Fifty years after the establishment of the Tunisian Republic on 25 July 1957, the country is still ruled by the same party, the Neo-Destour, nowadays renamed the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique (RCD).
Habib Bourguiba, the historic leader of this party which fought against the French rule in Tunisia, was the first president of Tunisia. He was a charismatic, authoritarian leader who tolerated neither critics nor dissent. Bourguiba, a former lawyer, had no other ambition than power itself. When he died in 2000, he left no secret Swiss bank accounts, no castles in Europe.
When he became president, he thought the country should have but one goal: economic and social development. Hence, there was no place for opposition parties or independent NGOs. Unlike many other African countries, Tunisia kept its military expenditures at a minimum and focused on human development.
In 1964 the regime adopted a soft form of socialism, called ‘co-operativism’, which tolerated free enterprise and private ownership of the means of production. The Neo-Destour became the ‘Destourian Socialist Party’.
For three decades the Tunisian state spent about one-third of its budget on education. It was at this time that the University of Tunis was established. But education is dangerous for authoritarian regimes. When you educate people, you lose control over their minds. Marxism was fashionable at the time and many university students, who considered ‘Destourian Socialism’ fake, dreamt of proletarian revolution. The clash was inevitable.
The students belonging to Perspectives Tunisiennes, an underground communist movement paid a dear price for their dissent. They were arrested, tortured and sentenced to heavy prison terms. But political repression reached sometimes even prominent members of the regime itself. Former economics minister Ahmed Ben Salah, the regime’s ‘strong man’ in the 1960s, was dismissed in 1969 and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment after a parody of a trial.
Hedi Nouira, Bourguiba’s prime minister from 1970 to 1980, believed in economic liberalism, but strongly defended Tunisia’s one-party regime. However, in 1977 his government did recognise the Tunisian Human Rights League, the first genuine NGO in the country.
During the same period, Errai, an independent weekly newspaper created by advocates of political pluralism, appeared. But political liberalisation stopped after the general strike of January 1978, which ended in bloodshed that claimed the lives of dozens of citizens.
In the early 1980s the newly appointed prime minister, Mohamed Mzali, promised political pluralism, and indeed his government recognised several opposition parties. But these political overtures also coincided with a crackdown on the Islamist movement.
The leaders of the Islamic Tendency movement were tried during the summer of 1981 and sent to prison. They would be released a couple of years later. In spite of this unfair trial, Tunisia witnessed in its first pluralistic elections in November 1981.
But under the instructions of the president himself, the Ministry of the Interior manipulated the final results to prevent the opposition from entering parliament. Tunisia had failed its first exam in democracy.
After the bread riots of January 1984, General Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was appointed director of security at the Ministry of the Interior. The promotion of this ‘security expert’ would not end there. The declining health of Bourguiba intensified the struggle for power among his aides.
But General Ben Ali concealed his ambition and showed absolute loyalty to Bourguiba. He presided over the ruthless repression of campus demonstrations and all kinds of protests. Political repression reached its climax with the death sentences pronounced by the State Security Court against three Islamist activists in 1987.
Ben Ali became prime minister in October 1987. On 7 November 1987 he announced the impeachment of Bourguiba on the grounds that he was medically unfit for office. He promised a ‘new era’ where human rights would be respected, democracy strengthened and press freedom protected.
On the same day, dozens of army and security officers were arrested and tortured. The regime accused them of having planned a military coup against Bourguiba. Mohamed Mansouri, an army officer, was tortured to death in December 1987. His death was a foretaste of the new era. But the worst was to come.
In 1988 Om Zied, a freelance journalist, wrote an article for Errai in which she warned her readers against the exaggerated enthusiasm for Ben Ali. Its title was ‘Wrong Note’. She wrote: ‘Don’t forget his military and security background. What if he would lead us down a path worse than that of Bourguiba? Don’t give him a free hand!’
The police immediately confiscated all the copies of the newspaper. Errai was banned forever. But in spite of this drastic measure Tunisia was not a police state yet. In 1989 the regime organised pluralistic legislative elections but the results, once again, were manipulated to keep a one-colour parliament.
The Islamists, whose newspaper Al Fajr was tolerated for a couple of years, asked the regime for legal recognition. Meanwhile they renamed their party the Ennahda Movement.
The government denied them any legal recognition and accused them of preparing an insurgency to overthrow the regime. Ben Ali declared total war against them. After the crackdown on the Islamist Ennahda movement in 1991 the already authoritarian regime became a totalitarian one.
Thousands of Ennahda sympathisers were arrested, some 40 were said to have died under torture, and military courts sent hundreds to prison. The regime profited from its war on Islamism to create a climate of terror that paralysed Tunisians and silenced their intelligentsia.
The circle of repression kept widening during the 1990s. It was now the turn of secular opponents and human rights activists to be tried and put in prison. At the end of the last century, the human rights violations by the Tunisian regime started to have some international media coverage.
Notre Ami Ben Ali, a book written by two French journalists in 1999, shook the image of the Tunisian dictator in some European capitals. The fake multi-candidate presidential election of October 1999, instead of improving the image of the regime, became a source of humour and satire.
The funeral of Bourguiba in April 2000, attended by about 30,000 policemen in a city under siege, gave a rare opportunity to western media to see a police state in action. Some western capitals started putting pressure on Ben Ali in order to convince him to step down after the end of his last legal term in 2004.
But the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 gave Ben Ali a second political life. Considered now as an ally in ‘the war on terror’, especially by Washington and Paris, Ben Ali was able to easily amend the constitution in May 2002 in order to remain in power at least until 2014.
Since 2000, the Internet has became more and more popular in Tunisia. In spite of the tight control and the censorship of the Internet by the cyber-police, the web offered many Tunisian human rights activists the possibility to communicate with the outside world and make their voices heard.
But it brought a new kind of political prisoner too – the cyber-dissident. Zouhayr Yahyaoui was the first to pay for his cyber-dissent. His only ‘crime’ was the creation, in 2001, of TUNeZINE, a satirical website, and the publication of articles critical of the government.
Arrested on 4 June, 2002, he spent 18 months in prison and died about 14 months after his release. During the last few years, many young Internet users have been arrested, tortured and put in prison only because they had allegedly visited ‘prohibited websites’.
A group of Tunisian militants who went on hunger strike on 18 October 2005 profited from the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS), held in Tunisia in November 2005, to draw the attention of the international community to the lack of civil liberties in Tunisia.
But during that summit the authorities even censored foreign guests. Tunisian TV cut the coverage of the Swiss president’s speech when he made a clear criticism of Tunisia’s censorship of the Internet. Tunisian hunger strikers were visited by hundreds of people from different regions of the country to show them support.
After the end of their hunger strike they decided to create a group called the 18 October Movement. But the movement lost its thrust shortly after the WSIS. Was it the lack of long-term strategy that made this movement lose its initial thrust? Or was it the lack of a common platform for all the dissident forces of the Tunisian society?
Whatever the explanation, something is sure: as long as western capitals, particularly Paris and Washington, consider the Tunisian dictator as a reliable ally in the ‘war on terror’, the Tunisian dissidents will continue to pay a heavy price for their struggle for the establishment of a true republic where basic rights and civil liberties would be respected.
Mohamed Bouriga, also known as Omar Khayyam of TUNeZINE, is a Tunisian writer