Tunisia celebrates the 50th anniversary of independence this month, but hopes raised by the end of French rule and early reforms have long evaporated. The country is governed and owned by General Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. But opposition groups have begun to suppress their divisions and make an attempt at collective resistance.
Muhammad Talbi, the historian and former dean of the faculty of literature in Tunis, believes that : “Apart from the many humiliations inflicted on Tunisians, I agree that under the French protectorate political opponents, starting with Habib Bourguiba, were entitled to speak their minds. There were clubs, political parties, unions and newspapers. I wouldn’t think of praising colonialism, but I have to say nowadays we have none of those things.” At the age of 84, Talbi has lost neither his fighting spirit nor his lucidity .
Talbi is one of the few Tunisian intellectuals old enough to have lived under French rule, and he also experienced the excitement about independence on 20 March 1956 and the enthusiastic start to building a modern state, long hailed as exemplary. Fifty years on, it is just another Arab dictatorship. Tunisia’s first president, Bourguiba, tightened his grasp on power, only to be ousted in November 1987 by General Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who has done his best to suppress all political freedoms.
Bourguiba, writing in newspapers such as La Voix du Tunisien, took advantage of the relative freedom as described by Talbi to criticise the protectorate, which had been set up in 1881. In 1932 he launched a militant newspaper, L’Action tunisienne. Two years later he founded the Neo-Destour party, a modern political organisation inspired by socialist and communist parties in Europe. He and his followers were determined to seize power and transform society.
Under colonial rule in the 1920s the first independent trade unions had emerged amid unprecedented public debate . In 1946, with the launch of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) Neo-Destour gained a valuable ally in its struggle to win independence and build a modern state. But a campaign to tame UGTT, which was one of the finest unions in Africa and the Arab world, began almost immediately after independence. The authorities thus hampered the development of an opposition force that might have enabled Tunisia to avoid the authoritarian rule that has proved disastrous for the economy and for society .
Bourguiba exploited his standing as a long-term opponent of colonialism, with many years in prison or exile, to strengthen his authority at home and abroad. Immediately after independence, he gave women the vote, and introduced measures to combat poverty and illiteracy. In 1965 he made his historic appeal for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict based on the United Nations plan, adopted in 1947, for dividing Palestine into two states, one Jewish, the other Arab.
No White House dinner
In May 1961, during Bourguiba’s state visit to the United States, President John F Kennedy compared him to George Washington and the other US founding fathers. Bourguiba’s successor has never received an invitation to dinner at the White House ; when Ben Ali visited Washington briefly in 2004, President George Bush bluntly asked him to relax his pressure on the press.
In the 1960s, when the Socialist Destourian party (PSD) had unrestricted control over all public bodies, Tunis University was a forum for real debate, addressing issues such as development and democracy, and criticising Bourguiba’s policies, including his support for the US intervention in Vietnam. But by the end of the 1960s there was extreme repression of student groups in response to the prevailing mood of opposition on campus, unusual in Arab universities then. The student groups certainly contested the hegemony of Bourguiba’s party but they were not opposed to his plans to modernise society. The clampdown coincided with the regime’s introduction of free-market policies.
Several victims of repression went on to found the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) and the Tunisian branch of Amnesty International, the first organisations of their kind in the Arab world.
In 1969 a former minister, Ahmed Ben Salah, received a long prison sentence, taking the blame for the failure of attempts to operate vast farming cooperatives. A purge of the liberal wing of the PSD, led by Ahmed Mestiri, followed. In 1974 Bourguiba was proclaimed president for life. But civil society gradually developed and by the mid-1970s it was one of the least constrained in the Arab world.
With the start of economic deregulation and the slackening of PSD control under the government of Hédi Nouira, the UGTT distanced itself slightly from the regime. The launch of a newspaper Echaab (the People) gave it greater freedom of expression ; the independent newspaper Errai (Opinion) first appeared in 1977, the year of the LTDH’s foundation.
Nothing checked the emerging civil society. However, there was an attack on the UGTT offices in January 1978 ; dozens of militants were killed ; there was an assault on the southern mining town of Gafsa in January 1980 by a Libya-based group of Tunisian rebels. Despite the harassment of independent (Errai) or Islamist (Al-Maarifa, meaning knowledge) newspapers, more new publications, including Le Phare, Démocratie, L’Avenir, the Islamist Al-Mojtama’a (Society) and the progressive Islamist 15-21, completely changed the media landscape.
In 1981 the partial restoration of political pluralism raised hopes, as did an end to the ban on the Tunisian Communist party (PCT). But they were soon dashed. In November that year the authorities doctored the results of the general election, in which four parties had competed : the ruling PSD, the PCT and two new, unauthorised parties, the Democratic Socialist Movement (MDS) and the future Popular Unity party. In 1983 Islamist leaders, who had so far managed to avoid the authorities’ attention, were imprisoned.
