Theme: The regime of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has collapsed after slightly less than a month of public protests on an unprecedented scale.
Summary: The unexpected development of the popular revolt in Tunisia that has toppled President Ben Ali after 23 years in power has been due to a series of factors specific to the country. Which way things go will depend on the decisions of the provisional government. Those concerned must find, despite their different positions, the common ground to strike a balance. Yesterday’s allies will tomorrow be competing for votes. Unfortunately, dialogue is lacking and there is still a question mark regarding a possible role for the armed forces, while a surge in the support for the Islamists cannot be ruled out. Since the Tunisian revolution is the first of its kind in the Arab world, a popular uprising that has succeeded in forcing a dictator to flee, it is reasonable to ask whether the example will be followed in neighbouring countries. The risk of contagion is significant, but certainly not inevitable or identically applicable.
Analysis: After 23 years of autocratic rule, the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has collapsed after slightly less than a month of public protests on an unprecedented scale. After more than two decades of silence and fear, the Tunisians have dared to do the unthinkable.
Ben Ali kept Tunisia under his yoke propped up by a 130,000-strong security force and a political party, the RCD, that in practice functioned as a single party. The huge repression and propaganda machinery under his personal control managed to suppress any possible deviation for a long time. The beneficiaries were the President’s clan, his own family and his wife’s, who appropriated for their own ends, both legally and illegally, vast swathes of the economy and plundered the country’s resources without restraint.
Although aware of this, the population accepted the situation from a combination of fear and sheer complacency. The country’s economic and social development was considered satisfactory and Tunisia was often presented as an example of economic success. But the economic crisis put an end to this assumption, given a declining purchasing power, rising prices, increasing household debt levels and the highest unemployment rate in the region, estimated at between 14% and 18%, at 23% for the young and at 37% for university graduates. For the latter, injustice adds insult to injury as corruption and nepotism were seen to be the only way to get a job. The combination of all these factors were unquestionably the driving force of the protest movement in Tunisia which led to the fall of the Ben Ali regime.
An important factor in the rapid propagation of the protest movement throughout the country was the support for the population’s demand of the local and regional branches of the Tunisian General Labour Union (the powerful UGTT). Contrary to the uprising at the Gafsa mines in 2009, that were repressed by the regime, this time the positive attitude of the local UGTT branches helped the population mobilise and provided an organised structure to the protest. The local base was a decisive factor, despite the Union’s national bureau being very cautious and late to respond, although today it tries to distance itself from the regime and get on the revolutionary bandwagon.
The Fall of the Dictator and his Regime
Of the three possible outcomes for an end to authoritarianism, it was actually the most unlikely that ultimately took place. Indeed, a bottom-up transition, imposed by the people following a revolution, was totally inconceivable. A negotiated transition was also only a remote possibility because the disparity in the strength of the contending political forces was so great that none of the opposition groups could counterbalance Ben Ali’s power and secure a transition. Using a “black hole” strategy, Ben Ali created a vacuum around him: he ensured there were no alternatives and no valid personalities to challenge him, while the opposition parties were totally compromised in the eyes of the population, since those that refused to play by Ben Ali’s rules were eliminated. The only foreseeable outcome was for transition to come from above, whenever the dictator decided to deliver on his promises. But that moment never came.
Some had always thought that there would be no change in Tunisia without some sort of violence, either a military coup d’état or a popular revolution. Many believed change was impossible, because of the dictator’s firm control over the country through his security forces. Both estimates were wrong and the people proved to be stronger and more determined, while the dictator turned out to be weaker and more vulnerable than expected. This is an important lesson from the Tunisian revolution. Nevertheless, the deathblow that led to Ben Ali’s swift collapse came from the army, when the Army Chief refused to follow orders to repress the demonstrations and to fire at the crowd. This act of disobedience was the decisive turning point that convinced the President that he had been defeated by the people. According to different sources, it was the head of the land forces who forced Ben Ali to flee Tunisia.
