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Tunisia’s Post-Ben Ali Challenge: A Primer


Tunisia’s Post-Ben Ali Challenge: A Primer

Amy Aisen Kallander, 26 January 2011

(Amy Aisen Kallander is a historian of Tunisia and assistant professor of Middle East history at Syracuse University.)

The January 14 departure of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali amidst popular protests was a long overdue demonstration of the possibility for genuine democratization in the Arab world. Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor whose self-immolation set off the protests, tapped a deep vein of anger in Tunisian society at police harassment and the general arbitrariness of the state, but also at severe, endemic economic inequality sharpened now by rising global food prices. It remains to be determined, however, to what degree the toppling of Ben Ali will transform Tunisia into a representative democracy whose citizens enjoy greater economic opportunities. Ben Ali was the head of a system of one-party rule, and that system did not board a private plane along with him and his immediate entourage as they headed into exile.

As Ben Ali’s personal grip weakened, the international headlines blared news of the deep corruption and extravagant privilege associated with the former dictator’s clan. His family’s extensive control of the economy, reaching into banking, telecommunications, import-export, cars, agriculture and food distribution, petroleum, tourism, real estate and nearly every other sector, has long been an open secret in Tunisia. Two of the family heavyweights, Ben Ali’s son-in-law Sakher al-Materi and his brother-in-law Belhassan Trabelsi, also fled the country in mid-January, and Tunisian authorities claim to have rounded up others since then. Yet dismantling the structures that facilitated the concentration of political-economic power in the hands of Ben Ali will be a difficult task. In fact, while Ben Ali exploited the system to unprecedented personal and family benefit, the consolidation of one-party rule dates to the tenure of the first president of independent Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba (1956-1987).

Protesters from across the country continue to gather in front of the Interior Ministry and prime minister’s offices in the capital of Tunis, demanding that Ben Ali’s ex-lieutenants withdraw from government. Their hope is to secure a firmer guarantee of real change in how the country is ruled.

One-Party Rule

Notwithstanding the occasional bouts of nostalgia for Bourguiba, the hero of Tunisia’s independence struggle from France, it was under his reign that the ruling party, the Neo-Destour (later named the Socialist Destour Party), became synonymous with the state. Bourguiba controlled the judiciary, placed arbitrary limits on press freedoms and allocated such minimal prerogatives to legislative assemblies that there were few checks on his power. He initially faced opposition within the Destour, and armed resistance led by Salah Ben Youssef, whose assassination he personally ordered in 1961. Secularization programs such as the nationalization of the Zaytouna mosque-university and the reform of family law reduced the influence of religious authorities. Labor unions and women’s groups that had actively contributed to the anti-colonial movement were brought under state control and incorporated into the party apparatus. For instance, the National Union of Tunisian Women, founded in 1958, gathered together women from nationalist parties and independent women’s groups, one of which voluntarily disbanded. Following the adoption of a 1959 law requiring civil associations to obtain a government permit, the remaining independent women’s organization, affiliated with the communist party, was denied a permit and then outlawed in 1961. The first honorary president of the National Union was Wassila Ben Ammar, who Bourguiba married in 1962.

After 1963, the Destour was the only legal political party. The membership rolls grew to some 2 million, and soon party branches became the only visible form of communal association. Electoral legislation, gerrymandering, intimidation, ballot stuffing and selective distribution of voting cards promised Bourguiba winning margins of 90-98 percent. In 1975, Bourguiba revised Article 40 of the constitution, declaring himself “president of the republic for life.” Despite this maneuver, and despite the absence of any credible opposition, Bourguiba’s domestic practices were rarely questioned by his Cold War allies, who accepted his self-presentation as modern, Westernized and democratic. Ben Ali, who served as prime minister and interior minister in the 1980s, took advantage of Bourguiba’s weakness, ousting him in 1987 in what is often called a medico-constitutional coup. Ben Ali had Article 40 altered, adding the condition that presidency for life could last only as long as the president was mentally and physically capable to serve. He then called in doctors to affirm that Bourguiba was incapable. State propaganda has subsequently glorified the coup as “the change.”

