By Abdelkader Filali
By Abdelkader Filali
Toronto, Canada – * All characters appearing in this work are fictitious.
“The thrill is gone… You know I’m free, free now…” Yahya chanted B.B. King famous song so loudly. When I asked him to summarize the current situation in just one sentence, he replied “Yes it is true, we are finally free physically, but oppressed economically, the rose has its thorns!” He accused Fukuyama for being behind the strengthening of those oppressors in the Arab World since his visions of the end of history. It was under his new doctrine that economic, political oppression flourished in the area. Yahya Salmi, a street vendor I met him in the streets of Monastir. He has been captured in the first days of protest. It is 6.35 pm; the sun was wrapping the whole city in quite, prudent expectations of what is coming next. The smoke and smell of tear gas spread the streets which are ablaze again. Returning to my hotel room from meeting with my fellow Tunisian friend Yahya at a local “maqha” (Café) near the old port which is located in the main entrance of the old medina (City), in the tiny alleyways in the compact of Kasbah(Old castles) a stunningly picturesque view. You are simply in the heart of the Mediterranean. Monastir is the city where the national leader the late president Habib Bourguiba was born and where his tomb lays. Don’t wonder why Yahya the street vendor did not immolate himself. He is a graduate student from law school at University of Tunis. He actively participated in the demonstrations. He was a leading character in the mobilizations. Yahya Salmi was the first one who chanted:
Ash-shaab. yurid. isqat an-nidam
The people want to bring down the regime
This slogan travelled across the North African and Middle Eastern Streets. I pause on the old port bridge to gaze at the setting sun. Red as the blood currently being shed on these streets, the sun is veiled behind clouds of tear gas once again emanating from boulevards and tiny streets. The usual relaxed cup of tea with my friend Yahya was today intensely motivated by a sense of a sudden victory as the country most robust man fled Tunis. The optimism and enthusiasm of the revolution have devolved back into deep seated suspicion of the ruling elites. In my friendly and long interview with Yahya, we had the chance to debate Tunisian history so deeply. He informed me that the informal economy in Tunisia is 38.4% (WorldBank Data, 2002). The Washington Consensus which called for the liberalization of trade has been rigorously enforced especially onto developing countries since the 1980’s. This has had varying impacts on the health of different economies around the globe.
To make his statement concrete Yahya took me back in time to Habib Bourguiba era and then to Tunisia after 1987 (Fukuyama’ glory) till Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his unexpected fall. We tackled the immense socio-economic problems that are at the origin of the political revolution but which on its own is incapable of addressing and resolving. The fact that he was coining Fukuyama with Ben Ali in our discussions pushed me to conclude that Yahya was providing me with evidence of mature substance of what the last man, and the new world order meant for Tunisians, instead of Milton Friedman or Reaganomics.
Fukuyama and the Informal Economy
One commonly used working definition for informal economy is: all currently unregistered economic activities which contribute to the officially calculated (or observed) Gross National Product (Schneider. 2002). It is also defined as market-based production of goods and services, whether legal or illegal that escapes detection in the official estimates of GDP. According to Caroline Nordstrom (Nordstrom.2004), informal economy reaps trillions of dollars annually, 20% of deposits are in offshore accounts. She argues that the problem is global, across borders, culture and religions. Nordstrom also writes about shadow networks which have unaccountable power and influence. The more prevalent the systems of corruption the more likely hood and linkages towards violence but the cause is difficult to ascertain. She asserts that violence often leads to civil conflicts in war economies. Informal economy is the continuation of social conflicts which have in its turn socio-economic implications (Nordstrom.2004).
Middle East and North Africa Report N°106 dates on April 28th 2011 for the International Crisis Group provides very crucial elements regarding the structural causes which were behind the uprising in Tunisia. The rate of informal economy in Tunisia 38.4 was the highest among the North African countries (WorldBank. 2002). The Washington Consensus which called for the liberalization of trade has been rigorously enforced especially onto north African developing countries since the 1980’s. This has had varying hard impacts on the health of different economies around the region.
The cardinal debate in Fukuyama’ analysis of the end of history is spiritedness; the recognition of man. The central and southern Tunisian areas stood in contrast to the coastal areas which witnessed an immense investment packages. Economically marginalized and affected by high unemployment and lack of appropriate infrastructure, the Tunisian youth of these regions were unemployed at a rate three times the national average – which was officially estimated in 2008 to be at 14 per cent, according to the same report. The tragic self-immolation of a young, vegetable seller from the small provincial town of Sidi Bouzid ignited the widespread of anger and malaise.
Table: The size of the informal economy of four North African Nations
Informal Economy in % of GNP 1999/2000
Source: Worldbank Data, Washington D.C., 2002.
