Authoritarian government

The development of Tunisian politics since Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali came to power in 1987 has been a disappointment, both to the independent-minded sections of the Tunisia intelligentsia and to Western governments that see the country as a potential ally in an unstable part of the world. To put what has happened in context, it is necessary to go back briefly to the way Tunisian society and politics evolved under Bourguiba.

In its early years there is no question that the Bourguiba government was a success. By the middle of the 1970s the country presented a picture of a prosperous, fairly sophisticated society in which a well educated labour force working in quite efficient industries and services was enjoying nearly full employment. Some modest oil revenues were starting to flow. However, its planners faced some problems. The population was growing fast and there seemed to be no obvious direction for further development. Bourguiba was ageing and the officials who surrounded him and his forceful wife, Wassila, were obviously corrupt. Unemployment and cynicism began to push young people towards various opposition movements.

Starting in the late 1970s the tranquillity of Tunisian life was disturbed by strikes and demonstrations, and then by increasingly violent confrontations between students and unemployed youths and the police. From January 1984, when cuts in food subsidies led to a week of rioting, the principal opposition was the fundamentalist Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique (MTI). The government responded to the disturbances with mass arrests and imprisonments. In 1986 the President appointed Ben Ali, a general with a reputation for toughness, to the post of Minister of the Interior, and then, in September 1987, made him Prime Minister. Finding that Bourguiba's behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic, Ben Ali arranged to have him deposed. He had seven doctors declare Bourguiba to be senile, which since the great man had made himself President for Life in 1974 had become the only legitimate grounds for his replacement. On 7 November Ben Ali himself became President.

As soon as Ben Ali came to power, the tension seemed to go out of Tunisian society. The confrontations between students and the police, which had been happening almost daily, stopped. Thousands of prisoners were released. Newspapers that had been suspended were allowed to be published again.

The President began to build himself a broad power base. He had never been active in Bourguiba's Destourian Socialist Party and on coming to power he had pushed out of office a large number of its functionaries. Partly to compensate for this he sought the goodwill of the Islamists. As one of his first acts he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. He reversed some policies that seemed almost aggressively anti-Islamic. He reopened the religious university at El-Zeitouna, which the former President had closed because he believed that a progressive, socialist state had no need for religious scholars (ulema). New regulations allowed television programmes to be interrupted at prayer times, and it was ordered that the beginning of Ramadan, the month of fasting, which depends on a siting of the moon, should be declared by the ulema and not by the state.

In April 1988 a law was passed to legalise political parties in addition to the Destour, whose name was changed to the Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique (RCD). The law - like electoral laws in several Arab countries - contained a provision which banned any party which had a purely linguistic, regional or religious character, but it was still hoped that the Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique would accept enough of the country's secular constitution for it to be registered. The Mouvement's leader, Rached Ghanouchi, compromised a bit. He said that in general terms he accepted the Constitution and he declared his organisation to be a political party, the Hizb An-Nahdah (Renaissance Party). Yet he would not go quite far enough in spelling out principles and policies that were acceptable to the government, and the Prime Minister, Hedi Baccouche, who believed that mixing religion and politics was "the work of the Devil", refused to make the party legal.

In the general election of April 1989 the Islamists fielded various "independent" candidates who sympathies were known. The election was generally considered to be fair, and the Islamists collected 18 per cent of the vote but because the system did not work on a proportional representation basis, they took no seats in the National Assembly. The defeat marked a parting of the ways. Most of the Islamist leaders, including Ghanouchi, left the country and from the safety of Europe began sending their fellows cassette tapes full of abuse of the government. Two senior figures who stayed behind and wrote articles libelling the President were sent to prison. El-Zeitouna was closed. Then the old cycle of demonstrations and confrontations between youths and the police began again. In February 1991 the Islamists set fire to an office of the RCD and accidentally killed two night watchmen. Three months later the government discovered what appeared to be a plot to overthrow it. The police found caches of arms at the universities of Tunis and Sfax, with lists of people who were to be assassinated. The government gave enormous publicity to both events - probably exaggerating the gravity of the plot. Hundreds of people were arrested. From that time onwards there has been no overt Islamist opposition in Tunisia.

While these events were taking place, the government was also slowly losing the goodwill of the new secular opposition parties. Before the 1989 election it had suggested to the six parties that had registered that they should enter a coalition with the RCD which would result in a few of their candidates being allowed to run unopposed. This would have had the advantage, for the government, of showing the population that Tunisia was no longer a one party state while giving it control of the opposition. Like many Arab governments, the regime liked the idea being able to label itself democratic, and having a more spirited public debate on things that it felt should be debated, but it could not see the benefit of an opposition that might obstruct or embarrass it. The opposition leaders thought about the government's offer, but when they discovered that they were not being offered any say in the formation of policy they declined it. In the elections their party suffered from being virtually unknown and having little financial backing. Between them they took only 1 per cent of the vote. None of their candidates was elected.

In the next few years the secular parties gave the government their tacit support in its moves against the Islamists, and periodically held further talks about their being given some representation in the Assembly. When a general election was held in April 1994 the RCD once again swept the board, while the President, in a separate poll, was re-elected with 99 per cent of the vote. This time after the elections the government decided that it had to have some opposition members in the Assembly, and it duly modified the electoral law to give the parties 19 out of 144 seats. Later the members were given some seats on parliamentary committees. The opposition leaders were not particularly grateful for this treatment and they complained that there had been irregularities in the elections. They said the same, more loudly, in May 1995, after the RCD carried an unlikely 4,084 of the 4,090 seats being contested in municipal elections.