When Ben Ali moved into the presidential palace, he promised to follow through with “change,” starting with political pluralism and enforcement of constitutional limits on terms in office. To distance himself from the Destour and its legacy, he re-baptized the party in 1988 as the Constitutional Democratic Rally (in French, the Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique, or RCD). Nonetheless, he was the only candidate in the 1989 and 1994 presidential elections, in both of which he received over 99 percent of the vote.[1] In 1999, he got over 99 percent again, despite having permitted two minor politicians to run against him in a sop to his mild foreign critics. With the constitution limiting the president to three terms in office, Ben Ali’s parliamentary allies amended this clause in 2002, so that the only limit was the candidate’s age, with the maximum set at 75. Running in 2004 and again in 2009 with more handpicked opponents, he received 94.5 percent and 89.6 percent of the vote, respectively, and when the protests broke out he was preparing to modify the constitution yet again in advance of the 2014 poll. As for the parliament, the commission drafting the electoral lists was appointed by the RCD, which also ran the polling stations and counted the ballots behind closed doors.

In the wake of Ben Ali’s flight to Saudi Arabia, interim premier Mohammed al-Ghannouchi, caretaker president Fouad Mebazaa and several of their minister colleagues have resigned from the RCD, and the party’s central committee has been dissolved. In addition to demanding employment and economic change, the demonstrators call for the RCD to be dismantled completely and then banned. Even those steps, however, will not automatically consign the everyday practices of one-party rule to the past. Whichever formation organizes the new elections that Ghannouchi has promised needs to prove its commitment to an electoral calendar as well as to a form of pluralism that is more credible than what Ben Ali allowed. Individual candidates will need to engage with Tunisian citizens across the socio-economic spectrum and outside the northern and coastal regions of the country, so that they can claim to represent a wider swath of the population than the educated upper class.

Patrons and Clients

Over the years Ben Ali also developed ways of consolidating power outside the realm of formal politics, seeking to capture economic resources, often at the expense of ordinary Tunisians. The best example of this phenomenon is the National Solidarity Fund, known by its account number 26-26. Founded by the president in 1993 as a program of rural development underwriting improvements to infrastructure such as electricity lines, roads and health clinics, the Fund is kept afloat by an undisclosed portion of the state’s annual budget as well as contributions from the general public. In principle, these contributions are voluntary. Civil servants pay the equivalent of one day’s salary per year, farmers chip in 1 percent of their annual profits and business owners contribute an amount tied to the number of people in their employ. The major trade union of artisanal craftspeople signed an agreement stipulating an annual contribution as well. In practice, the donations are not optional. Those who refuse to donate are faced with all manner of difficulties in their routine dealings with the state bureaucracy, as well as the threat of audits of tax records and other forms of overt harassment.

Meanwhile, the Fund’s record in the field is disappointing. Critics have pointed out the cracks in the hastily paved rural roadways and the holes in the expanded electrical grid: There is still no electricity for families who cannot afford to pay the monthly bills.

The main problem with the Fund, however, is its utter lack of transparency. The Fund has been under the direct authority of the president, who alone has managed it, and kept no accounts. According to official estimates, the Fund collected an average of $15-16 million per year in the late 1990s, yet the few economists who have attempted to calculate their own figures surmise that businesses alone contribute between $24-38 million on an annual basis. While state-run stations have televised the occasional home repair, and boasted of the number of families assisted, the better part of the Fund’s income is thus unaccounted for.[2] Monies have also been distributed in an arbitrary, clientelist manner under the aegis of the RCD. Committees of residents in the disenfranchised zones serve in a consultative role, but the decisions about who will get the funds are made by RCD deputies and elected officials who are members of the party.

Whether Ghannouchi or old opposition figures returning from exile, Tunisian politicians have been vocal in swearing to take clear steps toward transparency in government and eliminate corruption from the highest echelons of power. Tunisians have heard these impassioned speeches before, and the proof of course is in the pudding. In a country where corruption and clientelism have governed behavior for so long, it is not obvious that even sincere political change at the top will be able to uproot them.