The “Project of the Tunisian revolution” was initiated December 17th, 2010, after the immolation of a young vegetable and fruit vendor as a refusal and demonstration against what has become known the daily humiliation Hogra by the system and its diverse apparatus. It started then from this marginalized town of Sidi Bouzid, where youth in similar regions were pushed say it is enough this time. Their resentment could be compared to the relation of master and slave as Nietzsche puts it. Paradoxically, the regime’s reactions to the social explosions of popular neighborhoods were the same through containment by various means: oppression, incentives and illusions. The “spontaneous” uprisings combined with the political opportunity manifested by the neutrality of the army under the command of General Rachid Ammar.
“Bourguibism”, a political ideology and personal domination
Bourguiba’s gained personality cult and his image had grown over a long period of time. His return from the exile from France and his participation in La Voix du Tunisien, editorship of L’Action Tunisienne had widened his national impact and became more visible as the man of the moment. The first maneuver, Bourguiba managed since his returning from exile in 1955 was calling for nationalism. His discourse was consisted and based on an emotional appeal to fight against the French (Vanderwalle. 1980). His vision for the nationalism was part of what he dreamt of building a modern Tunisia. To better understand the instability of the Ben Ali’s; I suggested we first examine the strengths of the “man of Tunisia” most popular ruler, President Habib Bourguiba.
He is often compared to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk the father of Turky because of the pro-Western secular reforms enacted during his presidency in 1957. After a failed experiment with socialist economic policies mainly the Import Substitution Industrialization ISI, Bourguiba as did Saddat in Egypt, embarked from the early 1970s on an open economy model of development s for a ten-year period, which encouraged and led to flourishing of private businesses and consolidation of the private sector.
Both young and old were able to agree that the stability and legitimacy of the Tunisian state was the strongest during the initial years of the Republic under Habib Bourguiba’ regime. Dirk Vandewalle (Vanderwalle. 1980) in his article Bourguiba, Charismatic Leadership and the Tunisian One Party System. His survival in a troublesome political climate of Tunisia attests his leadership style. Bourguiba was able to effectively consolidate his power through the co-option and repression of the threats to state power. What the Tunisian strongman, and charismatic wanted in the future, was to institutionalize a process that could only be achieved when the political structure is valued “not for what it does, but for what it is (Vanderwalle. 1980).
It is not surprising, form his early taking of power his explicit intentions which were driven toward creating an ideology that would bring about his long term objective. This Bourguibian ideology was very successful and proved to be effective in social change. He was satisfying both masses and elites. “Destourian” constitutional ideology remained a method for political and social cohesion. Bourguiba had shifted his position against poverty and the desire for dignity. The continuity his ideology was built on three major elements: reason, human dignity and human solidarity- this triad justifies how his spread of ideas and thought became in dominant in the life of the ordinary Tunisian. Bourguiba was a man fascinated by the rational that education can lead toward modernity and good citizenship (this is mainly a pro-modernization theory claim). Bourguiba was successful in appeasing the competing actors and interests within his regime, and effectively established a responsive formal relationship between the state and society.
The stability of Bourguiba regime was severely threatened during the mid-1970’s. The failure of import substitution industrialization (ISI) policies, the increase in petro-dollars, and the lack of foreign exchange forced his regime to seek a survival strategy of economic reforms which “opened the door” to the Tunisian market in a bid to attract foreign direct investment.
The Tunisian National Assembly voted for Bourguiba to be President for life. In the 1980s Bourguiba violently suppressed the rising of Islamist opposition mainly the Renaissance Party the Nahda party. On November 7, 1987 Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in medical coup d’état, declared President Habib Bourguiba incapable of managing the country and replaced him as President of Tunisia.
Ben Ali’ hegemonic ruling party the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD):
Ben Ali initially based his authority on a hegemonic ruling party – the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) with a powerful Ministry of Communications in charge of framing the media, and highly omnipresent security services that controlled the opposition, intellectuals and military officials and eclipsed the army.
The exchange of opinions between my friend Yahya today was both frustrating and illuminating. My belief upon entering the popular markets is looking on vendors’ eyes and the culmination of years of widespread dissatisfaction in society with the Ben Ali’ regime. The RCD’s maintained a historic role as the central institution in providing the rule of the regime. By examining the regimes of Bourguiba, and Ben Ali, it became apparent that the survival of the regime has been dependent on the support of the armed forces.
Tunisia’ history of political activism and social mobilization is an interesting starting point to understand when structural and primordial explanations served well the nation during the uprisings, and which decades of regime repression never fully stifled. Workers, the unemployed, lawyers and members of the middle class coalesced into a broad movement which threatened the most robust regime in the region (International Crisis Group. 2011).