The fall of the President inevitably led to the collapse of his regime, that was made up of the security forces and the hegemonic RCD party. Contrary to expectations, the two superstructures rapidly abandoned the scene. The security forces immediately rallied to the new government (apart from a small group of the President’s closest collaborators), while the higher echelons of the RCD quickly opted for self-dissolution. The regime proved to be just a house of cards. This is the second lesson from the Tunisian revolution. In order to overcome the past and avoid a possible return, the new government decided to both dismiss the head of the security forces and to suspend the RCD party while awaiting the court order for its dissolution. One of the transition government’s first decisions was to cut all and any links between the RCD and the State and the public administration.
A New Era and a Time for Transition
Should the revolution have immediately overturned the Tunisian constitution? For the time being, the government has decided for the sake of stability to accept the current constitutional order, ensuring the continuity of the current power structures. Meanwhile, some had called for the immediate abrogation of a constitution that was too closely connected with the former regime, and some of whose articles were tailor-made for President Ben Ali. Although difficult to accept for some, the reasoning was that a constitutional vacuum had to be avoided at all costs and the consensus among the political forces and civil society is that a new constitution will be adopted at the end of the period of transition, leading to the establishment of a second republic and very probably a fully parliamentary system.
As for the first option, once the Constitutional Council declared the permanent vacancy of the presidency and after 24 hours of hesitancy, it was clear that the current constitutional order was not to be fully respected; indeed, the current constitution requires new presidential elections to be called within a maximum of 60 days, and it is unthinkable for free and plural elections to be organised with such a deadline. The preparation of a plurality of candidacies is simply not possible in the current constitutional and legislative framework. It would thus be necessary to modify the legal framework and this would certainly take more than two months. The solution is thus more political than legal: finding a compromise to agree to by-pass the current constitution while defending its validity for the present to ensure the provisional government’s capacity to act. This appears to be the tacitly accepted view of all parties; none of them dispute either the principle of having an interim government or the need to keep its temporary President in office. While some might want to bring down the ‘government of national union’ because it contains Ministers from the former regime, almost all agree that a period of six months is a reasonable deadline for the implementation of the necessary reforms to ensure free and transparent elections.
This task is obviously the most important facing the provisional government, largely made up of technocrats from the latter days of Ben Ali’s regime, former Ministers of the Ben Ali regime, opposition leaders independent personalities. It was initially under enormous pressure from daily demonstrations, calls to dismiss any figures linked to the former regime and the challenge from the UGTT, which called for a general strike and resignation of the government in full.
For some, the UGTT’s stand was the unfortunate result of its leaders manoeuvring to distance themselves from their compromisingly close links to the former President in an attempt to reposition themselves in the new political scenario. It is true that in some respects the UGTT was never far from the political arena and this is a decisive moment for it in view of the prospective establishment of trade union pluralism in Tunisia.
In any case, the government is by definition only provisional and with well-determined tasks. To involve it in a political battle at the moment is totally unreasonable and even dangerous at this stage of the transition process. Bringing down the government could plunge Tunisia into chaos. Fortunately, a compromise was reached whereby the government will continue to be chaired by the former Prime Minister, will have two other Ministers from the former regime (technocrats, untainted by corruption) and new faces from the academic and private sectors and from the judiciary. The compromise has been supported by the UGTT and especially by public opinion, leading to the halting of demonstrations against the government.
Now that the government can work ‘normally’, it has begun to implement its first transitory measures: the freeing of all political prisoners, the preparation of a general amnesty, the legalisation of all the previously banned political parties, the full liberalisation of the media and the creation of commissions of inquiry into political reforms. The government also managed to obtain from Parliament the authority to legislate by decree, allowing it to modify all the antidemocratic laws without requiring a vote in both chambers, that are, in any case, currently dominated by members of the former ruling party.
Who Benefits from the Power Vacuum?
Probably no one. Those currently involved must find, despite their different positions, the common ground to strike a balance. Yesterday’s allies will tomorrow be competing for votes. Unfortunately, dialogue is lacking and there is still a question mark regarding a possible role for the armed forces, while a surge in the support for the Islamists cannot be ruled out.