Bourguiba’s power was in decline. As he grew older he was manipulated by schemers in his immediate entourage. In December 1983 the army brutally put down bread riots . Further attacks on the UGTT followed, and the arrest of its ageing leader, Habib Achour. The regime’s only response to social and Islamist unrest was the use of force.
For many commentators Bourguiba’s appointment in October 1987 of Ben Ali as prime minister (he was also minister of the interior) was the president’s biggest political mistake. “He was smart. But that day he was really stupid. It was as if he had handed his executioner the rope by which to hang him,” says Talbi.
Most people in politics in Tunisia approved the coup on 7 November 1987, when Ben Ali forced Bourguiba into retirement. Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahdha (Renaissance) Islamist movement, now acknowledges it was “a terrible mistake”, though at the time he issued a statement that Islamists had complete confidence “in God, above all, and then in the president”. The authorities arrested thousands of Ennahdha members, about 40 of whom died under torture. The many arbitrary trials of the 1990s drove Ghannouchi into exile.
Secular opposition groups, taken in by promises of democracy in the 1988 National Pact (uniting all parties in support of a programme of national interest), soon had cause for regret. They took slightly longer to realise they had been fooled by Ben Ali, who has no concern for human rights or intellectual life. After turning a blind eye to the indiscriminate repression of the Islamists and other opponents of the regime, and ignoring the persecution of their families, they woke up several years later – often in jail or in exile .
The president’s advisers took advantage of such blindness to discredit much of the opposition by involving it in rigged elections intended to perpetuate the illusion of political pluralism. With Ben Ali’s advisers and interior ministry officials exerting influence over politics, and the brutal repression of genuine opposition, Tunisians soon lost interest in public life. Even the politicians and union leaders, lawyers, journalists and academics who had once distinguished themselves by courage and lively criticism, fell silent. The most striking example was Omar Mestiri, the founder of the MDS, who retired from political life after the 1989 election.
Assisted by trusted army officers and interior ministry officials, Ben Ali was able to take complete control of the machinery of state. It became clear that the measures announced immediately after the coup – the abolition of the presidency for life, and promises of greater democracy – were for show. Several fraudulent elections followed, culminating in the constitutional reform of 2002, which extended the president’s already excessive powers, allowed him to run for election again in 2004, and granted him lifelong legal immunity.
Equality openly flouted
In September 2005 an extraordinary session of the Majlis al-Nuwaab (chamber of deputies) passed a law that gave benefits to former presidents on leaving office and to their families in the event of their death. The haste with which the law was passed, approved by Ben Ali and published, excited public curiosity, coinciding with insistent rumours about his health. The law exempts the president’s children from the rules set by the constitution, article 6 of which guarantees the equality of all citizens : taxpayers will have to continue paying the expenses of the president’s children until they reach the age of 25, rather than the age of 20, as with the children of former civil servants.
Never since Tunisian independence has the principle of equal rights, obligations and opportunity been so openly flouted. Members of the ruling family – as the parents, brothers, sisters and allies of Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, are known – have been the main beneficiaries of the privatisation of public companies, dubious bank loans and the flourishing black market. Several have one foot in the public sector and the other in the private. They use their position for personal gain, acting as brokers – especially in the job market, which had been swamped by the unemployed young.
According to Hassine Dimassi, who is a professor of economics and the former dean of the law faculty at Sousse, the number of unemployed graduates is twice as high as the official estimate of 40,000. “Society spends a fortune training virtually illiterate people, who subsequently cannot find work. It causes terrible tensions in families and the community as a whole.”
To do nothing about the deteriorating quality of teaching means turning hundreds of thousands of the unemployed young into a human time bomb. Most of them do not share the commitment to public service that their parents felt after Tunisia gained its independence. Nor are they particularly keen to learn. To please their families, they attend schools managed by people close to the ruling clique, and they often ridicule the few pupils who really want to learn.
“What good have your degrees and principles done you ?” they ask, dazzled by the speed with which people with the right connections can make a fortune, whereas their parents, with all their education, struggle to make ends meet and to defend their values.
After independence, education, which was a key component in the political system, made a huge contribution to improving the standard of living in Tunisia. But according to teachers, well-informed students and their parents, it seems to be heading for disaster (see “Ben Ali’s young sharks”). It has been officially decided to lower the pass level for the exams at the end of secondary schooling ; this gives away the baccalauréat just to boost Ben Ali’s popularity.
A research graduate at the faculty of literature at Manouba, speaking anonymously, explained : “There was a time when teachers represented a model to be followed and schools offered young people not only good quality teaching, but also a grounding in the arts, trade union action and politics. Nowadays we receive no worthwhile training and there is very little debate or creative activity. There is a worrying increase in the sale of favours and a mood of gloomy resignation among teachers.”
