A disturbing rumor made the rounds this summer at the Cafe de Paris, the Hotel Africa and the other haunts of Tunisia’s classe politique. Word had it that a constitutional commission was considering legislation allowing the government to revoke the citizenship rights of some political opponents. True or not, the rumor’s existence — and the widespread belief that the government started it — says much about political life on the tenth anniversary of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s “tranquil revolution.”

Ben Ali’s November 7, 1987 coup inaugurated the heady period of political reform that swept across the Middle East and North Africa in the late 1980s. The new president promised to establish the rule of law, to respect human rights and to implement the kind of democratic political reforms that Habib Bourguiba had steadfastly refused. Along with Algeria, Jordan and Yemen, Tunisia rode the leading edge of what many hoped would be a wave of democratic transitions in the region. Ten years later, it would be difficult to find another country that has moved so far in the opposite direction.

Back from the Democratic Brink

That Tunisia stood at the forefront of political reform in the late 1980s came as no surprise to many observers. Since the 1960s, scholars had held up the small country as one of the region’s best hopes for democratic politics. Tunisia’s tradition of reform and openness, its Western-oriented elite and its progressive social policies suggested the kind of trajectory that would culminate sooner or later in multiple political parties, competitive elections and respect for human rights. Moreover, state and society in Tunisia had developed what the historian Mohamed Hedi Cherif describes as a unique form of “self-regulation.” During periods of economic or political crisis, Tunisians accepted a strong state that intervenes to restore order and prosperity. But that state also generated countervailing social forces that kept it in check when it became too powerful. [1] Against this backdrop, the prospects for political reform under Ben Ali seems good. If the president balked at his democratic promises, Tunisia possessed the kind of muscular civil society that would force him to follow through.

During his first year in power, Ben Ali seemed bent on establishing himself as the country’s most dedicated reformer. He amnestied thousands of political prisoners, revamped Bourguiba’s Parti Socialist Destourien (PSD) into the Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique (RCD), abolished the state security court and the presidency for life, reformed laws governing pretrial detention and ratified the United Nations’ convention on torture. Ben Ali also supported new legislation that made it easier to form associations and parties, and he negotiated a National Pact with the country’s principal social and political organizations.

By late 1988, however, the bloom had begun to fade. Ben Ali refused to legalize Hizb al-Nahda (The Renaissance Party), the country’s largest Islamist organization even though the party pledged to accept the rules of competitive democracy. And despite opposition demands for proportional legislative elections, the 1989 electoral code maintained the old majority list system. Those rules, combined with restrictions on media access and other interferences, allowed Ben Ali’s RCD to win every seat in the April 1989 elections.

Those elections marked the end of Ben Ali’s honeymoon and the beginning of Tunisia’s slide into deeper authoritarianism. Angered by their exclusion from parliament despite strong support for their candidates who ran as independents, Nahda activists intensified protests at the university and in working class neighborhoods. The government, in turn, stepped up its repression against Nahda and the Tunisian Communist Workers’ Party. Late-night raids and house-to-house searchers became commonplace in some neighborhoods. Stories of torture under interrogation and military court convictions multiplied. [2] The campaign to crush Nahda intensified in 1991 following an attack on an RCD office in the Bab Souika area of Tunis and after the government claimed that security forces had uncovered a plot to topple the regime. Susan Waltz reports that the government’s extensive dragnet hauled in more than 8,000 individuals between 1990 and 1992. [3]

Most Tunisians tolerated the government’s repression. As the press never ceased to remind them, a vigorous economy that could generate new jobs depended on Tunisia’s ability to attract foreign investment in a competitive regional environment. Ben Ali and other officials pointed to Algeria and Egypt and argued that tolerating any kind of Islamist party would lead only to economic chaos. Better to be done with them quickly and create the kind of stable investment climate that Tunisia’s neighbors could not provide. In terms of Cherif’s model, the 1989-1992 period seemed to offer another example of Tunisians’ willingness to tolerate a strong state that claimed to act on behalf of national wellbeing. By late 1992, Tunisia had reached an important crossroads. Economic growth had climbed above 8 percent, and most observers agreed that Nahda no longer posed a serious threat. Some portion of the rank and file certainly remained. But for all practical purposes, Nahda had become an offshore operation sustained by supporters in Europe and North America. By his fifth anniversary in power, Ben Ali could legitimately claim to have saved Tunisia from economic bankruptcy and civil war.

