This commentary was published in Asharq-al-Awsat on 28/01/2011
Talk to Tunisians these days and you are likely to hear one thing: It was all Ben Ali’s fault.
Throughout the day, Tunisian television broadcasts a series of snippets in which various characters appear to say “cheese” to the camera before unleashing a torrent of abuse against Ben Ali. Individuals who had been Cabinet ministers, provincial governors, heads of major public corporations, star journalists, ambassadors and other top officials until a couple of weeks ago knock on the TV studio’s doors to join the chorus.
In cameo appearances, remnants of the first dictator Habib Bourguiba’s clan lament his deposal by Ben Ali.
I almost fell back the other day when the Chief of Staff of the armed forces, in full military regalia, gatecrashed into the chorus.
The whole thing became almost farcical when the French President Nicolas Sarkozy jumped on the bandwagon by voicing his denunciation of Ben Ali.
The Ben Ali who is blamed is, of course, none other than President Zine Al-Abedin Ben Ali who, until just a couple of weeks ago, was praised to the skies by the very same people who now vilify him. If Tunisia had the largest number of university graduates, it was thanks to Ben Ali. Also thanks to Ben Ali, Tunisia enjoyed exceptional economic growth rate. Thanks to Ben Ali Tunisian women could appear in public in the dress of their choice without fear of having acid thrown on them. Guess who made sure that Tunisia is not buried under debt. Well, Ben Ali again. And who created the largest middle class in North Africa? Again, Ben Ali!
The episode reminded me of two poems.
The first is by the 17th century English diplomat Sir Thomas Wyatt.
Written when he had been banished from power, it starts with this unforgettable line:
They shun me now, those who once did me seek!
The second is by German poet Bertolt Brecht:
They say Caesar crossed the Rhine in winter.
He did. But was there no one to polish his boots?
Wyatt’s poem shows the transience of worldly power. As long as you are in the saddle, many people, perhaps even most, seek you and sing your praises. Once you are out of power, however, you are shunned and vilified.
Brecht’s poem shows that history is written by winners while losers have recourse to nostalgia, the opiate of the vanquished.
Blaming all of Tunisia’s shortcomings on Ben Ali is the mirror image of a cult of personality that, during his 23-years rule, turned him into a superman. If we are to believe that everything was his fault, logic demands that we give him credit for Tunisia’s undeniable achievements. By the same token, he must admit that if, while in power, he was the be-all and end-all of everything, once out of power he should get the blame for everything.
With such a pirouette in sophistry we end up in a closed circle.
The truth is that whatever success Tunisia has had in the past quarter of a century has not been solely due to Ben Ali. Millions of Tunisians from all walks of life have thought, worked, studied, suffered and struggled to make that success possible. We must also remember that much of that success is imaginary and that Tunisia is no better off than the average for comparable developing nation.
At the same time, Tunisia’s failure to extend its economic and social success into political modernisation is not Ben Ali’s fault alone. As a tiny possession of the Ottoman Empire, Tunisia, under its various beys, never developed a democratic potential. Under French rule, Tunisia caught a glimpse of modern politics and developed democratic aspirations. However, those aspirations were quickly stifled under Bourguiba’s “benevolent despotism”.
Bourguiba once honoured me with a personal guided tour of his palace in Carthage, a sumptuous edifice once used by French colonial rulers. The palace had been turned into a museum to Bourguiba’s cult of personality as The Grand Combatant (Al Mujahid al-Akbar). Scores of paintings and sculptures, all of them mediocre, told Bourguiba’s story as he wanted it.
At the end of the tour I politely noted that the exhibition did not include a single reference to the Tunisian people.
“We did everything for the people,” the old despot replied.
Bourguiba did not understand that people might not want others to do things for them and that they might wish to do their own thing, including making mistakes and paying for them.
Ben Ali, too, was unable to understand that.
Tunisian society, history and culture did not contain the potential for a pluralist, democratic, western-style political system.
The regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali could be regarded as soft forms of dictatorship compared to Iraq, Syria and Libya.
In Latin America the two types of despotic rule are distinguished with a play on words. The soft dictatorships are called “dictablanda” or “bland dictatorship”. The hard dictatorships are “dictadura”.
The regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali belonged to the “dictablanda” category. This does not mean that they were recommendable. They were thoroughly unsavoury regimes mired in corruption and ultimately based on violence.
However, both could be overthrown with relative ease.
That relative ease poses the biggest threat to Tunisia’s hopes for a pluralist system.
Ben Ali’s fall has been dubbed “The Jasmine Revolution”. This poetical conceit may mislead the Tunisians into believing that a revolution is no more than a garden party while the scent of jasmine fills the air.
Many Tunisians, including some returning exiles, are becoming revolutionaries after the fact by fabricating tales about their supposed sacrifices.
I disliked both Bourguiba and Ben Ali, the former more than the latter.
Bourguiba caused me some flak when, after a visit to Tunis, I wrote a column criticising him. Ben Ali went further and banned me from Tunisia after I denounced his seizure of power in an interview with the French radio Europe 1.
Nevertheless, I never believed that Tunisia’s failure to emulate the Mediterranean model of political development, as in Spain, Portugal Greece and Malta, was due to any single dictator.
What is needed is a campaign against the little dictator that resides within almost every Tunisian.
Bourguiba and Ben Ali could not have sustained half a century of dictatorship on their own.
Who commanded and manned their armies, police forces and security services? Who served as their ministers and ambassadors? Who filled all those newspaper columns with their praises? Who helped them amass and manage their fortunes? Who painted all those ghastly portraits of the dictator, and who stuck them on the walls of every shop in Tunis? Who were the tens of thousands of people who turned up each time they were asked to demonstrate in favour of the dictator? And what about the millions who, for 54 years, voted in one fake election after another?
In Brecht’s words: who polished their boots in winter?