Tunisia finds its voice with the fall of Ben Ali

For decades Tunisia ranked among the Arab world’s most repressive regimes. With president Ben Ali now off the scene, its citizens are finding a voice for the first time.

A Tunisian protester earlier this month. The words ‘long life to free Tunisia’ have been scrawled in Arabic on the wall behind him.
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No one knows where Tunisia's revolution is headed. Not ordinary Tunisians who, a fortnight after the departure of their dictator of 23 years, Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, are eager for a return to normality and the opportunity to earn a living in what will remain a battered economy. Not the young activists, many of them new to dissent, who express their euphoria on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Tunis's main thoroughfare. Not the wealthy elite, who from their villas in Tunis's lavish suburbs largely welcome the fall of Ben Ali, though they fret about the direction the revolution might take and want to see their factories reopen. And not the politicians and technocrats who - together with one blogger who is a member of the Pirate Party, an international movement of hackers best known for their defence of illegal downloading - form the interim government. Their coalition is tasked with preparing for elections within six months. It may not last that long, at least in its current shape.

Perhaps not even Rachid Ammar can guess the course the revolution will take, though it was him, as the general at the head of the military, who refused to fire on protesters and is widely said to have told Ben Ali that his time was up. Tunisia is still in flux, and will remain so for some time.


In the days since Ben Ali fled the country, Avenue Habib Bourguiba has been the centre of festivities. Several times a day protesters gather in the avenue and hold celebratory marches, and, increasingly, protests against the composition of the interim government. Ministers from the former ruling party, the Democratic Rally for the Constitution (known by its French acronym RCD), still hold key positions. The prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, has been in place since 1999 and is particularly unpopular. His legitimacy was based on a reputation for competence and integrity and the notion that he would be a safe pair of hands throughout the transition. It was eroded by the discovery that he had been in telephone contact with Ben Ali.

In these heady times the common fear, unlikely as it seems, is that Ghannouchi and the RCD are plotting Ben Ali's restoration. If the old guard can create enough unrest, so the theory goes, that will justify the dictator's return as a guarantor of stability. The scenario is preposterous but its frequent invocation reveals how fragile Tunisians believe their revolution to be, and shows how deeply fears of the old regime run. Ghannouchi and his fellow veteran ministers have resigned from their senior positions from the RCD, but they have not actually ended their membership. And despite the celebratory march on the party's headquarters - an imposing structure on a wide boulevard at right angles to Avenue Habib Bourguiba - the RCD remains very much alive.

"The RCDists are lying low for the moment, but they are preparing their comeback" is a frequent refrain. One shopkeeper told me, speaking of the situation in his neighbourhood, that the RCDists and local informants were locking themselves up in their houses, afraid to step out and be met by angry mobs. Their offices have been deserted and many former party members are now taking part in the demonstrations against the government, trying to distance themselves from their recent pasts. The RCD was such a hegemonic party that, like the Chinese Communist Party or Iraq's Baath, membership was sometimes a necessity for career advancement, especially in public administration. A computer specialist involved in the online protest movement told me how he had been hired several years ago to provide IT services for a local RCD conference. As he did the job, he was approached for recruitment into the party, with assurances that further lucrative work would follow if he joined. He politely said he would consider it, then avoided all further contact with party members, afraid to put himself in a situation where he could no longer refuse their requests.

The intimidatory tactics of the RCD and its secret police were subtle and psychologically deft. They didn't stoop to the brutal methods of the Iraqi and Syrian Baath. There was simply a constant pressure to toe the line and, if not to show enthusiasm about the regime, at least to keep quiet. "You have to remember that the RCD had at least two and half million members - a quarter of the population of the country," says Fares Mabrouk, a US-based entrepreneur and activist. He recently returned to Tunis after helping to organise the diaspora movement against Ben Ali from abroad. Mabrouk now hopes to launch a think-tank to tackle some of the issues that will face Tunisia in the year ahead: constitutional and electoral reform, economic priorities, and national reconciliation. He believes that the protesters' demands to dissolve the RCD, while rooted in understandable anger, could be dangerous. Instead he suggests that the organisation should be split into two or three smaller parties. Some sort of national reconciliation will be needed.