Many opposition figures had held their fire during economic and political crisis. Once those crises passed, they called on the government to make good on its earlier promises. This pressure did move Ben Ali and the National Assembly to pass a new electoral law in December 1992, but it only allowed the legal opposition parties to share a pitifully small handful of seats.

At the same time, however, Ben Ali stepped up his campaign to quash any form of opposition. Some of the methods for coopting and manipulating the press, unions, and other organizations harkened back to the Bourguiba days. But Ben Ali’s authoritarianism, has betrayed the kind of heavy-handedness that students of Maghribi politics generally associated with Algeria and Morocco rather than Tunisia. Over the past ten years, Ben Ali has dramatically expanded Tunisia’s internal security apparatus. Critics claim that much of this growth has taken place outside of the Interior Ministry and other official police forces. They argue that Ben Ali has used a slush fund, labeled the “sovereignty fund” in the budget, to build up a parallel security apparatus run directly from the presidential palace.

Along with the Interior Ministry, this organization has implemented a ruthless campaign whose tactics run from surveillance and phone tapping to fabricated videocassettes, threats against family members, passport confiscations, beatings and even assassinations. [4] In addition to rank and file workers, human rights activists and university professors, this strategy has targeted some of Tunisia’s most prominent opposition figures.

Tunisia’s slide into deeper authoritarianism raises interesting questions. Why did a government that worked hard to establish a reputation as a bastion of human rights and civil liberties, and one that had eliminated serious political opposition, feel compelled to intensify its repressive methods? Why hasn’t this authoritarian turn generated a countervailing “civil society” response? Has Ben Ali broken Tunisia’s self-regulating system? Finally, what are the prospects for more extensive political change in Tunisia?

To answer these questions about repression and state-society relations in Tunisia, we must dispense with two pieces of conventional wisdom. The first is the widely held impression that Ben Ali is essentially Bourguiba redux. Although similarities exist, important differences distinguish the two leaders’ strategies for consolidating and holding power.

The second piece of conventional wisdom is the equally popular notion that Ben Ali’s political strategy — including the repression — is simply a product of the fight against Nahda. Although Islamists clearly have been the regime’s single greatest preoccupation, it is misleading to reduce Tunisian politics under Ben Ali to a simple state versus Islamists dynamic. Ben Ali has always viewed Nahda as part of a broader and more complex political game and there is good reason to believe that this game involves players that Ben Ali fears as much or more than Nahda.

A Tale of Two Regimes

In the struggle for Tunisian independence, Habib Bourguiba emerged as the nationalist movement’s principal spokesman and negotiator. But he was not its only source of power and influence. Indeed, he survived a serious threat to his position as the neo-Destour’s leader in 1955-1956 only with the support of organized labor and other key party officials. As Tunisia’s first president, Bourguiba consolidated control over the party and state bureaucracies by co-opting and manipulating clientele networks in ways that would concentrate power in his own hands without alienating his bases of support. Rather than becoming Tunisia’s sole political patron, he set out to become its chief patron.