Perhaps the most encouraging front of the ongoing tumult in Tunisian society is freedom of expression. With Ben Ali and the RCD omnipresent, Tunisians have long struggled to make their voices heard. Newspapers were owned by members of the “First Family” and were self-censoring, while foreign dailies that were at all critical of the regime did not arrive at kiosks. Journalists who did speak out, such as Tawfiq Ben Brik, were hounded by the police, frequently arrested and often chose exile. The government, of course, wrote the content of most radio and television broadcasts, and even attempted to limit the programming accessible on satellite television. On one occasion in the summer of 2002, while an exiled opponent was speaking on an Arabic-language station based in England, power was cut throughout the capital. Tunisian dissidents increasingly turned to the Internet, but there a similar scenario applied, with the unique server in the country controlled by the government.

When Internet cafes sprang up in Tunis and other cities in the late 1990s, Zouhair Yahyawi created one of the first open forums online for discussion and debate. In mid-2001, his site TuneZine featured political cartoons, the occasional parody of the president (referred to by his initials as ZABA), commentary pieces from Tunisians across the political spectrum and an open letter to the president from his uncle, Mokhtar Yahyawi, an outspoken judge. The younger Yahyawi posted a poll asking visitors to the site if Tunisia was a democracy, a kingdom, a prison or a zoo. The majority said it was a prison. In response to Tunisia’s first cyber-dissident, the regime arrested him in 2002, throwing him in jail, where he was subject to ill treatment and torture. Released late in 2003, in poor health due to prison conditions and a hunger strike he had undertaken while he was imprisoned, Yahyawi died of a heart attack in March 2005. He was 36.

Over the past decade, the regime grew more and more adept at policing the Internet. Cited as one of 12 countries in the category of “Internet Enemies” by Reporters Without Borders, Tunisia was also ranked third on a Forbes magazine list of “the world’s most Net-repressive regimes.” The government regularly blocked access to the webpages of opposition groups, exiled dissidents and human rights organizations, as well as a number of blogs, YouTube and DailyMotion. Applying sophisticated software, the regime presented a user trying to view those sites with a standard “404 Error” message on the screen. More recently, the government adopted the tactic of “phishing,” sending out fake e-mail messages designed to harvest the passwords for the Facebook pages and blogs of activists and then deleting the content.

The online censorship extended to the work of Tunisian rappers, who have used their medium to complain of hunger, the unequal distribution of wealth and police brutality. In the spring of 2006, four teenagers in the western town of Kef were arrested for downloading an MP3 of a rap song critical of police violence. Though they were minors at the time, they received sentences of three to four months in prison. In January, Hamada ben Amor, a 21-year old rapper from Sfax, was arrested and detained for three days. One of his songs, “President, Your People Are Dying,” had become the unofficial soundtrack of the protests, whose participants affectionately nicknamed him “El Général.”

Despite the crackdown, the Internet was used strategically by the protesters to spread word of demonstrations, for instance, several in Bouazizi’s town of Sidi Bouzid that were covered cursorily or not at all by state-controlled media. As was customary when there were protests in the south and west of the country, the police had closed off the roads leading in and out of the city. In response to the wave of state phishing expeditions, an anonymous hackers’ collective threw its support behind Tunisian cyber-activism in an “Operation Tunisia” that successfully broke into and disabled several government websites. The government answered by making a number of webpages available only in Tunisia, and on January 6 arrested three bloggers, Hamadi Kalutcha, Slim Amamu and Aziz Amami, to dissuade others from writing personal online journals.

Since Ben Ali’s departure, Slim Amamu has been released and accepted an interim cabinet position as secretary of youth and sports. Formerly blocked sites are now accessible, the newly promoted editor of the major newspaper al-Sabah is a person less known for being under the thumb of Ben Ali’s son-in-law al-Materi, and formerly banned books published by Reporters Without Borders and Tawfiq Ben Brik have appeared in at least one bookstore. Yet Tunisians continue to be skeptical of official media and the misinformation campaigns sponsored by the interim government. As for Internet censorship, Amamu tweeted from a meeting with the ministers of interior and communications that it may be harder to undo than he had imagined, since technicians who answered to Ben Ali personally had access to the infrastructure of the Internet. It is unclear what the precise technical problems are, but Amamu has subsequently said that he is unblocking the censored websites one by one.