Such ideas are flying around in homes, cafes, and the streets of Tunisian cities with an unaccustomed exuberance. For decades Tunisians had to stay quiet. No longer. On my first day in Tunis I passed near the entrance of the medina, the traditional old quarters where the main souqs are located. Crowds had gathered to watch the protests, but few there were willing to forgive the rank and file of the former regime. There was no Nelson Mandela with the moral authority to advocate restraint. The revolution's tagline, after ousting Ben Ali, has become "RCD Dégage!" - "RCD, get lost!" The problem is how this should be achieved.

As a knot of about 20 people stood debating the merits of the transitional government, another group approached and started shouting objections: "We need a parliamentary system! No to a strong presidency! Let's have a system like in Italy or Germany!" A balding man in his late 50s yelled back: "Don't give me these foreign ideas - we are an Arab and Sunni country!" A diminutive woman with rectangular glasses and an intense look on her face answered him: "Where were the Arab countries in all this? They didn't carry out the revolution, it was the youth on Facebook that did!" The argument between the Arab nationalist and the parliamentarian went on, touching on foreign conspiracies to take over the revolution and the need to avoid the emergence of another strongman. Finally, the parliamentarians moved off. I decided to follow and engage them in conversation.

The small group - three men and the woman - were activists who participated in several uprisings over the past months. Aside from advocating a parliamentary system, they were looking for offices. Their leader, Kamel Benchaboune, was a tall, dark-haired lawyer in his early 40s, sporting a Tunisian flag as a cape. The effect was rather dashing.

Benchaboune had spent most of the previous week writing graffiti on the city's walls. Earlier in that day there had been a moving protest by policemen during which one officer, tears streaking down his cheeks, apologized to onlookers and explained that police had been as oppressed as anyone else, with an internal unit keeping checks on them. After hearing them, Benchaboune walked up and down Habib Bourguiba spray-painting slogans on the plywood boards which still protected some shops from looters: "The People Have Liberated The Police" and "Ben Ali, The Police Spits On You" and "The Police Says No To Dictatorship" and "Free At Last". He had been doing this for two weeks, in between attending protests and writing political literature.

But now, Benchaboune and his friends were walking at speed through the streets of central Tunis. They were on a hunt — not for former regime cronies, but for their offices. As Raja Bourgui, a sociologist who, it turns out, once studied under Pierre Bourdieu, explained: "The RCD had offices in every neighborhood in the country, places they could use to organize elections, keep tabs on people, and so on. We are trying to find them and claim them, because we don't have a place to meet. We have to prepare our petition for a parliamentary system."

We rushed on, backtracking occasionally until we were accosted by a middle-aged man with unkempt hair. He appeared to recognise my new friends as fellow political junkies and started telling them about his fear that Ben Ali associates were plotting a comeback. He seemed agitated about what he called "the Sousse group" — a lobby from Ben Ali's home town. A little later, apropos of nothing, he leant forward conspiratorially and asked: "Did you see Mohammed Hassanein Haykal (the veteran Egyptian journalist) on al-Jazeera last night? He said the Americans are behind the Tunisian revolution, and that it's only a first step." And then, with a knowing look: "Next is Lebanon."

We caught up with Benchaboune, who had gone ahead and found an abandoned RCD office. When we arrived he unfurled his cape, walked to the apartment's first-floor balcony and attached it to the railings. People on the street applauded.

There are only a few chairs and tables left in the office, where we sat to rest. The conversation turned to the last days of the regime, and Ben Ali's penultimate speech, during which he claimed that the protests were the work of extremist factions or foreigners plotting against the state. Up until that point, Bourgui said she had not joined in the protests. "But the moment he pronounced the word 'terrorists' to refer to the protestors, I was on the street. For me, there was no going back."

