed on the sidelines, such as student groups, the remaining, puny opposition parties and the once-powerful trade-unions organisation, joined the fray. But the focus had changed: people were calling for Mr Ben Ali’s head.

In a rambling television address, the president blamed foreign agitators for the troubles. Sacking his feared interior minister, he promised a huge jobs programme, and inquiries into corruption and excessive police force. But this was too little, too late—and it also showed weakness. Rioters were now fighting the police in pitched battles, torching police stations and sacking banks and shops, particularly those thought to belong to RCD members.

In some cases the police themselves were accused of looting, either as part of a plan to tarnish the protesters and frighten the middle class, or simply to profit from the collapse of order. So tarnished was the reputation of the police that Mr Ben Ali belatedly asked Tunisia’s army to intervene. Some units did enter the capital, but refused to use force against protesters, who greeted them with cheers.

Still, few Tunisians expected the president to go, even when as many as 40,000 people gathered on January 14th at the headquarters of the Interior Ministry on Tunis’s stately Avenue Bourguiba, braving torrents of tear gas and live fire. That evening, with a curfew in place and army tanks sealing Tunis’s main airport, Mr Ben Ali and his immediate family slipped out of the country on an aircraft that eventually, having been rebuffed by France, took them to Saudi Arabia. “What an irony that a guy who banned veils should end up with the Wahhabis,” was the Twitter comment of one Tunisian writer.

The following day witnessed a near-complete breakdown of order, with the once ubiquitous police vanishing from streets across the country. Near the port of La Goulette on Tunis’s outskirts, youths raided a lot filled with cars imported by Mr Ben Ali’s son-in-law, Sakhr Materi. Surrounding streets were soon filled with flaming, overturned Porsches, Volkswagens and Kias. In the coastal resort of Hammamet, looters trashed Mr Materi’s villa and slaughtered his pet tiger.

More disturbingly, reports emerged of attacks by suspected saboteurs and snipers, with gun battles erupting in the capital. Many Tunisians assumed the culprits to be members of shadowy, rearguard units loyal to the ousted president. Amid a swirl of rumour, some detect a plan to foment chaos and so pave the way for Mr Ben Ali’s return as the restorer of order, perhaps backed by his friend Colonel Qaddafi. Frightened by such talk, groups of civilians across the capital have set up voluntary guard units, manning checkpoints and searching cars for weapons. Special army and police units are also said to have arrested suspected saboteurs.

As a result, by January 19th a measure of calm had returned to Tunis, with many shops and businesses reopening, and no sound of gunfire during the (now shorter) nightly curfew. Elsewhere, there were no reports of violent unrest or looting, except for vandalism against some local RCD offices, indicating that the party has emerged as a new focus of pressure.

The political situation remains foggy. After Mr Ben Ali’s departure, his prime minister since 1999, Mohammed Ghannouchi, a veteran RCD leader, announced he would form a government of national unity, with the speaker of parliament, Foued Mebazaa, temporarily filling the presidency. Seeking to assuage public anger, Mr Ghannouchi announced the lifting of all censorship, the institution of three independent commissions to investigate corruption, human-rights abuses and political reform, the release of all political prisoners and preparations to hold free elections within six months.

The new cabinet he announced included several opposition figures, but kept the main ministries for RCD members. Before the new cabinet could meet, four of its ministers had resigned in protest at lingering RCD influence. It is not yet clear whether palliatory measures by the party, which has expelled Mr Ben Ali and senior cronies, and accepted the resignation of Mr Ghannouchi and Mr Mebazaa, were enough to lure the ministers back.

The Tunisian public appears divided in response. Many among the educated middle class would prefer to give the new government a chance, fearing a slide towards military rule, or worse. But smaller demonstrations continue across the country calling for the sacking of all RCD ministers and the inclusion of exiled opposition leaders. In any event, patching up the political system will not be easy. With a constitution tailored to bolster Mr Ben Ali, a sitting parliament packed by the RCD, and institutions such as the police and courts deeply compromised, the mechanism for the kinds of sweeping change demanded by many Tunisians is not there.

Opposition forces, fractured by years of repression and manipulation, are not much help, and lack figures with popular authority. The potential role of Islamists, so far markedly muted, remains an unknown. For the time being the shadowy supporters of the banned Ennahda party are backing the provisional government, for fear of a military takeover that could see their hoped-for revival further postponed. Their leader, 69-year-old Rashid Ghannouchi, remains in exile in London, awaiting an amnesty since he formally faces a sentence of life in prison.

Repercussions in the wider Arab world hinge on the outcome in Tunisia. Signs of unrest have already emerged in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Libya and Sudan. “The Tunisian model is very similar to its Egyptian counterpart, and the extremely happy response to events there on Egyptian streets shows that Egypt might witness solutions like the Tunisian one soon,” noted Ayman Nour, an Egyptian politician who was thrown in jail after challenging Hosni Mubarak in an election in 2005.

Governments have also taken note, intervening recently to keep down the rising cost of basic staples in several countries, and showing unwonted compassion for the unemployed. But some, such as Colonel Qaddafi, have drawn opposite conclusions, and may prove more determined to face down pressures than Mr Ben Ali was.

Many of the region’s countries look, on the surface, to be far more fragile than Tunisia, with equal volumes of anger and far deeper social woes. But different factors serve to bolster even unpopular governments. In Syria the ever-present danger of war with Israel mutes dissent. The Egyptian state, despite its appalling record in running other things, wields a large force of riot police that is well equipped, highly trained and very experienced, and so less likely to provoke outrage by excessive violence. Egypt also has a relatively free press. This not only gives healthy air to protest, but acts as the sort of early-warning system that Mr Ben Ali, due to his own repressive tactics, sorely lacked.

There is another way in which Tunisia’s experience could prove subtly inspiring. “The one constant in revolutions is the primordial role played by the army,” said Jean Tulard, a French historian of revolutions, in an interview in Le Monde. So far Tunisia’s army, kept small to forestall coup attempts, has won kudos for holding the fort, and not playing politics. Yet it is the army which is believed to have persuaded Mr Ben Ali to leave. Perhaps a few generals elsewhere in the Arab world are thinking that they, too, might better serve their countries by doing something similar.