Bourguiba accomplished much of this through an ongoing game of political musical chairs. He intentionally gave and withdrew important posts to powerful individuals who could use their positions to service their own clienteles. In this way, Bourguiba established himself as the maker and breaker of political careers. He created tangible incentives for loyalty that consolidated his personal power much more effectively than a system based solely on repression and fear. Bourguiba also recognized early on that protest and contestation could play an important role in the effort to coopt individuals and organizations. In the 1950s and again in the mid-1980s, Bourguiba discreetly supported worker unrest designed to undermine the union leadership. On both occasions he supported breakaway unions, and then reunited the labor movement under leaders who owed their positions to Bourguiba rather than to the rank and file. He tried unsuccessfully to use this same tactic to bring the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) to heel in the mid-1980s.

Bourguiba was not the only politician who exploited popular unrest. Indeed, the intermingling of elite politics and popular protest became a staple of Tunisian political life after the government established a prime ministership in 1969. Party elites discreetly encouraged unrest as a way of discrediting competitors, then tried to negotiate alliances with the student and worker movements in order to secure a popular base for their own ambitions. Getting the militants to back off allowed politicians to demonstrate their ability to deliver social peace.

The onset of Bourguiba’s health problems in 1967 sparked a great of deal of speculation and jockeying for position in a system that lacked a clear successor and a method for choosing one. In addition to relieving himself of the more technical tasks of government, Bourguiba used the prime ministership as a tool for turning this elite competition to his advantage.

At his direction, the National Assembly passed legislation that gave the president the power to select the prime minister and designated that person as the automatic successor if the president died or became incapacitated. By establishing his personal control over the succession, Bourguiba reinforced his power by creating what William Zartman aptly describes as “position politics.” [5] Rather than building alliances against Bourguiba, party barons conspired against one another to earn his favor and a chance to become prime minister. As Bourguiba aged, Tunisian politics devolved into a collective wager on his mortality. Everyone wanted either to be prime minister or to be on good terms with the person who was when Bourguiba passed on. Through the early 1980s, this intricate political theater channeled elite competition away from Bourguiba. And while the radicalization of the labor movement in 1977 demonstrated that he could not completely control this messy game, two factors did help Bourguiba to keep social conflict from spinning totally out of control. First, strong economic growth in the 1970s supported a succession of wage increases and an extensive system of consumer subsidies. Second, the worker and student unions’ reliance on public funds allowed Bourguiba to intervene in and manipulate their internal politics.

By the mid-1980s, these conditions no longer obtained. Economic deterioration eroded the government’s ability to buy social peace. Bourguiba became less tolerant of labor’s wage demands and cracked down hard on the union in 1984-1985. The Islamic Tendency Movement — Nahda’s precursor — stepped into the void created by the union repression and became the social force that politicians publicly reviled and privately courted. But the Tendency was an independent entity whose clandestine organization provided few openings for external manipulation. For Bourguiba, allowing it to become the force that elites courted was too risky. His campaign to destroy the Tendency set Tunisia on the course that brought Ben Ali to power in 1987.

Thus, the vibrancy of Tunisia’s civil society and its ability to generate pressure on the state in the 1970s and early 1980s did not reflect a deep-seated political culture. Rather, it was a product of pragmatic political choices. Bourguiba’s strategy for consolidating and holding power created new opportunities for protest, and workers, students, Islamists and others tried to use them to their own advantage.

Ben Ali’s strategy for consolidating and holding power has produced a very different state-society relationship. Unlike Bourguiba, Ben Ali did not rise to power at the forefront of a well-organized movement. Prior to becoming interior minister in 1986, Ben Ali had spent his entire career in the military and security forces. When he seized power, he stepped into the void at the center of a paralyzed political system. The deepening economic and political crisis had discredited the ruling party’s traditional elite. Internal divisions and government repression had crippled the opposition parties and other organizations.

These conditions gave Ben Ali a degree of freedom that Bourguiba did not enjoy. He faced no organized challenge and he did not have to court or compensate powerful constituencies that had contributed to his rise. Most Tunisians were simply relieved to see Bourguiba ushered offstage with minimal trauma.

