Photo by Giacomo Pirozzi / Panos
When Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali won a fifth term in office in October 2009, with 90 per cent of the vote, even the BBC felt moved to comment that during the election campaign the ‘only suspense’ was over the exact percentage by which Ben Ali would be declared victorious. A country lauded for its economic progress, and a popular choice for European tourists seeking a low-priced package holiday on the Mediterranean, it was also named the seventh worst country to be a blogger in 2009.
Ben Ali took over from Habib Bourguiba in a coup in 1987, and is only the second head of state since Tunisia’s independence from France was won in 1956. Despite initially raising hopes of a political culture more tolerant of dissent, Ben Ali’s rule has been maintained by the usual apparatus of a police state and there has been no more than a sham procedural democracy. The parliamentary system is designed to give the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party a guaranteed and overwhelming majority. In the run-up to elections, the regime’s critics are subject to severe intimidation and violence, while the opposition parties that are permitted to operate cannot compete against the state’s publicity machine for Ben Ali and the RCD.
Ben Ali has used the banner of the ‘war on terror’ as an excuse to clamp down on opponents and criminalize Islamist political expression, a strategy boosted when a violent Salafi group claimed responsibility for a bombing in 2002. Those working in the media have also been hard hit, with Tunisia a leader in the Arab world for the number of journalists it arrests. In recent years, the internet and social networking sites have become useful tools for opposition activists in a variety of Middle East countries. Aware of this, the state keeps close tabs on the population’s internet use, while banning certain sites like YouTube. It is true that there are some success stories. Women’s rights in Tunisia are far more consolidated in both law and practice than in other Arab countries. Yet even this apparent ‘progressive’ development is complicated by the link between the discourse on women’s rights and the anti-democratic repression of Islamists.
Analysts sometimes ‘offset’ the appalling state of human rights and political freedom in Tunisia by pointing to the country’s economic progress compared to its regional neighbours. While there have been undeniable gains over the last decade when it comes to poverty alleviation and key quality of life indicators, it is too simplistic to talk of an economic success story. Ben Ali’s Tunisia may win praise from the IMF for ‘structural reforms’ and ‘open’ markets, but the privatization of state-owned assets and land has been less than transparent and has led to wealth accumulation by a privileged few. This serious corruption problem has been notoriously characterized by the rising power of Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi, whose family now enjoys substantial business interests in areas as diverse as media, tourism and agriculture.
Tunisia continues to enjoy close economic and political ties with the US and Europe and benefits from billions of dollars of foreign investment. As Ben Ali continues to provide ‘stability’ – code for opportunities for foreign capital and no room for Islamist dissent – so the West is happy to keep doing business with the regime. The only question mark is over post-Ben Ali Tunisia – the leader is 73 years old, and talk has begun on who may succeed him. One of those rumoured as being groomed for power is his son-in-law, Sakher al-Materi, an entrepreneur with a seat in parliament. It would seem that, in more ways than one, the foreseeable future is likely to involve business as usual.
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