The Sick Man of the Middle East

Is Tunisia's strongman president about to fall?


At around 11 p.m. Tuesday, U.S. East Coast time, unconfirmed reports of a coup in Tunisia spread across Twitter like wildfire, fueled by a rumor mill that has gone into overdrive since riots broke out this month outside the Tunisian capital.

"Phone confirmation that the army has surrounded the ministry of interior," tweeted Wessim Amara, a user based in Tunisia. Another, Fouad Marei, followed: "Tweeps unanimously confirm: #coup against #BenAli regime. Mainstream media continues to talk of clashes, no confirmation of #SidiBouZid coup."

Neither was true — there’s no sign that President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has lost control of the country’s all-powerful security services, though he did sack his interior minister and sent military troops into the streets of Tunis to restore order. But the fact that the rumor was making the rounds at all speaks volumes about how rapidly Tunisia has gone from Arab success story to Middle East sick man.

The riots, which erupted in mid-December after an underemployed university graduate named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire to protest his rough treatment at the hands of police, are the worst to hit the autocratic North African state in 26 years. So far, at least 35 people have been killed in the violence — sparked by anger over high unemployment, political repression, and a general climate of despair — and that’s likely an understatement.

"It started with economic issues, but people are fed up with the authoritarian system," says Nabila Hamza, the Tunisian-born president of the Foundation for the Future, which funds civil society groups across the broader Middle East and North Africa.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Tunisia has long been seen as a "moderate" Arab state, with sensible economic policies, decent government services, relatively enlightened policies toward women, and little habit of making trouble in the region. Tunisia’s GDP has grown by about 5 percent annually, on average, for the last decade. In 2010, the World Economic Forum rated its economy No. 1 in Africa in terms of global competitiveness, scoring it highly on respect for property rights and corruption. The country rose six spots in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, putting it among Africa’s top performers.

But that economic success has come at the hands of one of the Arab world’s nastiest police states. Tunisia has had only two presidents in its nearly 55-year history. The current leader, Ben Ali, 74, came to power after a bloodless coup in 1987. In a laughably unfree and unfair 2009 election, he won a fifth term with 89.6 percent of the vote. There are no effective opposition parties in the country. "Independent journalists, human rights organizations, union organizers — anyone who raises concerns about the government’s actions — find their actions tracked and their outspokenness punished," writes Human Rights Watch analyst Rasha Moumneh.

One curiously overlooked factor in Tunisia’s unrest has been the impact of the WikiLeaks cables, which revealed the U.S. government’s view of the president and his ruling circle as deeply corrupt. One prescient cable from June 2008 reads, "Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants," and highlights growing frustration with the Tunisian regime, a "quasi-mafia" made up of Ben Ali’s extended family. A more recent cable, from July 2009, bluntly states that Ben Ali has "lost touch with the Tunisian people" and describes the country as "a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems."

Western governments have criticized the crackdown, but so far have refrained from calling for Ben Ali to step down. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her way Wednesday to a regional meeting of civil society groups in Qatar, expressed her concern about the violence, but said the United States was "not taking sides" in the dispute. The European Union called on Tunisian authorities to "do everything they can to bring calm and to address the underlying social issues."

But U.S. officials admit privately they have few interests in Tunisia and little leverage. "The U.S. is not the most important external player," said a State Department official, asked what more the United States can do to promote democratic change. "How effectively can you ‘push a country to the wall’ without other actors coming along?"

Tunisia’s largest trading partner and most important ally by far is France, its former colonial master. So far, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said nothing about the violence and evinces little interest in pressuring Ben Ali’s regime to respect democratic values. Tunisian activists say bitterly that France is happy enough with Ben Ali’s cooperation on immigration and counterterrorism and has no appetite for risk in its near abroad.

Arab leaders have a funny way of hanging on long past their sell-by dates. Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi has been in power since 1969. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has reigned in Yemen since 1978; Hosni Mubarak has been running Egypt since 1981. All have weathered severe unrest at one time or another.

Still, the writing may be on the wall for Ben Ali. Once dictators lose their legitimacy, and coercion fails to keep the masses at bay, they can fall from power with astonishing speed — as in the case of the late Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu. "He is finished," one Tunisian democracy advocate says. "But the regime, maybe not. It depends on if he goes in one week or six."

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