At the same time, however, Ben Ali realized that this freedom from the entanglements of traditional party politics could be an important handicap. This brings us to a point that is central for understanding Ben Ali’s authoritarianism. Battling Nahda clearly has been the government’s single greatest preoccupation over the past ten years. But this is precisely the kind of contest for which Ben Ali is eminently qualified. From the 1970s on, he had supervised Bourguiba’s successive crackdowns on labor, students and Islamists. This experience, and those of other countries in the region, suggested a simple, sober lesson. The Islamists would become a serious threat to his position if he followed Benjadid’s example in Algeria and offered them access to the ballot box. But if he played to his strengths and remained committed to destroying Nahda, he could probably win.

A revival of position politics, on the other hand, would have posed a much more serious threat. Many long-time party barons resented Ben Ali for preempting their own plans for stepping into the presidency. From the beginning of his rule, Ben Ali feared that one of these established politicians, or one of his own ministers, would use their networks in the party, the state bureaucracy, and other organizations to undermine him. As a relative newcomer to ruling party politics, Ben Ali lacked the social bases and patronage networks so vital to Bourguiba’s style of political management. He did not have the political resources to referee and manipulate effectively an ongoing competition between powerful politicians and the social actors they rallied to their camps.

To protect his own position, Ben Ali has tried to do two things. First, he has worked to prevent state and party officials from developing into centers of power that they became under Bourguiba. He abolished the office of party director — a position of considerable power in the 1970s — and reduced the autonomy of his ministers. His dismissal of Hedi Baccouche in 1989 demonstrated that Ben Ali has no tolerance for a prime minister who shows any sign of becoming a power in his own right. [6] Throughout his cabinet, Ben Ali has carefully selected individuals who are technically competent but come from non-political backgrounds or lack extensive connections in the ruling party or the state bureaucracy. He is involved in the operations of individual ministries much more deeply than Bourguiba ever was, and he has used frequent cabinet shuffles to prevent ministers from establishing lasting clientele bases. [7]

Second, Ben Ali has worked diligently to break the tie between elite and popular politics that was to vital in the 1970s and 1980s. Ill-equipped to play position politics, he has tried to ensure that “civil society” remains unavailable as a political weapon.

Initially, Ben Ali relied on old-fashioned cooptation, exercised with considerably less finesse than his predecessor, to put the opposition parties and other organizations on short leashes. Outright repression became more important after evidence emerged in 1989-1990 of a broad opposition front built around former Prime Minister Mohammed Mzali and other longtime Destour politicians. In April 1990, the political bureau of a group calling itself the Tunisian National Salvation Front issued a communique claiming to represent all opposition groups inside and outside of Tunisia. The communique condemned with equal vigor the government’s repression of everyone from Bourguiba to the Communists and Nahda. It called on all democrats, regardless of ideology and affiliation, to unite in a common effort. From his new headquarters in London, Nahda’s leader, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, made a similar comment that would push Ben Ali to establish a meaningful, multi-party democracy.

This challenge became Ben Ali’s chief concern. He became — and remains — terribly afraid that this front, headed by former politicians with extensive ties throughout the country, is conspiring to unseat him. Ben Ali fears that this front will establish alliances with Nahda, the LTDH, militant portions of the labor and student movements, the legal opposition parties and anyone else who might provide a useful striking arm against him. From his perspective, then, a strike, a student demonstration, or an opposition communique could be much more than it appears to be. Because any kind of contestation could be organized and manipulated by the opposition front it must be repressed.

This repressive strategy has stunted Tunisia’s formidable civil society in two ways. Most obviously, it has elevated the risks of engaging in protest and made collective action much harder to organize. Beyond this climate of fear and intimidation, Ben Ali’s effort to break the connection between elite and popular politics has also created a profound strategic malaise for the organizations that long constituted the bedrock of associational life. As elsewhere in the region, the struggle for meaningful autonomy from state control has dominated the lives of workers’ and students’ unions, human rights groups, women’s groups and Islamist organizations in post-independence Tunisia. At the same time, though, these organizations have always understood that the line between state and civil society is blurry at best. For more than 30 years, establishing alliances with individuals and factions of the governing elite and playing on tensions within party and state bureaucracies was a fundamental part of these organizations’ strategies for influencing government policy. The dissolution of these ties, the end of position politics as it operated for so long, has left Tunisia’s traditionally vigorous civil society adrift.

