Anatomy of an Autocracy

Tunisia's deposed president once swept to power with bold promises of reform. What went wrong?

As the end of his reign quickly approached this week, Tunisia's President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali attempted to conjure the spirit that buoyed his government in the months after he seized power more than 20 years ago.

In a televised address to the country on Jan. 13, Ben Ali -- speaking in colloquial Arabic and in unusually humble tones -- pledged not to run for reelection when his current term ends in 2014 and to usher in a gentler phase of governance in the meantime.

The offer was far too little, far too late, as the reaction in the streets of Tunis made immediately clear. But it wasn't just Ben Ali's tone that recalled an earlier era: In fact, Ben Ali's fall from power has had a remarkable similarity to his original rise.

In 1987, Tunisia teetered on the brink of a civil war between the tottering authoritarian government of President Habib Bourguiba and a popular Islamist movement. Ben Ali, who served as both interior minister and prime minister under Bourguiba, removed the president on the grounds that age and senility rendered him incompetent to govern.

In the months that followed, Ben Ali was widely hailed as the country's savior -- the prescient leader who pulled the country back from the abyss. By thwarting chaos, Ben Ali had saved a struggling economy as well as the country's secular political order.

But Ben Ali was more than a savior. He was also, people believed at the time, a democrat. He said all the right things about the need for political competition, transparency, freedom of opinion and expression. He also spoke about individual liberties -- freedom of conscience, the right to hold and express contrary opinions, and human rights. Ben Ali didn't just sound like a democrat. He sounded like a liberal democrat.

It was the prospect of legislative elections in 1989 that really ended the honeymoon. Ben Ali was not willing to allow an Islamist party onto the field. Nor was he willing to accept electoral reforms that gave the secular opposition parties any meaningful chance of winning. In fact, the electoral code became one of Ben Ali's handiest tools. On several occasions, and with much fanfare, Ben Ali announced "reforms" in the code. In reality, all of these measures were designed to limit opposition gains and prevent the parties from forming an effective alliance.

Some, perhaps even the president himself, might say that Ben Ali honestly intended to be the leader he appeared to be in his first year and a half and that he was forced to step back because of the need to make difficult economic reforms and fend off an Islamist movement at a time when the raging civil war in neighboring Algeria offered a grim reminder about the dangers of Islamist political influence.

But the results were undeniably ugly. Moroccans frequently refer to the 1960s through the 1980s as the "years of lead" -- a time of intense repression against the political opposition. The 1990s became Tunisia's decade of lead. The Islamists believed they had done everything required to satisfy the law and become a legal party. Ben Ali's refusal to admit them into the political game ignited a fierce and bloody conflict with the government. When push came to shove, Ben Ali pushed back -- hard. More than 10,000 Islamists and other opponents went to Ben Ali's prisons in the 1990s. As happens with many embattled regimes, Ben Ali's government developed a sense of paranoia. Any bit of criticism was considered aiding and abetting the Islamists. The government went after anyone who dared to complain.

Some of its tools of repression were bland and bureaucratic. Ben Ali never severed the umbilical cord linking the ruling party to the institutions of the state. His Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) was the state, and the state served Ben Ali. As a result, all manner of rules, regulations, and procedures became political weapons that officials wielded to enforce loyalty. A newspaper might not be able to get paper or might see its issues confiscated off the streets because of a story that stepped beyond the state's ambiguous red lines. A businessman might not get a license because he failed to demonstrate sufficient commitment to the president.

Other tools were blunter. The police force, uniformed and plainclothes, became the regime's praetorian guard, operating directly under the control of the president and Interior Ministry. There is more than a little irony in the fact that the government recruited heavily for the security forces in the same disenfranchised regions that generated the wave of protest that broke in mid-December. The military, on the other hand, remained very professional but relatively weak -- a fact that will no doubt affect Tunisia's future political development.  Once it became clear in the mid-1990s that the government had forced the Islamists out of the country or so far underground that they could not organize any meaningful opposition, Tunisians began to lose their patience with Ben Ali's authoritarianism. Human rights activists and dissident journalists began to complain more loudly, and the government cracked down even harder. Stories about beatings by plainclothes agents, arbitrary arrests, and torture mounted.

