PARIS – Tunisia, one of the Arab League’s 22 members, is in the throes of a severe and profound crisis, albeit possibly one with a favorable resolution. It is the smallest North African country, covering 163,000 square kilometers – more or less twice the size of Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg – and containing a population of 10.5 million.
It is also full of charm and moderation in terms of its climate, history, and culture. It once was the pillar of the cultural dynamism and influence of the Roman Republic and Empire. The first African region to be Christianized, it was the land of Saint Augustine and the main source for Catholic evangelism in Africa. Originally mainly Berber, it was conquered by the Arabs, Islamized, and became for centuries a dependency of the Sublime Porte, and therefore Turkish.
It became a French protectorate, not a colony – as in the case of neighboring Algeria – in the nineteenth century. That difference helps explain the relatively greater preservation of Tunisia’s social structures and local traditions.
Upon achieving independence in 1956, Tunisia adopted a French-style republican constitution that established a presidential system of government. The first president, Habib Bourguiba, was the leader of the liberation movement, which emerged victorious much more quickly – and much less violently – than its counterpart in Algeria. A highly Westernized leader, Bourguiba maintained the secular character of the state that he took over from France, as well as many of its economic ties with the West (particularly France, of course), in a much more committed way than Algeria did after it gained independence.
Some rare attempts over the years by Marxist groups to seize power failed. Unlike other African or Middle Eastern countries, Tunisia remained largely a land of free enterprise, allowing for some industrial development. In recent years, it has become Africa’s leading exporter of industrial goods, outperforming even South Africa and Egypt.
In 1987, the aged Bourguiba became too debilitated to continue in office. His interior minister, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, having been named Prime Minister, soon managed to certify Bourguiba as medically unfit and ousted him from the presidency.
The new leader was already noted for having repressed the Islamic movement, a policy he intensified after becoming President. Non-Muslim and secular Tunisian citizens – and a large part of world opinion, notably in France – were grateful. They made excuses for the brutality that lay behind Ben Ali’s policy, endorsing the results without observing and questioning the means by which they were achieved.
But those means ended up leading to the almost total suppression of any freedom of expression in Tunisia: a censored press, imprisonment of journalists, political trials, and arbitrary arrests within all circles of society, not merely those with ties to the Islamic movement. The aim was to suppress any and all forms of democratic opposition.
Ben Ali’s regime ultimately became a pure dictatorship. He and his family built up empires within the local economy, cornering nearly all sectors and making a fortune for themselves.
But the industrialization policy was maintained. A genuine middle class emerged, comparable to Egypt’s, but unlike that in any other Arab country, with the possible exception of Morocco.
And then, as occurred everywhere else, the global economic crisis that began in 2008 constrained growth, fueling social tensions. Since the press and parliament were muzzled, the only way to relieve those tensions was in the streets.
The police shot at the crowd on several occasions, but proved too weak to intimidate the demonstrators. The decisive moment came when the army abstained from suppressing the protests. Once the army’s refusal to support his regime became clear, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, after France refused to welcome him into exile.
For a brief moment, there was hope for a national-unity government, in which Ben Ali’s rump cabinet and the opposition would unite to prepare a presidential election. But an infuriated public would have none of it. The only option left was a coalition comprised of old oppositions, which, given the absence of a respected institutional framework, will make a return to stability slow, difficult, and perilous.
So Tunisia is in danger. Islamism could eventually emerge victorious. But it is also possible that Tunisia is experiencing the Arab world’s first-ever “bourgeois” revolution. If so, Tunisia’s uprising could be a game-changing event for the entire region.