Future Scenarios

To be sure, adrift does not mean broken. Pressure from the legal opposition parties has helped to prompt electoral reform. The trade union has reduced some of the social costs of privatization and economic reform. The LTDH has fought valiantly to protect its independence and to make respect for human rights a value that the government must at least profess to support. These accomplishments are not trivial.

By the same token, Ben Ali’s effort to break the link between elite and popular politics has weakened the ability of these organizations to act as the engines of dramatic change anytime soon. What, then, might the future hold? Three scenarios seem likely.

One scenario can be called “Ben Ali’s nightmare.” A broad opposition front succeeds in establishing a clandestine organization inside the country. It lays low until a downturn in the economy or some other development heightens public dissatisfaction. Unrest erupts and Ben Ali gets moved aside by someone from inside the ruling party or perhaps by one of the old party barons. Some of the likely participants in such a plan do, indeed, think in these terms. But none of them believes that such a plan can succeed in the near future.

A second, particularly ironic, scenario involves Ben Ali’s own security apparatus. Some observers believe that Ben Ali has created a force that he may not be able to control. If he ever becomes unwilling or unable to continue their economic favors, or if he ever agrees to political reforms that undermine their power, these forces might move against him.

The third scenario, and the most likely for the foreseeable future, continues the schizophrenic combination of reform and repression that has marked the past ten years. Ben Ali continues to repress criticism and contestation that he does not orchestrate. The legal opposition parties continue to participate in an electoral system that is stacked against them because it is the only game in town and because it gives them an opportunity to build their own organizations. They work to slowly expand their foothold in the National Assembly, and the LTDH continues to press the government on human rights. Ultimately, this scenario may be the most likely to produce the kind of multi-party democracy that Ben Ali promised a decade ago. But on the tenth anniversary of his “tranquil revolution,” it still looks a long way off.


[1] See Ridha Kefi, “L’equilibre carthaginois,” Jeune Afrique 1837 (March 20-26, 1996), p. 73.
[2] For a revealing and disturbing account of this campaign, see Ahmed Manai’s Supplice tunisien: Le Jardin secret du Generale Ben Ali (Paris: La Decouverte, 1995).
[3] Susan E. Waltz, Human Rights and Reform: Changing the Face of North African Politics (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995), p. 72.
[4] The Tunisian National Salvation Front described the organization and activities of this parallel security apparatus in an April 1990 communique. A copy of the text appears in Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord (1990), pp. 804-09.
[5] See Zartman’s introduction to I. William Zartman, et al., Political Elites in Arab North Africa (New York, 1982). See also Lisa Anderson, “Democracy Frustrated:The Mzali Years in Tunisia,” in Reeva S. Simon, ed., The Middle East and North Africa: Essays in Honor of J. C. Hurewitz (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), pp. 185-186.
[6] Ben Ali dismissed Baccouche after the prime minister made comments critical of the government’s structural adjustment program. Ben Ali feared that Baccouche might be posturing to build his own support base on the left.
[7] In a surprisingly frank 1992 La Presse article, Mohsen Toumi openly criticized Ben Ali for becoming too involved in the daily details of government and for fearing a prime minister with a clear and decisice role. See “Nos mille huit cents jours,” La Presse, November 9, 1992. I thank Chedly Ayari, former minister of national economy, for his insights on the difference in the status and power of ministers under Bourguiba and Ben Ali.

How to cite this article:

Christopher Alexander "Authoritarianism and Civil Society in Tunisia," Middle East Report 205 (Winter 1997).

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