Both Yahya and I agreed about one thing, the regime’s miscalculations with respect to the management of state-society relations and the uniqueness and prominent role that the Tunisian Military played in the Tunisian uprisings. The Tunisian military is not praetorian, highly professional body that has never mounted a coup against the state and has always been cooperative with the state authority, and has always bureaucratically presented by a civilian defense minister (Lawson, 2007) represented the political opportunity for Tunisians to have firmly and finally say “that’s enough now, it is time for change”. The state and its politics, has led us to conclude that it was the deterioration of relations between actors within the Ben Ali regime itself that ultimately led to the downfall of Ben Ali earlier last year (Lawson, 2007).
Ben Ali’ reforms were unsuccessful in establishing a formal market economy, but instead marginalized the working poor that the Bourguiba’ regime worked so hard to incorporate. The regime was unresponsive to the demands of society. The stability of Ben Ali’ regime was uncertain from the beginning of his rule in 1987. Following the medical coup of Bourguiba as Jean Pierre Filiu puts it (Filiu. 2011), President Ben Ali reemployed the emergency law with increased intensity. The 1980’s brought on an economic disaster which severely challenged the regime, with the combination of a global recession, a decline in oil revenues and crippling debt. Ben Ali was unable to alleviate the economic distress Tunisia found itself in, and failed to address the increasing number of unemployed youth. Selective political freedoms were further restricted while others were eased, corruption continued to run rampant, and Tunisian’s alliance with France grew stronger. The most decisive factor in Ben Ali’s ultimate downfall was the weakening relationship between himself and the Tunisian Military. When the Ben Ali regime came under mounting pressure in 2010-11, the one state institution which leaders in the region had historically relied upon to maintain power was alienated and unwilling to help.
Yahya’ father is Mr. Tarek. He began recalling the first few years under Ben Ali’s rule. He remembered that in the first years of Ben Ali’ s rule a great uncertainty loomed over Tunisia. Mr. Tarek recalled being taken away by security forces one evening. He had been a Marxist and was an influential speaker within the community. Ben Ali regime banned and violently repressed the Marxists and Annahda militants and sympathizers.
The consensus among people was that the Tunisian government was most stable during the rule of President Bourguiba. This was a result of the establishment of state institutions which were responsive to the demands of the general public, providing them with greatly increased services.
“Open doors” policies “Infitah a la Tunisienme”
“All of us in a way or another children, adolescents, youth and elderly people here are old enough to experience what does it mean a police state…” Yahya exhaled “it is true we are free physically now with what we achieved but we are still oppressed economically, if you know what I mean. Ben Ali and Fukuyama also “opened the door” to the Tunisian market with his infitah economic policy, making him extremely unpopular with Tunisian society.
With the failure of ISI development policy, the increase in revenue from oil, coupled with the lack of foreign exchange, Ben Ali decided to abandon Bourguiba’s nationalism and ideology (Vanderwalle. 1980). Every person I met in the streets could remember, all too well, the steadily deteriorating condition of everyday life under Ben Ali’s rule (Lawson, 2007). Yahya recalled the years of struggle his family went through when his father was dismissed from his government positions. The rate of unemployment and the price of basic foodstuffs increased dramatically when Bourguiba “opened the door”. The infitah also represented a shift in Tunisia’s opening the door for the Israeli commercial attaché in Tunisia. This decision prompted anger, and motivated Islamist activism ended by the exile of Rachid Gannouchi in London.
Downfall of Carthage and freedom of Carthaginians
“If, one day, a people desire to live, then fate will answer their call.
And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall.
For he who is not embraced by a passion for life will dissipate into thin air,
At least that is what all creation has told me and what its hidden spirits declare…”
Poem by Abu Al-Qasim al- Shabbi (1909-1934), a Tunisian poet immediately ushered Tunisian poetry into the current of avant-garde Arabic poetry of the time. He strongly was seeking to awaken people to progress and revolution against the French colonialism (Jayyushi, 1987). His famous poem the Life’s Will has been repeated, rewritten in big slogans, enthusiastically chanted in the streets of Casablanca, Algiers, Tunisia, Tripoli, Cairo, Damascus, Manama, and Sana’a. The major achievement of the shebab alghadheb ”angry youth” in the Arab World was to bring a new political dynamic that had its influence on many youth and their opposition to the traditionalistic political parties.
After assuming power, President Ben Ali failed to stimulate the sluggish Tunisian economy. The stagnated economic growth caused by an inefficient state capitalist system could not satisfy the rising expectations of an ever growing number of young Tunisian. While violently repressing Islamist and militants under the name of police state. The Tunisian state under Ben Ali continually failed to respond to society’s demands, allowing other agents of mobilization to gain legitimacy.
