Ben Ali: A tale of a bygone dictator

Perhaps if the circumstances were different, Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, 74, would have been delighted to hear that his name had shot to the top of Twitter trends on Friday.

The toppled Tunisian president was careful about his image domestically and internationally. His embassies abroad spent lavishly on his political branding.

He is the second Arab president to be brought down by a revolution in four decades, and the first since 1985, when the Sudanese people toppled the military regime of Gafar al-Numeiri.

Ben Ali came to power on 7 November, 1987 after removing the first president of the Tunisian republic al-Habib Bourguiba. Then prime minister, he announced in a public statement that the 84-year-old Bourguiba was removed for ''incompetence."

The day of his succession has become a national holiday, with celebrations held inside Tunisia and expensive advertisements for Ben Ali published in newspapers all over the Arab region.

During 23 years in power, Ben Ali managed to push forward the economy of his country, making it a favorite hub for foreign investment. A small country surrounded by large neighbors such as Libya and Algeria, Tunisia's GDP per capita came to exceed countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China, making it one of the African "Lions" in terms of economy.

This was one of the factors that kept his regime far from the chronic social and political popular discontent which penetrated other Arab societies such as Morocco, Algeria and Egypt. Moreover, Tunisia was a rare example of an Arab country that didn't experience a massive wave of political violence by militant Islamic groups, even though neighboring Algeria saw more that its share.

In his 2008 National Day speech, Ben Ali declared to the nation, “We have based our policy on the [indivisibility] between development, democracy and human rights… We have insisted on involving all political parties, organizations, and civil society components in all issues of concern to our society and our country.” 

Although Tunisia's economic development saved him from the international community's criticism, behind his “economic legacy” lies an equally consistent legacy of human rights violations. 

According to an annual report by Amnesty International, which has regularly documented the Tunisian regime's human rights violations, "Freedom of expression, association and assembly remained severely restricted. Government critics, including journalists, human rights defenders and student activists, were harassed, threatened and prosecuted… Torture and other ill-treatment continued to be reported, and prisoners were subjected to harsh prison conditions." 

On 25 October 2009, Ben Ali was elected for a fifth term with an official tally of 89.6 percent of the vote. Following the elections, he threatened that he would not tolerate any calls questioning the "democratic nature of the polling."

The notable Tunisian historian Muhammad Talbi compared Ben Ali's Tunisia with the country during the French occupation. "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.”

Ben Ali was a favorite ally for Western powers. During the wave of pressure exerted by the former American administration on Arab countries to open up their regimes for political reform, Ben Ali was not targeted.

For the US after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, he was an example of a moderate ruler who enabled America's "war on terrorism," especially after the April 2002 bombing of a Tunisian synagogue which killed 21 people. Ben Ali banned religious parties and became actively involved in the US Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative to fight terrorism in Africa.

The US responded by providing Tunisia with strategic assistance for its "highly organized intelligence services."

France, which hosts the majority of the 600,000 Tunisians who live in the European Union, was also a major supporter.

Such diplomatic relationships enabled Ben Ali to challenge any criticism of his authoritarian regime.

Despite maintaining prisons full of prisoners of conscience, in November 2005 his regime hosted the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a UN sponsored conference designed to bridge the digital divide between the south and north hemispheres.

When Tunisian discontent reached unprecedented levels and protestors filled the streets chanting publicly for the first time "Ben Ali, out!" and "Ben Ali, assassin!", France defended him.

"Rather than issuing anathemas, I believe our duty is to make a calm and objective analysis of the situation," French Foreign Affairs Minister Michèle Alliot Marie told parliament last week.

Moreover, French Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire made it clear that "President Ben Ali is someone who's frequently judged badly." He added, "It's not to me to judge the Tunisian regime."

The most significant voice heard recently was in a leaked diplomatic cable. Former US Ambassador to Tunisia Robert Godec (who served from 2006 to 2009) wrote a memo in July 2009 about the despotic nature of the regime.

"They tolerate no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Increasingly, they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power," said the memo.

"Corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising. Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, first lady Leila Trabelsi and her family… Meanwhile, anger is growing at Tunisia's high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime's long-term stability are increasing."

Now however, Ben Ali no longer benefits from being an ally of the West. Washington forsook him when President Barack Obama applauded "the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people." France refused to let his plane land on French soil.

Although he gained international brand awareness as he shot to the top of Twitter trends, Bin Ali lost his status as a dictator without Western condemnation.

The notable American political scholar Steven Heydemann quoted a Syrian political analyst as saying in May 2006 “Tunisia is our model. Just look at them! They are much more repressive than we are, yet the West loves them. We need to figure out how they do it.”

Now Syria has to search for another model.

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