An expert's point of view on a current event.

Anatomy of an Autocracy

Tunisia's deposed president once swept to power with bold promises of reform. What went wrong?


As the end of his reign quickly approached this week, Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali attempted to conjure the spirit that buoyed his government in the months after he seized power more than 20 years ago.

In a televised address to the country on Jan. 13, Ben Ali — speaking in colloquial Arabic and in unusually humble tones — pledged not to run for reelection when his current term ends in 2014 and to usher in a gentler phase of governance in the meantime.

The offer was far too little, far too late, as the reaction in the streets of Tunis made immediately clear. But it wasn’t just Ben Ali’s tone that recalled an earlier era: In fact, Ben Ali’s fall from power has had a remarkable similarity to his original rise.

In 1987, Tunisia teetered on the brink of a civil war between the tottering authoritarian government of President Habib Bourguiba and a popular Islamist movement. Ben Ali, who served as both interior minister and prime minister under Bourguiba, removed the president on the grounds that age and senility rendered him incompetent to govern.

In the months that followed, Ben Ali was widely hailed as the country’s savior — the prescient leader who pulled the country back from the abyss. By thwarting chaos, Ben Ali had saved a struggling economy as well as the country’s secular political order.

But Ben Ali was more than a savior. He was also, people believed at the time, a democrat. He said all the right things about the need for political competition, transparency, freedom of opinion and expression. He also spoke about individual liberties — freedom of conscience, the right to hold and express contrary opinions, and human rights. Ben Ali didn’t just sound like a democrat. He sounded like a liberal democrat.

It was the prospect of legislative elections in 1989 that really ended the honeymoon. Ben Ali was not willing to allow an Islamist party onto the field. Nor was he willing to accept electoral reforms that gave the secular opposition parties any meaningful chance of winning. In fact, the electoral code became one of Ben Ali’s handiest tools. On several occasions, and with much fanfare, Ben Ali announced "reforms" in the code. In reality, all of these measures were designed to limit opposition gains and prevent the parties from forming an effective alliance.

Some, perhaps even the president himself, might say that Ben Ali honestly intended to be the leader he appeared to be in his first year and a half and that he was forced to step back because of the need to make difficult economic reforms and fend off an Islamist movement at a time when the raging civil war in neighboring Algeria offered a grim reminder about the dangers of Islamist political influence.

But the results were undeniably ugly. Moroccans frequently refer to the 1960s through the 1980s as the "years of lead" — a time of intense repression against the political opposition. The 1990s became Tunisia’s decade of lead. The Islamists believed they had done everything required to satisfy the law and become a legal party. Ben Ali’s refusal to admit them into the political game ignited a fierce and bloody conflict with the government. When push came to shove, Ben Ali pushed back — hard. More than 10,000 Islamists and other opponents went to Ben Ali’s prisons in the 1990s. As happens with many embattled regimes, Ben Ali’s government developed a sense of paranoia. Any bit of criticism was considered aiding and abetting the Islamists. The government went after anyone who dared to complain.

Some of its tools of repression were bland and bureaucratic. Ben Ali never severed the umbilical cord linking the ruling party to the institutions of the state. His Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) was the state, and the state served Ben Ali. As a result, all manner of rules, regulations, and procedures became political weapons that officials wielded to enforce loyalty. A newspaper might not be able to get paper or might see its issues confiscated off the streets because of a story that stepped beyond the state’s ambiguous red lines. A businessman might not get a license because he failed to demonstrate sufficient commitment to the president.

Other tools were blunter. The police force, uniformed and plainclothes, became the regime’s praetorian guard, operating directly under the control of the president and Interior Ministry. There is more than a little irony in the fact that the government recruited heavily for the security forces in the same disenfranchised regions that generated the wave of protest that broke in mid-December. The military, on the other hand, remained very professional but relatively weak — a fact that will no doubt affect Tunisia’s future political development.  Once it became clear in the mid-1990s that the government had forced the Islamists out of the country or so far underground that they could not organize any meaningful opposition, Tunisians began to lose their patience with Ben Ali’s authoritarianism. Human rights activists and dissident journalists began to complain more loudly, and the government cracked down even harder. Stories about beatings by plainclothes agents, arbitrary arrests, and torture mounted.

So why revolt now and not a decade ago? The media coverage of the last month has emphasized frustrations over unemployment and prices. However, it is easy to forget that for most of Ben Ali’s rule, Tunisia’s economy grew at a respectable rate. Tunisia has a larger middle class and a higher standard of living than any of its neighbors. As long as you stayed out of politics, Ben Ali’s government left you alone and allowed you to make some money, buy a nice house or apartment, and live a better life than your parents lived.

More recently, however, the Europe-dependent Tunisian economy was experiencing global-recession-related contraction — which hit university degree-holders of the sort that took to the streets against Ben Ali particularly hard.

Then there is social media. When the definitive history of this era gets written, Facebook will get its own chapter. Activists used Facebook to organize on the one space that the regime couldn’t control — cyberspace.

Not long ago, police firing on protesters or funeral marchers in out-of-the-way towns like Thala or Kasserine would have remained a bit of local lore, something to whisper about. Not now. Facebook brought the events in Thala to Tunis and helped build coalitions that the government could not break.

Tunisia now enters a truly novel stage. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi has become the transitional president, with orders to organize new legislative and presidential elections in six months. But that only delays the inevitable questions. Tunisia’s opposition parties are small organizations with narrow support bases, no experience in government, and no experience working in a meaningful coalition. Moreover, they didn’t play a particularly important role in organizing the protests that have presented them with this new opportunity. Can any of them, singly or together, convince Tunisians that they have the ability to cope with the country’s pressing problems and build a democracy? 

And what about the presidency? Ghannouchi has the virtue of experience, but his long service with Ben Ali will be a real handicap if he wants the job for a longer term. Other possible candidates have the virtue of principled opposition to Ben Ali, but they have been in exile or lack the bases of support in the country and its administration to easily assume such a critical post.

This transition is vital for Tunisia, and not just in the short and medium terms. Tunisia has never experienced a transition in power at the ballot box. It must develop the institutions to do so, and it must establish meaningful limitations on presidential authority. There are only so many times this country can revisit 1987.

Christopher Alexander is Davidson College's McGee director of the Dean Rusk International Studies Program, an associate professor of political science, and author of Tunisia: Stability and Reform in the Modern Maghreb.