Islamists and the War on Terror

The international media has given disproportionate weight to the potential for an Islamist resurgence in Tunisia, particularly considering that elections have yet to be scheduled and that the most prominent representative of Tunisian political Islam, Rashid al-Ghannoushi, has yet to return from exile. In fact, Ghannoushi cannot return until his 1991 sentence of banishment is lifted, and the interim government has given no signal that they intend to do so.

Both Bourguiba and Ben Ali were masters at exploiting the so-called Islamist menace to crush various forms of political opposition and garner foreign aid. In the 1980s, when Ghannoushi first organized under the banner of the Islamic Tendency Movement, the movement’s base of support was middle-class, urban and young. Ghannoushi, a schoolteacher with a degree in philosophy, took pains to make clear his support for democratic process. Accused by the regime of being Iranian agents, the movement was steadily alienated from the political system, however. Under Ben Ali, it removed any reference to Islam from its name (in accordance with state regulations banning religion from politics) and became the Renaissance Party, or al-Nahda. Still, it was denied official recognition.

After Ben Ali had orchestrated his first sham election as president, he offered a panoply of new excuses for not legalizing al-Nahda. And then Algeria’s dirty war began. Similar to al-Nahda, Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) voiced its intent to participate in democratic government.  The FIS won a number of municipal elections in 1990, a clear sign of Algerians’ dissatisfaction with their own one-party rule, which dated from their independence from France in 1962. In 1992, with national elections imminent, the FIS was poised to make major inroads into the ruling party’s monopoly. The army intervened, canceling the elections and banning the FIS. Much of the ensuing civil war was a macabre performance directed by the state and the military. Not only did the regime label any opponent (such as the army sub-lieutenant who assassinated the president in 1992) an Islamist sympathizer, but security forces infiltrated — if not founded — the the Armed Islamic Group that was the Islamists’ main combatant force. The military perpetrated attacks against civilians that were blamed on Islamists, of which the massacre at Bentalha is only one example. Eyewitnesses in Bentalha point the finger at the army, which was present during the massacre, refused to intervene on civilians’ behalf and even prevented residents from fleeing.

Assassinations and full-blown civil war across the western border of Tunisia provided Ben Ali with ample reason to renew the crackdown on al-Nahda. Arson at the RCD’s office in Bab al-Swiqa, a working-class neighborhood in the capital, was blamed on al-Nahda, though according to Amnesty International the guilty party was never solidly established. In any case, the regime used the fire to justify mass arrests, with an estimated 8,000 people imprisoned between 1990 and 1992. Many of them were tortured; at least eight deaths were reported.

After Algeria calmed down, the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington presented Ben Ali with another perfect opportunity to silence political opposition to Western applause. Tunisia enlisted in the US-led war on terrorism, and its activities stretched far beyond the domain of al-Qaeda and its supposed local affiliates. The regime deployed the police force to hassle women who wear the headscarf, for instance, denying entry to campus to veiled students. The police also followed men out of mosques and on one occasion blocked the streets surrounding the Sahib al-Taba’ mosque in the Halfaouine neighborhood of Tunis in order to round up worshippers at Ramadan prayers. As Human Rights Watch wrote in its 2007 country report, “The government uses the threat of terrorism and religious extremism as a pretext to crack down on peaceful dissent.” With the assistance of the Pentagon, which provides training to Tunisian forces, the regime has arrested hundreds of youths on suspicion of involvement in terrorism, only rarely charging them with specific crimes.