As for the army, so far there are almost no indications that it intends to play a political role. It is true that it is still on the streets, and has been so for slightly longer that on the previous two occasions when it had to intervene, in 1978 and 1984. It is also true that it is warmly applauded by the population and that its chief is considered the saviour of the people and consequently enjoys an immense popularity. But the army has always been loyal and law-abiding. Addressing the demonstrators who were occupying, both by night and day, Government Square with the aim of forcing the provisional government’s resignation, he told them clearly on 24 January that the army would respect the constitutional order and that he would not act in defiance of his orders. However, his sudden appearance in the midst of the demonstrators assuring them that the army would be the guarantor of the revolution raises many questions: did anyone ask him to calm the crowd? Did he personally decide to do so? The difference is considerable. If he really meant that the army would be the guarantor of the revolution, does that mean that it effectively intends to influence the political choice of the people or even go against it if it turns out to contradict the interests of the revolution?
With regard to the Islamists, the collapse of the regime has given them a second lease of life and a chance to gain some recognition. They are clearly trying to make themselves noticed on the streets, participating in all the demonstrations, with their leaders and former political prisoners at the forefront. Their historic leader, Rached Ghannouchi, while announcing that he would not run in the presidential elections, has said that his movement will not relinquish its right to take part in Tunisian political life. All this seems justifiable and in accordance with the principle of inclusiveness, whereby all political options will be respected. However, despite the risk of the populist and conservative discourse of the Islamists striking a chord with some sections of the population, with whom they are naturally close for religious reasons, society is likely to find the right balance. Having evolved profoundly since the 90s, the majority are certain not to accept another dictatorship, whatever its complexion.
Tunisia’s neighbours should not be ignored either, especially Libya to the East. Contrary to his counterparts along the Maghreb or in other parts of the Arab world, Gaddafi appears to be the only one to have a clear position. While at first siding with Tunisia’s dictator, he then announced his support for the revolution and, in an interview on a private Tunisian TV channel, he tried to explain how to make a success of the revolution thanks to popular committees, following the Libyan model. Of course, some of the political movements suppressed by the former regime find this highly attractive, while Gaddafi misses no opportunity to interfere in Tunisian affairs. The new Minister of the Interior, after a police strike and the occupation of his office by a group of disgruntled policemen, insisted that there were external forces at play, implicitly pointing to Libya.
Conclusion: Since the Tunisian revolution is the first of its kind in the Arab world, a popular uprising that has succeeded in forcing a dictator to flee, it is reasonable to ask whether the example will be followed in neighbouring countries. The risk of contagion is significant, but certainly not inevitable or identically applicable. Indeed, from ‘the Atlantic to the Gulf’, all Arab societies have reacted to what has occurred in Tunisia; demonstrations of support and anger, cases of immolation, etc. However, the Tunisian revolution’s success is in no small way due to the defection of the army, which decided not to engage in repressing the crowds as ordered in his folly by the dictator, and it is by no means certain that the armed forces in similar regimes in other Arab countries would act in the same way.
Events in Egypt and the fall of Mubarak show this reality and confirm it. The army, either for patriotism or opportunism, and through a disguised coup d’etat, finally opted to be on the side of the people. Contrary to Tunisia, the army will therefore manage the transition itself. This appears to suggest that even if other revolutions might perhaps not be possible in the Arab word for the time being, the process of change has been inexorably put in motion.
On the other hand, now that the Tunisians have succeeded in their revolt, they also have to make a success of their revolution. The transition is certainly likely to be long, but Tunisia seems endowed with the necessary elements to make it a success: an ethnically and religiously homogeneous society, an important educated middle class and a civil society which, although weakened by so many years of censorship, believes firmly in the values of citizenship, freedom, equality and pluralism. These elements will surely ease the passage towards a real change, rather than simply the replacement of one authoritarian regime by another.
The new Tunisia’s partners will have to be more sensitive to its needs and help it to make a success of this important phase. The external contribution should therefore concentrate more than previously on supporting Tunisia’s efforts to democratise its institutions and to ensure the rule of law, and also on offering experience in transition processes. This should allow Tunisia to better judge its past and manage to overcome it.
President-Director of the Centre for Mediterranean and international Studies (CEMI) and Professor at the University of Tunis, Tunisia