The RCD office was plastered with posters of Ben Ali, and even one of Nicolas Sarkozy. Benchaboune explained that to claim their squatting right to it they would have to return frequently, so that people in the area noticed that it was in use. "We are at year zero, the opposition parties are weak and we don't have money to start a party. The new government needs to fund new parties and give them time to establish themselves before elections." Before we left, he raided a storage cupboard full of election material from Ben Ali's 2004 re-election campaign. Benchaboune gave me a cloth print of Ben Ali in standard posture — jet-black hair, piercing gaze, hands clasped together and raised at chest level — and a copy of a French-language government newspaper from Friday, January 14, the day the dictator fled. The newspaper's headline was from Ben Ali's last speech, delivered the previous evening: "Je vous ai compris" — "I have understood you".


For decades Tunisia was one the Arab world's most repressive police states, both under the popular dictatorship of Habib Bourguiba, the nationalist leader who negotiated the country's independence from France, and even more so under the much less popular regime of Ben Ali.

Bourguiba was a father-of-the-nation leader in the mold of Turkey's Mustafa Kemal Attaturk. His authority was rooted in paternalism and he remains beloved by many Tunisians. Bourguiba gave the country its current dominant identity, unusual in the region: an illiberal secularism and progressivism, and an admirable record on women's rights. The flipside of this was a cult of personality, low tolerance for opposition and a dirigiste economy in which the state meddles at every level, thus increasing its control.

After 1987, when Ben Ali deposed Bourguiba in a "medical coup", this system became more ruthless. Ben Ali lacked Bourguiba's charisma and air of historical legitimacy. His background in the military and security services led him to rely instead on the police to intimidate the opposition, journalists, civil society and the private sector. He also made good use of the bogeyman of radicalism, invoking it to repress not only Islamists and leftist radicals but any people who chose to express their faith or opinions. Veiled women, for instance, were banned from television. Men who frequented the mosque too often were put on watch lists. Journalists who interviewed dissidents would find themselves forced into exile. "The political landscape was emptied of meaning," says Kamel Labidi, a journalist who was barred from working in the country in 1994 after he interviewed the dissenting politician Moncef Marzouki, another exile, in the French newspaper La Croix. "This means that today, there is no one who can claim the leadership of the opposition."

Into this vacuum a handful of legal opposition parties are stepping. So are banned groups such as Marzouki's Congress for the Republic (CPR) and the Islamist party en-Nahda (Renaissance). Also in the picture are the radical wings of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), the national federation of trade unions which had been close to the state under Ben Ali.

Of these, the UGTT has been the most vocal, organizing protests against the presence of holdover ministers from the RCD. It also backed important actions by Tunisians from the poor Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine regions, where the uprising started in mid-December. These protestors, together with the UGTT, appear to have won a concession from the interim government already. The ministers of finance and the interior are said to be about to depart, to be replaced by technocrats. This may only whet the protestors' appetite for more.

Amid all this politicking, only one man has emerged as a charismatic authority: General Rachid Ammar, the head of the armed forces. Appearing in front of the protestors at the Kasbah on Monday, he assured them that he would act as a "guarantor of the revolution" and prevent either a comeback by the RCD or an erosion of Tunisia's fragile new democracy. The incident confirmed Ammar as the strongman of the moment. Might he trade his uniform for a suit and take control of the interim government directly? Some Tunisians, eager for a return to stability, favor this option. Yet it has troubling echoes of Ben Ali's own transition from security boss to president in 1987, when he was welcomed as a democratiser.

As Tunis and the rest of the country slowly returns to its regular activity — most offices and shops have reopened, with schools and universities slowly following — some want to just get on with their lives. I spoke to the young manager of a mobile phone store. She shrugged at the excitement and feverish ideas of those who dream of overhauling the political system. "We've become a country of 10 million politicians," she sighed. "We should just get back to our jobs and let the politicians do theirs."

It remains to be seen whether the politicians, accustomed to a tight leash and clear instructions from Ben Ali's palace in Carthage, still remember how.