The discontent of the parties led in August to Mohammad Mouadda, the leader of the biggest organisation, the Mouvement des Democrates Socialistes (MDS), writing a letter to the President complaining of government excesses in the campaign against the Islamists and asking why there had been so little progress towards the democracy that had been promised after Ben Ali came to power in 1987. The President's advisors informed Mouadda that they would not hand the letter to Ben Ali, and on 9 October the MDS made the letter public. Mouadda was promptly arrested, and a day later the government duly announced that a search of his home had produced money and documents which revealed his "relations with a foreign power".

The fact is that the government has become intolerant of all opposition. A report published by Amnesty International in November last year gave details of arrests, torture and unfair trials which it said were designed to "punish, intimidate and silence political opponents, government critics, victims of human rights violations, their relatives, lawyers, human rights activists, journalists and others". People seen as more minor irritants are harassed and obstructed in their professional lives. Ironically, the government still allows a branch of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights to have an office in Tunis, but it is not permitted to take up individual cases. Its purpose is just to educate the people on human rights generally, its officials explain. Its head is an elderly gentleman whom the President has recently asked to stay in his post. It seems that the government has decided that having a human rights organisation in the country is good for Tunisia's image, but it wants to make sure the body is ineffective.

Much of the government's attitude stems from the personality of the President. In the words of a retired European ambassador he is "a hard, tidy minded man who sees opposition as just getting in the way". In Tunis people refer often to his background as a general and interior minister. It is said that in the evenings he indulges his enthusiasm for computers by tapping into the files of provincial police stations. Whether or not this rumour is true, it tells much about how Ben Ali is regarded.

In the eyes of Westerners and the Tunisian intelligentsia the harshness and intolerance of the regime are serious shortcomings. But for the mass of the population, it must be said, President Ben Ali has been a success. The people are far less nervous than they were in the later days of Bourguiba. They are grateful for their country's stability, and because they were alienated from the Islamists by the violence of 1991 they seem not to have been too concerned by the government's repressive measures since. If these have been the price to be paid for avoiding the chaos and bloodshed of Algeria, to most Tunisians they have seemed worthwhile.

The population's attitude has been reflected in the small support given to secular parties in the elections, which may not have been totally fair in 1994 but were still less manipulated than they would have been under many other authoritarian regimes. Even fair elections, though, are not as good a guide to popular views in the Arab world as they are in Western countries, because voters are not used to democratic politics and tend not to take opposition parties seriously. In countries which used to be single party states - notably Tunisia and Egypt - there is a widespread feeling that voting for the government party is the "right" or "patriotic" thing to do, and that to have ones constituency represented by a government party member is likely to be bring benefits to it. Except among the intelligentsia, people have little respect for independent-minded opposition politicians who argue against the government. They are widely seen as irrelevant, self-indulgent intellectuals. Unless they carry Islamist labels, their ideologies are difficult to distinguish from those of the government parties, which are best described as "reformed socialist". They are ignored by the largely state controlled media - and particularly by the television and radio. They have little money with which to advertise - which they are not allowed to do on the television - or publish their newspapers. For all these reasons it is difficult to see how opposition parties can prosper in former single party states, unless the governments withdraw all financial and media support from their own political organisations.

In Tunisia the population's acceptance of its government's policies has been influenced by more than its gratitude for domestic stability and its lack of interest in opposition parties. People have been impressed by how the government has been able to introduce economic changes and, remarkably, benefit the population even in the short term. In recent years it has increased pensions for agricultural and casual labourers, improved social services and established a solidarity fund for social projects, to which the whole population contributes. The spending has been financed, at the same time as the budget deficit has been reduced, by the introduction of value added tax, cuts in the rate of income tax, which have made people more willing to pay, and more efficient tax collection.

The minimum wage has been increased to some $130 a month, which is almost on a par with Portugal, twice the Moroccan level and six times the Egyptian level. With social security charges, the cost of a Tunisian textile worker, doing one of the most common and menial industrial jobs, has been increased to $2.82 an hour, which compares with $1.28 in Morocco and $0.96-1.25 in parts of eastern Europe. These increases may not have helped the long term competitiveness of the Tunisian economy but they have prevented strikes - there has not been one for seven years - and they have helped reduce differentials in the wealth of the population. A much bigger proportion of the population than in other Arab countries can be considered middle class in Tunisia. Very few people, under 7 per cent of the population, live below the poverty line. All of this has made Tunisia quite a cohesive society - as it has been for most of the time since its independence. The government has been most anxious to maintain this cohesion while it has slowly worked towards liberalising its economy. It has wanted to keep the good points of its socialist past and only reform when it has built a consensus in favour of change.

Much of this careful management of change is attributed to Ben Ali, who has awarded himself the description of l'artisan du changement (Bourguiba was le combatant supreme). The President has tried to make himself an example to his people. He has stamped out the corruption at the top of government which flourished under his predecessor. He has made it known, even to relatively unsophisticated parts of the population, that he works hard and is anxious that his country be a success. There have been references to his wanting to introduce the American work ethic. Ordinary Tunisians have come to accept that Ben Ali has the interests of their country at heart.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-bibliothek | 9.1. 1998

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