Deserting the miracle
The lack of prospects has driven thousands of the young to leave what President Chirac of France calls the “Tunisian miracle”. Many such would-be migrants have drowned while attempting to reach the Italian coast on makeshift craft. It is perhaps less well known that hundreds of young people are serving long prison sentences, after iniquitous trials on charges of conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism in Tunisia or to assist the Iraqi resistance movement. In many cases all they have done is to surf the internet, defying the authorities who constantly close down websites and mail servers. Parliament passed the 2003 anti-terrorist law in response to pressure from the US administration and its allies in Europe. So far it has proved useful only to imprison youths who demand freedom of expression.
There is a great lack of public debate. Some theatre directors, such as Fadhel Jaibi and Jalila Baccar, still try to show “political violence, leftwing and rightwing fundamentalism and the difficulty of achieving freedom”. A new production, Corps otages, is the story of a young woman from a well-off family, who, despite her leftwing sympathies, is attracted by radical Islamist slogans.
“I am doing this play so my daughter won’t be forced to wear hijab,” says Jaibi, who was aged 10 in 1956. Unlike his partner, he has a deep suspicion of the Islamists.
The repression in Tunisia finally convinced people from across the political spectrum to overcome mutual hostility. A hunger strike was held to put pressure on the authorities. This strike brought together eight independent public figures, some socialists, others Islamists. The fast coincided with the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, last November, and attracted the attention of international media, particularly when plainclothes police assaulted some French and Belgian journalists. Human rights activists such as Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian winner of the Nobel peace prize, also visited the offices of the barrister Ayachi Hammami, where the hunger strikers had set up their headquarters.
The rapprochement between Islamists and secular public figures, such as Néjib Chebbi, the general secretary of the Democratic Progressive party and Hamma Hammami, the general secretary of the Tunisian Workers’ Communist party, touched a raw nerve. It prompted insults from the regime and lively reactions from non-aligned personalities and far-left groups, led by the Ettajdid (Renewal) movement.
Advocates of cooperation with Ennahdha include Marzouki, the leader of the Congress for the Republic (CPR, which is not recognised by the authorities). He has called for a democratic front that would only exclude “Islamists in favour of violence and application of sharia, and opposed to equality between men and women”. The front’s main task should be to pave the way for a “peaceful, Ukrainian-style revolution”.
The decay of the state and its worsening image nationally and internationally have encouraged several of Bourguiba’s closest allies to break their silence. “If there is no respect for the rules of democracy and no public debate, independence itself loses all meaning,” said Muhammad Sayah, a historian, former minister and PSD dignitary, who had been thought by many to be against democratisation.
The key question for civil society is what practical measures need to be taken to prevent authoritarian rule, corruption and nepotism  from strengthening their grip. It is also essential to give new hope to Tunisia’s youth, tempted by violence or Islamism.
Growing numbers of Tunisians are determined, come what may, to exercise their right to freedom of speech and association. To help this, the historian Raouf Hamza recommends forming small discussion groups to analyse social problems and any obstacles to change.
The movement that crystallised around the hunger strike, which Ghannouchi sees as the opposition’s rebirth, could limit further damage to the achievements of the early years of independence (especially education, health- care, women’s rights and equal opportunities in the job market). But the movement’s leaders must lose no time in demonstrating that they can rise above personal and partisan differences. They must also prove their attachment to democratic principles and transparency, and learn to work together.
A joint platform for building a state based on the rule of law is required. This would mobilise public opinion and make it clear to Ben Ali’s partners in the West that the reform movement has a proper strategy for ending the dictatorship.
Translated by Harry Forster
Kamel Labidi is a Tunisian journalist
Source : Le Monde diplomatique. March 2006
 For an account of the deteriorating human rights situation, see two reports by the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (Ifex) in 2005.
 Intellectuals such as Tahar Haddad (1899-1935), a reformer and advocate of women’s emancipation, and the poet Aboul Kacem Chebbi (1909-1934) left their mark on several generations, before and after independence.
 See the accounts by Ahmed Ben Salah, a former minister, and Taieb Baccouche, a former UGTT general secretary, published by the Temimi Foundation for Scientific Research and Information, obstructed in its work by censorship.
 Rioting had followed price increases as a result of cuts in state subsidies. Troops brutally restored order, killing 89 people.
 See Olfa Lamloum and Bernard Ravenel, eds, La Tunisie de Ben Ali, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2002. See also Michel Camau and Vincent Geisser, Le Syndrome autoritaire, Presses de Sciences Po, Paris, 2003 ; and Sihem Ben Sedrine and Omar Mestiri, L’Europe et ses despotes, La Découverte, Paris, 2004.
 Tunisia has dropped to 43rd position in 2005 in the world ranking of public corruption established by Transparency International.