The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Tunisia embraces democracy, its late dictator still casts a shadow

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TUNIS — Since an uprising toppled Tunisia’s longtime autocrat nine years ago, Riad Sassi has watched prices rise and his government pension fall. His pocketbook has been hit so hard that he’s now embraced a thought that was once unthinkable: Life was better under the dictatorship.

“We were doing fine under Ben Ali,” said Sassi, an elderly employee in a photo shop in downtown Tunis. He was referring to Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s former authoritarian ruler who died last month in Saudi Arabia. “Now, everything has gotten expensive.” 

In exile, and now in death, Ben Ali continues to cast a shadow over this North African nation, the cradle of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and the only nation in the region to emerge as a functioning democracy afterward.

In some corners, Tunisians yearn for Ben Ali’s rule — not out of any fondness for authoritarianism, but because it was the last time many felt a sense of stability, even though it was imposed by repression and surveillance.

“The Ben Ali era has come to signify an idealized past of ‘security’ and ‘stability’ that Tunisians are yearning for,” said Myriam Amri, a Tunisia scholar at Harvard University’s Center for Middle East Studies. 

Such nostalgia for the Ben Ali regime underscores the challenges Tunisia’s next president will face. Since the revolution — which forced Ben Ali to flee the country — Tunisians have been suffering from a litany of economic woes, from rising food prices to high unemployment to lack of opportunities for a burgeoning youth population. Security concerns have grown as well, with both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda building footholds in the nation.

Disillusionment drove Tunisians to abandon established politicians in last month’s presidential elections. The top two vote-getters — Nabil Karoui, a media mogul who has campaigned from jail, and Kais Saied, a once-obscure law professor — will compete in this Sunday’s runoff elections.

Whoever prevails, Tunisia could be in for more uncertainty. Preliminary results indicate Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, gained the most seats in parliamentary elections last Sunday, setting the stage for the kind of coalition politics that have yet to deliver for Tunisia.

If Saied wins the presidential race, he will be hard-pressed to gain lawmakers’ support, since he is not affiliated with any political party. If Karoui wins, it’s questionable whether he can even take office. He was imprisoned in August on charges of tax evasion and money laundering, which his campaign says are politically motivated. An appeals court ordered his release on Wednesday, but the charges have not been dropped.

That threatens to extend the political inertia and drive more Tunisians from all walks of life to view their country through the prism of Ben Ali.

 “It’s gotten worse economically,” said Ziad Selma, 33, seated in a cafe on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the epicenter of the 2011 revolts. “A lot of people regret Ben Ali’s departure. We can’t benefit from democracy if we don’t have a good economy.”

Other Arab countries have also seen nostalgia for past autocrats. In neighboring war-riven Libya, large segments of the population wish Moammar Gaddafi had never been ousted. In Egypt, there is nostalgia for Hosni Mubarak because the policies of the current president, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, have deepened poverty and increased oppression. And in Yemen, the late Ali Abdullah Saleh had millions of followers even after he was forced out of power.

 But Tunisia emerged from the Arab Spring with a unique standing. In a region where elections are often rigged and civil strife is common, Tunisia has held credible, peaceful and fair elections four times since 2011 — twice each for the presidency and the parliament. 

Last month’s presidential elections came less than two months after the death of 92-year-old President Beji Caid Essebsi, who was elected in 2014. More than two dozen candidates competed to succeed him.

Even as political transparency, free elections and freedom of the press have taken root, vestiges of the former regime remain. Many politicians in government positions, including Essebsi, held significant posts during Ben Ali’s rule. The police, notoriously used by Ben Ali to monitor the population, are still a powerful security apparatus with little oversight, analysts say. A group of wealthy loyalist families, widely seen as corrupt, that controlled the economy under Ben Ali continues to do so today.

Some repressive laws from the Ben Ali era have remained on the books, including the infamous “Law 52” that sentences anyone consuming any quantity of narcotics — including one marijuana joint — to a mandatory year in prison.

 Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, a body that has documented vast human rights violations and corruption under Ben Ali, has been obstructed by ex-regime figures in the government, police and business community, activists and human rights groups say. That has allowed alleged perpetrators to go unpunished.

“If we take an expansive perspective of democracy that includes individual rights and freedoms and economic equality,” said Amri, “the endurance of the repressive state apparatus, of economic inequalities and corruption are creating bigger gaps in Tunisian society today.” 

Most Tunisians have not forgotten the Ben Ali regime’s human rights abuses, corruption and marginalization of Tunisians outside of the coastal elite.

Among many Tunisians, the nostalgia for Ben Ali’s regime “is counterbalanced by a greater sense that Ben Ali was a corrupt leader who oversaw the torture and imprisonment of his people and got away easy by living out his life in exile in Saudi Arabia,” said Sarah Yerkes, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But for many others, it is the disappointed expectations of the revolution that figure most prominently.

Unemployment stands at 15 percent; it’s 36 percent for Tunisians under 24 years of age. Living standards have fallen amid cuts in government spending ordered by the International Monetary Fund. Across the country, protests have erupted over the anemic economy and lack of opportunities.

 Under Ben Ali, Islamist groups were banned. After the revolution, new freedoms flourished, allowing both moderate and radical Islamists to gain influence. Since 2015, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for several high-profile attacks in Tunisia.

 “We’re facing a lot of things that we didn’t face before the revolution,” said Leila Benbelga, the 20-something owner of a translation services company. “So when that happens, you say, ‘Okay, we didn’t like Ben Ali back then. And we wanted a revolution. But we didn’t expect any of this.’ We needed to see a better outcome.”

 Sassi, the photo shop employee, agreed. Under Ben Ali, he said he received a government pension of 350 Tunisian dinars, or roughly $122 a month. Today, he gets 250 dinars, or $87.50.

“Ben Ali never touched the middle class,” said Sassi. “We were doing well under him. Now, even within families we are divided.”

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