As Jeremy Keenan has meticulously demonstrated, the Algerian regime has manufactured much of the present “Islamist threat” in North Africa, which goes by the name of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib. Keenan has documented, for example, that the 2003 kidnapping of 32 European tourists in the Sahara, attributed to al-Qaeda’s North African franchise, was coordinated with the complicity of the Algerian military and secret police. By opening a new front in the war on terrorism in northern and western Africa, the US intended to secure army bases and access to natural resources, including petroleum and natural gas in Algeria and Nigeria. The Algerian regime, for its part, hoped to increase its international standing and obtain sophisticated military equipment.[3] It was thus sadly predictable that when Mohamed Bouazizi’s dramatic suicide sparked a series of demonstrations, Ben Ali claimed it was all the work of terrorists and radical Islamists. Whatever formation emerges to govern post-Ben Ali Tunisia will be strongly tempted to renew enlistment in the war on terrorism, which remains a key US interest in North Africa and, thus, holds out the promise of continued aid flows.


The near-comprehensive surveillance of political activities that followed the September 11 attacks was accomplished thanks to the bloated police force maintained by Ben Ali. In 2002, one human rights association estimated that the number of police officers was around 130,000, in a country with a population of 10.4 million. The current force is more than three times the size of the police under Bourguiba (who were about 40,000 strong), and comparable to the ranks of police in France, with its 60 million inhabitants. While the police force has many officers who are dedicated to law and order as a career, and many of middle-class origins, many other young men have simply joined it for lack of other economic options. Since job creation was not keeping up with unemployment, Ben Ali opened the ranks of the police to most anyone who came calling. Policing was attractive to young Tunisian men who wanted to marry and move out of their parents’ houses, but had no other marketable skills that would enable them to save the necessary cash. While salaries were not high (and a number of police officers took second jobs under the table, many as cab drivers), Ben Ali’s de facto jobs program served to inflate the number of officers to the present level. The working-class basis of at least certain sectors of the police force is evidenced by their joining in protests against the interim government on January 22 and by their demands to be unionized.

Ben Ali’s reliance on the police to control other Tunisians persisted to the detriment of investment in the military, the classic guarantor of regime stability in the Arab world. The army’s role in the December-January unrest that led to Ben Ali’s ouster is the subject of intense interest. Gen. Rashid Ammar, the chief of staff, is said to have refused to order troops to fire with live ammunition against the demonstrators. Days after he refused, Ben Ali was compelled to pull up stakes. There were signs, however, that the army was growing hostile toward the president long prior to Ammar’s refusal to shoot, which earned him a few days of house arrest before he was reinstated by the interim government. It seems that a plot brewed against the Ben Ali regime in the spring of 2002. A plane crash that year killed Ammar’s predecessor, Gen. Abdelaziz Skik, as well as 13 other senior officers. That so many of the top brass were traveling in the same plane is seen as more than fortuitous for Ben Ali and his clan. An official inquiry into the cause of the crash has still not made its findings public.

In the aftermath of Ben Ali’s overthrow, Tunisians are preoccupied with the lack of security in the towns and cities. Snipers, said to be Ben Ali loyalists, plague the inhabitants of the capital and other towns. In the absence of a police force that truly exists to serve and protect, ordinary citizens have formed local community patrols to watch over their neighborhoods. Assuming that its own motivations are purely professional, as most Tunisians believe, the army is too small and poorly equipped (it has only 12 helicopters) to police the capital, let alone the entire country. The first task of interim government in Tunisia is thus to reestablish order, as a prelude to proving that elections can be free and fair and can empower someone other than a new dishonest elite. Though Ben Ali and members of his extended family have fled, much of the system that sustained his 23-year rule remains worrisomely intact.


[1] Vincent Geisser, “Tunisie: des élections pour quoi faire? Enjeux et ‘sens’ du fait electoral de Bourguiba à Ben Ali,” Maghreb/Machreq 168 (April-June 2000).

[2] For details, see Eric Gobe, “Politiques sociales et registres de légitimation d’un Etat néo-patrimonial: le cas tunisien,” in Monique Selim and Bernard Hours, eds., Solidarités et compétences: idéologies et pratiques (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003) and Béatrice Hibou, “Les marges de manoeuvre d’un ‘bon élèlve’ économique: la Tunisie de Ben Ali,” Les Etudes du CERI 60 (1999).

[3] See Jeremy Keenan, The Dark Sahara: America’s War on Terror in Africa (London: Pluto Press, 2009).

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