by Gamini Weerakoon
Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the deposed Tunisian president was described as being ‘ubiquitous’ by an AP report last week. Like all Third World strongmen he had his picture plastered all over the country. As the second president of Tunisia, he ruled the country undisturbed for 23 years. But like most dictators or strong men of the Third World, the day came when he had to fly out of the country in a hurry, into exile. He chose Saudi Arabia which had been the refuge of another notorious dictator, Idi Amin.
In conservative Western eyes, Ben Ali had managed the economy well since he became president in a ‘bloodless coup’ in 1987. During his rule Tunisia’s per capita tripled till about 2008. The GDP had grown at an average of 5 per cent.
He won many brownie points from reputed Western organisations. In 2010 July the Boston Consulting Group named Tunisia as one of the ‘Eight African Lions’ that contributed to the African continent’s GDP. The Global Competitiveness Report of the Davos World Economic Forum ranked Tunisia as the first in Africa and 32nd globally out of 139 countries.
Ben Ali, though pro-Western in outlook, pursued a moderate foreign policy. He contributed to peace making in the Middle East and Africa and hosted the first Palestinian-American dialogue. He supported the Palestinian cause but joined the US sponsored Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism initiative.
So what went wrong for this former army general, the head of the security forces under the presidency of his predecessor, the first president Habib Bourguiba?
It could be the kind of government that he inherited.
Bourguiba from his youth had fought for Tunisian independence against the French and was jailed twice for it. He had been an active member of the Tunisian freedom movement, the Neo Destour Party and was instrumental in gaining Independence in 1956. He had been the architect of modern Tunisia. In 1957 Tunisia’s monarchy was abolished and declared a republic. Bourguiba became the first president and ruled till 1981. He was Muslim but repressed Islamic fundamentalism and used arbitrary methods of governance.
He did not tolerate opposition and drove his main political rival Sulach Ben Yusuf into exile in Cairo. He jailed other political opponents or sent them into exile too. By the 1980s, Bourguiba’s rule met stiff opposition and he cracked down with extreme severity on his opponents and closed newspapers that were critical of his administration. Protests were repressed by his security chief Ben Ali. Ben Ali took over the presidency after Bourguiba’s physicians declared him senile and incapable of carrying out the duties of presidency.
Good start: like all dictators
Ben Ali started by giving much hope for those who wanted to see a freer Tunisia, like all rulers do at the commencement. He called for a ‘truly democratic set up to evolve’ but after a brief period, reforms came to a halt and opposition parties were declared illegal. Western governments kept mum over the repressive actions of the Ben Ali regime even though they were well aware of the repressions that were being imposed because of his pro-Western policies. A WikiLeaks cable recently leaked out had the US government saying that Tunisia (under Ben Ali) was a police state and that Ben Ali had lost touch with the people.
Ben Ali went through the motions of a typical dictator. He first changed the constitution which enabled him to run for re-election in 2004 and 2009 (BBC Online report). Then he won three elections with ‘99.9 percent’ of the votes cast!
Despite his experience as being the security chief for long years under Bourguiba, he appears to have been unaware of the pressure built up against his regime. Even though the economic indices may have appeared satisfactory or even good, there were other factors that were working very strongly against him. The first, analysts point out, was unemployment. From the time of Bourguiba and continued under Ben Ali, free education from the ages of 6 to 16 was provided. This created a very educated set of people which now comprises the greater proportion of the population but most of them are unemployed.
The danger of having large numbers of educated unemployed first impacted in Sri Lanka in 1971. Thousands of graduates who entered universities under the free education scheme had passed out but were unable to find jobs. The core of the first JVP insurrection comprised these unemployed graduates. Unlike uneducated unemployed, these graduates are agitators and do not accept their fate or karma, philosophically.
Nepotism and corruption
The other factors attributed to this first ‘Arab Revolution’ are corruption and nepotism.
Ben Ali’s family, particularly his wife’s family members, had not only moved to top government positions but plundered the state’s resources. A Guardian online report on Thursday said that 33 relations had been arrested for committing ‘crimes against Tunisia.’ Pictures of jewellery and gold found in their possession are shown. On Wednesday the residence of an ‘in-law’ which had been razed to the ground by angry activists was also shown. One of the few things remaining was the leg of a grand piano!
Economic progress may have been an achievement of Ben Ali’s but ignoring growing unemployment, corruption and nepotism and political repression had been his nemesis.
Arab revolution on?
Speculation is also rife whether this ‘first Arab revolution’ would initiate a chain reaction in Arab countries almost all of which are ruled by strong men backed by the armies. Most of these countries are ruled by pro-American despots and have held on to power because of the backing of the military. In the case of Ben Ali it appears that the army had told him that their support could no longer be expected.
Those wishing for a domino effect from Tunisia would be Western liberals and Arab radicals, particularly fundamentalist Islamists — both parties want to see the dictators out although for different reasons. Those who would want the dictators in place would be Western nations, particularly America, for the sake of stability to fight Islamic terrorism. Self immolations reported in Egypt against the Hosni Mubarak regime appear to be directly inspired by the self- immolation of a youth in Tunisia but only time will show whether the Tunisian catalytic effect will catch on. ~ courtesy: The Sunday Leader ~