Tunisia has returned to the fore, through the wave of unrest it is witnessing, on the tenth anniversary of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s departure from the country following the “Jasmine Revolution.”
Until today, the circumstances in which Ben Ali relinquished power and went to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011 are not fully known.
Who conspired against him and who did not conspire? All that can be said is that the man was not inclined towards bloodshed. He died quietly in the Saudi city of Jeddah at the age of 83. He had preferred to withdraw rather than confront a large segment of the Tunisian people that wanted change.
All that can be said is that history vindicated Ben Ali despite the grave mistakes he made during the last ten years of his long reign, which began on November 7, 1987, when he and two officers removed Habib Bourguiba, who played a major role in transforming Tunisia into a country of institutions and modern laws, especially regarding women’s rights.
History did justice to Ben Ali for a very simple reason: Ten years ago, the situation in Tunisia was better than it is now, on every level. The country was in a better economic and social shape.
After having taken to the streets in late 2010 and early 2011, ordinary Tunisians have now forgotten all the abuses of the Ben Ali era in various fields. Some have even mustered the courage to say that the former Tunisian president was treated unfairly.
Like Bourguiba, Ben Ali did not withdraw in time. Like Bourguiba, at one point he fell victim to the women of the palace.
During the time of Bourguiba, the president’s second wife, Wassila Ben Ammar, was the strongman before she was removed from the Carthage Palace and replaced by Bourguiba’s niece, Saida Sassi.
During the reign of Ben Ali, things began to deteriorate after his marriage to Leila Trabelsi, who soon bore him a son.
Leila Trabelsi’s family became the de facto partner in power and wealth. What was absent during the reign of Bourguiba became present during the reign of Ben Ali.
Corruption was present in a wide section of the Trabelsi family, to whose ambitions there were no longer limits. Ben Ali was able to build his own system characterised by a relative lack of freedoms. But he was also able to expand the Tunisian middle class and turn it into the backbone of the economy and society.
Many Tunisians rejoiced over the toppling of Bourguiba, who was old and could no longer exercise power. The “Supreme Combatant ” had lost his ability to rule the country.
This is what made a journalist in La Presse newspaper say upon Ben Ali assuming the presidency: “We got rid of thirty years of dictatorship, and we were very happy!” We told ourselves, ‘We will take charge of our newspaper, no more news of the president on the front page, no president on the front page from now on … It was unspeakable excitement, rumbling around the place, a lot of hope, a lot of programs, for us. We thought we will finally become a free press. ”
These were nothing but midsummer fantasies and dreams. After a few days, Ben Ali’s presence became more conspicuous in the newspapers than Bourguiba’s.
If we look back at the years of Bourguiba and Ben Ali, we discover that the two men played a major role in building modern Tunisia, but both made the same mistake. Bourguiba did not prepare for a peaceful transfer of power through free elections. He thought he would live forever. The same applied to Ben Ali, who thought that someone from within his family, perhaps his wife, would succeed him.
One has to acknowledge, nonetheless, that Bourguiba and Ben Ali were able to serve Tunisians and disseminate a culture of openness at every level.
The problem with those who took power after Ben Ali is that they know nothing about either economics or politics.
They dealt with the only organised party in the country — the Ennahda party headed by Rached Ghannouchi, who must be recognised as a first-class politician who has mastered the art of manoeuvres.
Ennahda, which, despite its denials, is an extension of the international organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood, is most of all concerned with power and how to exercise it, on the one hand, and changing the nature of Tunisian society, on the other hand.
What unites Ennahda and its rivals is the absence of any understanding of what could improve Tunisia’s economic situation.
It was no secret that the Tunisian economy flourished under Ben Ali thanks to manufacturing, tourism, agriculture and other smaller sectors.
This economy created jobs for Tunisians and curtailed immigration to some extent. This was accompanied by a kind of stability and prevalent security in a formal-type democracy and in the absence of political leaders who could pose any threat to Ben Ali, who played the role of a strict policeman more than anything else.
Ben Ali never tolerated any partner in power. Therefore, he excluded from the start the two officers who participated with him in getting rid of the era of Bourguiba — Habib Ammar and Abdelhamid Echeikh.
Is Tunisia on the way to becoming a failed state like Libya, Yemen and Syria? The question poses itself had it not been for the presence of Tunisian defences that could prevent the fall of the state unlike what hapepened in the three other countries.
These defences are represented by the Tunisian heritage of state institutions that Bourguiba established and which Ben Ali sought to develop, but within a concept of his own.
The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) cannot be ignored, nor can the role of Tunisian women who are ready to defend their great achievements… and what remains of the middle class that is compelled to defend its status.
From this point of view, there remains hope of avoiding utter collapse in Tunisia, where a political class knows nothing about the importance of the economy, and where an Islamist party, like any other party of its kind, does not hide its unlimited lust for power.