So why revolt now and not a decade ago? The media coverage of the last month has emphasized frustrations over unemployment and prices. However, it is easy to forget that for most of Ben Ali's rule, Tunisia's economy grew at a respectable rate. Tunisia has a larger middle class and a higher standard of living than any of its neighbors. As long as you stayed out of politics, Ben Ali's government left you alone and allowed you to make some money, buy a nice house or apartment, and live a better life than your parents lived.

More recently, however, the Europe-dependent Tunisian economy was experiencing global-recession-related contraction -- which hit university degree-holders of the sort that took to the streets against Ben Ali particularly hard.

Then there is social media. When the definitive history of this era gets written, Facebook will get its own chapter. Activists used Facebook to organize on the one space that the regime couldn't control -- cyberspace.

Not long ago, police firing on protesters or funeral marchers in out-of-the-way towns like Thala or Kasserine would have remained a bit of local lore, something to whisper about. Not now. Facebook brought the events in Thala to Tunis and helped build coalitions that the government could not break.

Tunisia now enters a truly novel stage. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi has become the transitional president, with orders to organize new legislative and presidential elections in six months. But that only delays the inevitable questions. Tunisia's opposition parties are small organizations with narrow support bases, no experience in government, and no experience working in a meaningful coalition. Moreover, they didn't play a particularly important role in organizing the protests that have presented them with this new opportunity. Can any of them, singly or together, convince Tunisians that they have the ability to cope with the country's pressing problems and build a democracy? 

And what about the presidency? Ghannouchi has the virtue of experience, but his long service with Ben Ali will be a real handicap if he wants the job for a longer term. Other possible candidates have the virtue of principled opposition to Ben Ali, but they have been in exile or lack the bases of support in the country and its administration to easily assume such a critical post.

This transition is vital for Tunisia, and not just in the short and medium terms. Tunisia has never experienced a transition in power at the ballot box. It must develop the institutions to do so, and it must establish meaningful limitations on presidential authority. There are only so many times this country can revisit 1987.



The First Twitter Revolution?

Not so fast. The Internet can take some credit for toppling Tunisia's government, but not all of it.

Friday evening, Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali boarded a jet for Malta, leaving his prime minister to face streets filled with protesters demanding a change of government in the North African country. The protests began weeks earlier in the central city of Sidi Bouzid, sparked by the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed university graduate whose informal vegetable stall was shuttered by the police. His despair exemplified the frustration that many Tunisians felt with their contracting economy, high levels of unemployment and inequality, censored media and Internet, and widespread corruption. Protests spread from city to city, with trade unions, lawyers, and countless unemployed Tunisian youth demanding a change to an economic system that appeared to benefit a small number of families close to power and leave ordinary citizens behind.

As the protests intensified, Ben Ali offered concessions to his people: 23 years into his reign, he agreed to step down in 2014. He ordered the security police to stop using live ammunition on protesters after nearly 70 had been killed, cut the price of basic foodstuffs, and promised to allow a freer media and end Internet censorship. This morning, as pressures increased, he offered new elections within six months. But all that failed to placate the crowds, who finally got what they wanted later in the day: a Tunisia sans Ben Ali.

While the future of Tunisia's governance is extremely uncertain at present, it seems we've witnessed the rarest of phenomena, a popular revolt toppling an Arab dictator. Audiences in the Arab world have been glued to Al Jazeera, which has covered the protests closely. Many states in the region suffer from the same problems -- unemployment, slow growth, corrupt government, aging dictators -- that brought Tunisians into the streets. Protesters have taken to the streets in Algeria and Jordan, demanding jobs and affordable food. Whether these protests erupt into the revolution Tunisia is experiencing is impossible to know. What's clear is that the actions taken by Tunisians are reverberating around the region.

Outside the Middle East and the Francophone media sphere, the events in Tunisia have gotten little attention, certainly not the breathless, 24-hour coverage devoted to 2009's Iranian election protests. When the protests began in Sidi Bouzid, much of the English-speaking world was focused on the Christmas and New Year's holidays. As protests in Tunis heated up, U.S. eyeballs were focused on the tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona. Had the Tunisian protests hit during a slow news month, it's still unlikely they would have been followed as closely as events in Iran, which is larger, of greater international security concern, and has a large, media-savvy diaspora who helped promote the 2009 protests to an international audience.

