In my numerous trips to Tunisia for Human Rights Watch since the mid-1990s, I grew weary of Tunisian dissidents telling me that at any moment the people would rise up in revolt against their autocratic president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Keep dreaming, I thought.
This country was not ripe for revolution. Anyone who traveled throughout the region could see that Tunisians enjoy a relatively high standard of living and quality of life. The country's per capita income is almost double that of Morocco and Egypt. It's higher than Algeria's, even though Algeria has oil and its smaller neighbor to the east has almost none. Tunisia scores high in poverty reduction, literacy, education, population control, and women's status. It built a middle-class society by hard work rather than by pumping oil from the ground; Tunisians export clothing, olive oil, and produce, and welcome hundreds of thousands of European tourists each year.
Although Ben Ali's Tunisia was a police state, his tacit bargain with the people -- "shut up and consume" -- seemed to hold, making the country appear to be a tranquil haven between strife-torn Algeria and Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya. However, a tragic protest by a street vendor caused long-simmering -- though not immediately visible -- grievances to spill over and unmask Tunisia's reputation for stability as illusory.
For the rare activist who rejected Ben Ali's bargain during his reign, this was not authoritarianism-lite: The president jailed thousands of political prisoners during his 23-year rule, the vast majority alleged Islamists serving multiyear sentences even though they were not accused of planning or perpetrating acts of violence. There was also the occasional leftist, journalist, or human rights activist or lawyer jailed for defamation or disseminating "false information," or on trumped-up criminal charges. Plainclothes police routinely tortured suspects under interrogation and broke up even the most anemic street protest, roughing up critics and openly tailing foreign journalists and human rights workers.
Still, those who experienced the repression were a minority of the 10 million Tunisians. The silent majority included most of the intelligentsia, who, since the early 1990s, had increasingly checked out of political life. Some supported the government because they feared the Islamists, who had grown strong before Ben Ali crushed them early in his rule. Others saw no point in joining a hamstrung opposition when the price was relentless harassment from cops in leather jackets and dark sunglasses, dismissal from government jobs, and restrictions on travel.
Ordinary Tunisians kept their heads down and attended to their work. And there seemed to be plenty of job opportunities: Compared with neighboring countries, there were fewer men lingering all day long in cafes, and fewer hittistes -- Algerian slang for the omnipresent youths who spend their days on sidewalks "holding up the walls." Tunisian women were highly visible in public spaces and well-represented in the professional class.
The government always had its critics, but by the mid-1990s Ben Ali's crushing of dissent had reduced them to a hard-core handful of "refuseniks." These lawyers, writers, and activists were hailed in Paris and Brussels for their courage -- but were virtually unknown at home because repression had atomized their movements and the media refused to cover them.
It was these refuseniks who insisted that ordinary Tunisians were fed up and ready to revolt. The Tunisian economic miracle was an illusion, they claimed. Ordinary Tunisians seethed over regional inequity, their eroding standard of living, the shakedowns and mistreatment at the hands of police and local officials, and the stories of colossal corruption and wealth among the president's in-laws and cronies.
Early in the 2000s, the small circle of political opponents widened modestly. A larger circle of Tunisians formed around the hard-core refuseniks; though not firebrands, they nonetheless wanted to be counted among those who said no to repression. These included intellectuals who realized that the president's problem was not only with Islamists, but with anyone who criticized his rule. A cautious journalism professor who had declined to meet me in 1999, explaining that such a meeting would bring police interrogation, began receiving me openly and attending the little gatherings organized by the beleaguered human rights community.