The poor condition of life under the rule of Bourguiba did not greatly improve with the succession of Ben Ali. The system of state capitalism was ineffective at providing basic necessities for the Tunisian society, and Ben Ali neglected to pass any structural economic reform to alleviate economic turmoil. As the relationship between state and society continued to deteriorate, alternative agents of mobilization such as the Tunisian youth militancy through social media, blogs responded more effectively to the oppressed calls, further eroding the legitimacy of Ben Ali regime (Lawson, 2007). The economy once again faltered and the rate of unemployment and prices of basic foodstuffs dramatically increased, bringing societal cleavages to the fore.
The Tunisian society was not only economically deprived, but had been for years neglected and marginalized from Tunisian politics. President Ben Ali allowed the economic and political relationship between state and society to completely deteriorate. The Traboulsi family monopolized the Tunisian life. Traboulsi stands for Ben Ali’s wife family name. This name has become a more powerful label for economic contracts, patron- clientelist networks (Traboulsi’ brothers in law, son in law, father in law etc.).
The economic downturn during Ben Ali’s rule precipitated discontent within society, but the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) were able to maintain power through strong informal networks of patronage and strategic political maneuvering. Elites within Ben Ali’s circle were divided as to the role Islam could play in the state (Lawson, 2007). They wanted to repress the power of an Islamic opposition. The Annahda Movement managed to be present in the daily life, especially the appearance of their leader in Al Jazeera in many programs. When economic and political poverty precipitated the popular uprisings in 2010-11, the military decided to set back and accept roses from the angry youth. They abandoned Ben Ali and sided with the protesters.
My warm and humane interview with Yahya illuminated the defects of Ben Ali regime, and the factors which led to his demise. We first examined the rule of Bourguiba, and Ben Ali, to see how they managed relations between state and society, and between actors within the regime itself. Bourguiba was able to establish a strong relationship between state and society through a responsive and inclusive Bourguibist ideology (Vanderwalle. 1980). He also co-opted many of the opposing actors to his regime, and violently repressed others. Ben Ali faired a bit worse as his infitah economic policy was highly unpopular with the Tunisian people. This “open door” policy and his allegiance to France resulted in maintaining power because of the robust network of patronage within the regime.
Years of political and economic marginalization had weakened the state-society relationship. The structural explanation has a more solid substance in explaining the roots of the up risings in the region. Fukuyama, Milton Friedman& Co are the true igniters of the Intifadats. The continued political repression and corruption coupled with a stagnating state capitalist economy again forced the state to act to suppress the upheaval. It was once again up to the military and armed forces to step in and intervene in the crisis. Ben Ali was mislead by Fukuyama, and did not maintain strong relationships between actors within his regime, so rather than supporting the military chose to abandon Ben Ali in support of the Tunisian protesters during the revolution. It is clear, that even after Ben Ali’s downfall, the military gained credibility as neutral institution within Tunisian politics (Lawson, 2007). Although discussing the causes of the uprisings is important to the future prosperity of the Tunisian nation, the fight is not yet won. The streets are filled with young men and women getting a hands-on lesson in state formation and authoritarianism in the Middle East.
Abdelkader Filali is a specialist in Political Science- Latin America and Arab World at the University of Toronto- Canada. He is a member of the Canadian Center of Victims of Torture CCVT, and Canadian Center for International Justice CCIJ and founder of : www.utsc.utoronto.ca/acnames
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy
Filiu, J.P, 2011. The Arab Revolutions: Ten Lessons from the Democratic Uprisings. New York: Oxford University
International Crisis Group. (2011, April 11). Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East: Tunisia’s way Middle East/North Africa Report n°106.
Jayyusi, S. (Ed.). (1987). Modern Arabic literature: An anthology. New York: Colombia University Press
Lawson, F. (2007). Intraregime dynamics, uncertainty, and the persistence of authoritarianism in the contemporary Arab world. In O. Schlumberger (Ed.), Debating Arab authoritarianism: Dynamics and durability in nondemocratic regimes (pp.109-127). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Nordstrom, C. (2004). Shadows of War: Violence, Power, and International Profiteering in the 21st century. London: University of California Press
Schlumberger, O. (Ed.). (2007). Debating Arab authoritarianism: Dynamic and durability in nondemocratic regimes. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Schneider, F. (2002). Size and Measurement of the Informal Economy in 110 countries around the world. Australian National Tax Centre, ANU, Canberra, Australia,
Vandewalle, D. ( 1980). Bourguiba, Charismatic Leadership and the Tunisian One Party System. Middle East Journal, 34, ( 2), 149-159.
WorldBank. (2002). Informal economy. http://rru.worldbank.org/Documents/PapersLinks/informal_economy.pdf