Three years after the ouster of Tunisia’s former dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, some Tunisians are losing faith in the 2011 uprising’s promise of "freedom and dignity." These Tunisians now wonder if Ben Ali was the lesser evil, and whether sticking with him would have been a safer and more pragmatic choice, given the looming uncertainly of the years ahead. (In the photo above, Ben Ali visits Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit vendor whose self-immolation ignited the Arab Spring.)
Recently, in an expression of common frustration, a taxi driver told me: "I’ve lived my whole life in this country, but sometimes I feel I don’t recognize it anymore."
Tunisia does look different these days. The capital’s streets look like a dump site. People are forced to hold their noses while walking outside to avoid the bad odor of scattered piles of trash left behind by striking trash collectors. Illegal street vendors are everywhere. The cost of living has mounted. Inflation has gone up and weakened the purchasing power of the country’s middle and lower classes. The security situation has significantly deteriorated due to political turmoil and the rise of religious extremism. Last year’s political assassinations shocked and horrified Tunisians, who had always been able to take political stability for granted.
"We were better off under Ben Ali. The so-called revolution was a mistake," said Ali, a 41-year-old waiter at a side café on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, Tunis’ main thoroughfare.
"Look around you! You’ll only find piles of trash. It is a shame," he continued. "Everything has gotten worse. The image and the reputation of the country have been ruined by violence and chaos. Life has become more difficult for us. No money. No security. Ben Ali knew how to rule Tunisia. We need someone four times more ironfisted than him to get things going in this country."
Ali is not an exception. He is one of many Tunisians who, after waiting for three years, can’t help but be disillusioned with the dream of the revolution, and who wish they could reclaim the modest lifestyle they had under Ben Ali.
A recent poll conducted by a Tunisian market research firm, 3C Etudes, showed that 35.2 percent of Tunisians regret the downfall of the Ben Ali regime. Of these Tunisians, 76 percent explained their nostalgia by citing the deteriorating security situation. Another 62 percent cited their shrinking purchasing power, and 6.4 percent cited unemployment, which remains one of Tunisia biggest challenges. Many also explained that the country’s uncertain future causes them concern, and that they’d prefer to live in a relatively bad, but stable regime.
Economically, things are only getting worse. According to the Tunisian Central Bank, the country’s inflation rate reached an estimated 6.1 percent in January 2014. Analysts blame it on recent increases in public spending caused partly by the public sector’s massive recruitment efforts, which were primarily meant to achieve social peace. Politically, Tunisia has seen five post-uprising, transitional governments, which could only take stopgap measures to dampen rising public anger and save the country from falling into disorder.
"I cannot think of one good thing I gained from this revolution," Ali said. "The only thing we gained is freedom of expression — but who cares about democracy and freedom of expression? I need to survive." Ali’s concerns shed light on the disconnect between the slow-moving political process and the social and economic concerns that fueled public anger before and after the uprising.
Last week — even as whole world watched Tunisia approve a new constitution — daily protests swept the country from north to south. Demonstrators, frustrated by a new tax increase, attacked government buildings, blocked roads, and ransacked the headquarters of the ruling political parties.
There have been protests nearly every day since the revolution, but only recently have people begun calling for the dictator’s return. A Tunisian TV report showed protesters in one of the country’s impoverished regions chanting "Ben Ali! Ben Ali! We want Ben Ali back!"
As Tunisian pollster Hichem Guerfeli, director for 3C Etudes, commented, "Asking people if they regret the downfall of Ben Ali was sort of taboo, and many refrained from answering the question. But now, more and more people are admitting it."
Emboldened by the worsening security and economic situations, Tunisians are now aggressively expressing their nostalgia for the corrupt autocrat whose policies inarguably did them more harm than good. Apparently, some Tunisians have developed Stockholm syndrome. Despite Ben Ali’s abuses, they regard him as a strong, iron-fisted man who protected their country, failing to keep in mind that he — like any despot — did what he did to protect his throne, not his country.
Not everyone in Tunisia, however, regrets the unfolding political experiment. Zohra, a 71-year-old homemaker, said that it’s too early in the process to try to assess the transition’s success.
"The revolution isn’t stable yet. It’s still in the oven. It’s not ready. It’s like we’re still in kindergarten, learning about democracy and freedom," she said. "Things were not better under Ben Ali. It’s just that we didn’t know how bad the situation was. Now, we are uncertain about our economy and our future, but at least we know why."
Many Tunisians are concerned about the economy, and they’re right that the only way to save it is by having a stable government. But that doesn’t mean returning to dictatorship. Instead, Tunisians should focus on finishing the constitution, organizing the long-awaited elections, and electing a government that has the power to make big decisions and solidify the needed reforms.
Asma Ghribi is a freelance journalist based in Tunis. She was formerly managing editor of the Tunisia Live website.