I first visited Tunisia in the early 2000s. I was invited at the time there by a Tunisian colleague and we ended up touring the country from north to south. It was during summer holidays and I loved the place. I was really impressed by how orderly and clean the streets of Hammamet, Tunis and Monastir were, in comparison with the tumult and dust of a place like Casablanca where I lived at the time. But I soon discovered that a sinister reality lay under that immaculate surface. One day as we were driving by the shoreline, near Bourguiba’s mausoleum, I was struck by the heavy police presence along the road and downtown Monastir. Not that I wasn’t familiar with that kind of show of force but the deployment seemed so unusually disproportionate in such a quiet and uneventful place. I turned to my friend and as soon as I started explaining how impressive the number of police officers looked to me and how this seemed to confirm the reputation of Tunisia as a police state, he grabbed his cell phone, turned it off and kept it firmly squeezed in his hand with his thumb securely obstructing the microphone aperture. He then started mumbling indistinctly but it was clear that I had just recklessly stepped into a forbidden territory.
My friend’s precautionary measures bordered with paranoia but he knew exactly the kind of regime he was dealing with, and he also knew how to take advantage of it. My friend later showed me his party’s membership card with the red stamp of the Rassemblement Constitutionnel et Démocratique (RCD), the ruling party, on it. He said everyone in Tunisia needed to have that card, because otherwise you would be looking for trouble.
My friend’s father, an engineer and successful businessman, was himself, as I later found out, a prominent member of the RCD. He was briefly imprisoned in the late 90s, as my friend later told me, for allegedly providing a check with no sufficient funds. My friend then claimed that his father’s arrest was politically motivated since he was released soon after he committed not to contest a bid sought by a senior member of the party. “It was his membership in the party that saved him from prosecution and further humiliation,” he added.
My friend then explained in great length why, despite what happened to his father, he thought Ben Ali’s regime was good for his country and how repression, cronyism, plutocracy, corruption, lack of freedom were small prices to pay considering the prosperity, stability and Western support the country was enjoying.
My friend’s ambivalence toward the regime is scarcely unique. I was reluctant to challenge him a the time not least because he was my generous host, but also because his arguments about the validity of the regime’s approach were not completely groundless. It almost invariably breaks down like this: you want people to be happy, bring them prosperity. You want prosperity, you need security. And security needs a strong man with a firm hand on power. Democracy? That won’t work –we’re not mature enough.
Those arguments are difficult to disprove in the Arab context. With a Per Capita Gross Domestic Product way ahead of neighboring countries, the Tunisian regime presents itself as a success story and is making the case for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa a difficult idea to sell. As a consequence, Tunisia often serves as a model for other regimes in the region, who use the perceived success of Ben Ali as a pretext to further consolidate their grip on power.
Morocco is a case in point. Since 9/11, Moroccans have been witnessing a steady “Benalisation” of the regime, with the use of police state tactics, borrowed from the Tunisian model to intimidate journalists and political dissenters. The idea is: if Ben Ali can do it and still manage to score high on growth indexes, benefit from Western support, succeed in attracting millions of tourists and foreign investment, then we can do it as well. What’s more, the Tunisians seem to be enjoying it: look how docile, happy and prosperous they look. Well, that was almost impossible to contest until the Tunisian people proved it wrong.
Public demonstrations are unheard of in Tunisia unless they are organized by the ruling party itself. So much so that when the first images of protests filtered through the heavy wall of internet censorship, the world knew something potentially serious was underway. It all started in the interior city of Sidi Bouzid when a 26-year-old university graduate, Mohamed Bouazizi, sat down in front of the town hall and self-immolated in an act of desperation after the police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling illegally to make a living. Demonstrations then spread across the country, in a rare show of anger that has been up and down, going on for two weeks. Unconfirmed news now suggest that Bouazizi’s burn injuries may have proved fatal, which may reignite the protests only hours before universities reopen their doors after the end-of-year holiday.
The question in the mind of every observer is whether the protests will gather strength enough to lead to a regime change. Whilst I personally doubt this will happen due to the lack of sustainability and organisation of the movement (read Brian Whitaker’s piece on this subject) I believe the Sidi Bouzid uprising has already achieved something tremendous: a mental paradigm shift. No longer will anyone, neither the regimes nor their apologists, claim that repression and authoritarianism can bring prosperity and happiness. And as the Tunisian national anthem goes…
When the people wants to live, destiny must surely respond
Darkness will disappear, chains will certainly break!
For updates and further analysis on the Sidi Bouzid uprising, please follow these links:
– On Twitter: #SidiBouzid
– Nawaat collects the latest news and multimedia material
– Nesrine Malik – Tunisia’s inspiring rebellion
– Octavia Nasr – Tunisia Uprising Vs Iran Election Aftermath. Similarities and Differences
– [Video] Aljazeera’s Inside Story – Tunisia’s unemployment crisis
– Jillian C. York – Why I Don’t Believe in “Net Freedom”
– Me Bochra Beljaj Hamida – Rue89 – « Les Tunisiens, fatigués d’un pays tenu par quelques familles » [Fr]