Tunisians prepare to cast their ballot in Tebourba, neighborhood next to the capital, Tunis, in Tunisia, on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009, for the North African country\'s presidential and legislative elections. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who is running for a fifth five-year term, is expected to win by another landslide amid critic from rights group that his government stifles liberties. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

What are we to make of it when Ben Ali, Tunisia’s much venerated president and ruler of the Palace of Carthage, is prepared to accept only 89.62 per cent of the vote? And this from someone more used to commanding the kind of figures associated with voting in Soviet times. A commentary by Hamid Skif

President of Tunisia, 73-year-old Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, has been in power for the past 22 years, and doesn’t have a single grey hair to show for it. He was re-elected on October 25 for the fifth time. Respected editorial writers are of the opinion that it is unlikely to have been the last.

Other commentators have been considering the options: why not a sixth, seventh, eighth term, perhaps even an unlimited mandate? Some are calling for a presidency for life, with allowance for immediate deposition, due to senility for example, as exception, as happened with Habib Bourguiba founder of the only republic, which over a period of 52 years has had only two successively elected presidents as its head of state.

Such minor details apart, however, the greatest surprise in this election has been the unbelievable result for the presidential candidate. It came with all the shattering power of an earthquake, the full reverberations of the aftershock not yet foreseeable.

Welcome to “Ben Ali’s democracy

“A revolution to be followed by a democratic spring” according to former apparatchiks of the “Ben Ali Republic” on standby. Other, clearly more acute, commentators are tearing their hair out. How could this have happened?

What should one make of the fact, how even acknowledge, that the venerated president has accepted only 89.6 per cent of the vote? He who has been used to commanding the kind of voting figures associated with Soviet times: 99.27 per cent (1989), 99.91 per cent (1994), 99.44 per cent (1999) and 94.49 per cent in 2004.

All of a sudden Monsieur le Président has hit the slippery slope with an unthinkable, derisory 89 and four fifths per cent. If that’s the way it is, then it is because that’s the way he wants it, according to some who consider themselves in the know. A plausible argument. The ruler of the Palace of Carthage has generously granted a few votes to his unhappy rivals to spare them from even greater humiliation.

Modest fellow that he is, he decided to take no legal action against those votes, though legally entitled to do so. He knows the people would do anything for him.

And not only the people. Prominent intellectuals such as the brilliant philosopher Mezri Haddad, a steadfast supporter of the government, are prepared to have themselves drawn and quartered, or even eighthed in defence of the president. They see Ben Ali as a genius who has preserved Tunisia from all danger and turned the country into the peaceful and much lauded oasis, beloved of the West, that it is.

Torture has no place in the country and prisoners are mollycoddled. It should, perhaps, be mentioned that there are no political prisoners here as is the case in neighbouring countries, because there are no political opinions apart from the official one.

Unlike in Algeria, books are never outlawed in Tunisia. No one would ever dream of publishing one on the president, not even to make fun of a cousin, as happened in Morocco. Only the kind of lunatic deserving of being carted off to the madhouse as quickly as possible would ever contemplate such a thing. Although there are a few irascible foreign journalists around who tend to stick their noses into things that don’t concern them, they matter little.

Quickly deported, they then become the subject of a brief defamation campaign, and the whole thing is simply forgotten. For the home-based variety of journalist, on the other hand, the disciplinary measures concocted are more of a local speciality cooked up by the regime.

Freelance journalist Tewfik Ben Brik is currently paying the price of falling foul of the “Ben Ali’s democracy” for the second time. He was arrested after a woman driver crashed into his parked car. The woman accused him of becoming violent and insulting her at the time of the incident. He was immediately arrested.

The land of limitless censorship

It was payback time; the journalist being made to suffer for his report on the fantastical presidential campaign that had preceded the “election”. His colleague Slim Boukhdir, founder of the “Freedom and Justice” organisation, experienced a similar fate, as did a young man by the name of Zouhaier Makhlouf, imprisoned for an article he wrote for an Internet newspaper about the industrial district of Nabeul.

Then, of course, there were the miners’ strikes in the summer of 2008 in the Gafsa region and the violent repression that followed, a reaction which, thanks to the Internet and the publication of videos, was brought to the attention of the outside world.

The regime strictly monitors the net, but it is this that it is most afraid of. It systematically imprisons all those who seek to use it to spread their demands for freedom or to blacken the posters turned out by the advertising professionals for a country that depends very much on tourism for income.

Another source of revenue is the financial aid that Tunisia receives from both European and Arab states as well as from international organisations. The regime has developed what amounts to an organised strategy to allow it – including by way of Tunisian associations – to surreptitiously get its hands on the kind of resources granted to a deserving pupil with good marks in many subject areas. As far as the other things are concerned, well, a blind eye is simply turned to them.

According to some major political scientists – with the exception of Western strategists – still no one to this day has understood the Ben Ali method. It consists of pragmatism and a philosophy which allows the kind of muscle flexing that prevails in police states.

Democracy in small doses

Thus he steers Tunisia, gently but firmly, into the third millennium by administering small doses of democracy to the country. This also explains the loss of votes in the presidential elections. With each succeeding term the votes for the president gradually decrease, allowing voters to feel that they are experiencing a greater and greater measure of democracy.

This then allows Ben Ali and his family, the saviours of modern Tunisia, to complete the systematic exploitation of the economy whilst the young remain jobless and the official unemployment rate stands at 14 per cent.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that this figure needs to be adjusted upwards – on his word of honour – the newly re-elected president will certainly adjust it, cut it down to something much more modest.

He has already done so and with some considerable degree of success, brushing aside all opposition. Otherwise, Ben Ali keeps his promises. To support him in this honourable project, young Tunisians – like their Algerian and Moroccan cousins – dream of only one thing: of crossing the Mediterranean so that they can leave their president free to renew his commitment as often as he wishes.

Hamid Skif

Hamid Skif is an Algerian journalist and writer. He now lives in Hamburg.

Translation: Ron Walker