Iran's diaspora was especially effective at promoting the Green Movement to an online audience that followed tweets, Facebook posts, and web videos avidly, hungry for news from the front lines of the struggle. Tens of thousands of Twitter users turned their profile pictures green in solidarity with the activists, and hundreds set up proxy servers to help Iranians evade Internet filters. For users of social media, the protests in Iran were an inescapable, global story. Tunisia, by contrast, hasn't seen nearly the attention or support from the online community.

The irony is that social media likely played a significant role in the events that have unfolded in the past month in Tunisia, and that the revolution appears far more likely to lead to lasting political change. Ben Ali's government tightly controlled all forms of media, on and offline. Reporters were prevented from traveling to cover protests in Sidi Bouzid, and the reports from official media characterized events as either vandalism or terrorism. Tunisians got an alternative picture from Facebook, which remained uncensored through the protests, and they communicated events to the rest of the world by posting videos to YouTube and Dailymotion. As unrest spread from Sidi Bouzid to Sfax, from Hammamet and ultimately to Tunis, Tunisians documented events on Facebook. As others followed their updates, it's likely that news of demonstrations in other parts of the country disseminated online helped others conclude that it was time to take to the streets. And the videos and accounts published to social media sites offered an ongoing picture of the protests to those around the world savvy enough to be paying attention.

One way to understand the significance of social media in Tunisia is to examine the government's attempts to control and silence it. Tunisia has aggressively censored the Internet since 2005, blocking not just explicitly political sites, but social media sites like video-sharing service Dailymotion. Video-sharing sites were a special target of government censors because Tunisian activists are extremely tech-savvy and had released provocative videos online, including one that documented the first lady's frequent shopping trips to Europe using the presidential jet.

Not content just to filter content, last summer Tunisian authorities began "phishing" attacks on activists' Gmail and Facebook accounts. By injecting malicious computer code into the login page of those services through the government-controlled Internet service provider, Ben Ali's monitors were able to obtain passwords to these accounts, locking out the activists and harvesting email lists of presumed activists. When the riots intensified last week, the government began arresting prominent Internet activists, including my Global Voices colleague Slim Amamou, who had broken the story of the government's password phishing. (Amamou was released, apparently unharmed, Thursday night.)

But if the web was such a threat to the government's authority, why did the regime not block Facebook or shut down the Internet entirely? It's critical to understand that Ben Ali was, first and foremost, a pragmatist. As late as Friday morning, he was looking for a solution that would allow him to remain in power, offering concessions in the hope of placating protesters. Internet censorship was already one of the grievances protesters had aired -- when Ben Ali offered concessions to protesters Thursday, loosening the reins was one of the promises that were warmly, if skeptically received.

Pundits will likely start celebrating a "Twitter revolution" in Tunisia, even if they missed watching it unfold; the Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan already revived the dreaded phrase Thursday. Others are seeking connections between unfolding events and a WikiLeaks cable that showed U.S. diplomats' frustration with Ben Ali, and with denial-of-service attacks by online activist group Anonymous, which has been targeting entities that have tried to stop the dissemination of WikiLeaks cables, like the Tunisian government. But any attempt to credit a massive political shift to a single factor -- technological, economic, or otherwise -- is simply untrue. Tunisians took to the streets due to decades of frustration, not in reaction to a WikiLeaks cable, a denial-of-service attack, or a Facebook update.

But as we learn more about the events of the past few weeks, we'll discover that online media did play a role in helping Tunisians learn about the actions their fellow citizens were taking and in making the decision to mobilize. How powerful and significant this influence was will be something that academics will study and argue over for years to come. Scholars aren't the only ones who want to know whether social media played a role in the end of Ben Ali's reign -- it's likely to be a hot topic of conversation in Amman, Algiers, and Cairo, as other autocratic leaders wonder whether the bubbling cauldron of unemployment, street protests, and digital media could burn them next.