The President and the Hairdresser

Tunisia's burgeoning middle class toppled the president—but may not be strong enough to take over the country.

The irony about American diplomacy is that while official statements from the U.S. government are often met with skepticism, the famously leaked secret diplomatic cables from American overseas embassies have been received as scriptures. Local gossips collected by American ambassadors became irrefutable indictments of regimes and rulers. It was already public knowledge that Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali ruled Tunisia with an iron fist. Everyone knew of the political prisoners and the political exiles, of the lack of human rights and of organizations to protect them, of the quasi single-party rule. But the other side of the regime, the incredible corruption of the ruling family, was only exposed to the world at the end of 2010, in an American diplomatic cable dated from June 2008. Barely two months later, a couple of protest suicides had snowballed into mass protests, riots, and a palace coup. After twenty-three years in power, Ben Ali was on the run, seeking exile in Saudi Arabia.

In a region where regimes are coup-proof, when republics endure hereditary presidencies, the matter of the fall of Ben Ali invites investigation. Tunisia was another Middle Eastern autocracy, but it had unique characteristics: it aimed to excel economically, to be modern, global, part of the information age, with internet startups and call centers. These ambitions had driven the government to nurture a substantial middle class, whose well-educated young are capable of assuming demanding jobs in Paris or London or New York. Some actually do, but many others have preferred to return home after a period abroad. There is the appeal of a small country, the mild climate, the Mediterranean beaches, the old town of Sidi Bou Said, the glamour of Hammamet. There is also security: the absence of risk from Islamists and leftists, all the trouble makers being in prison or exile. Tunisia is a safe place to raise children, with strong family values, Muslim but in a Mediterranean rather than a Wahhabi sort of way.

To that middle class, the Ben Ali regime had offered a clear social contract: they would be denied a political voice, but they would prosper economically under the aegis of business-friendly government policies. Tunisia was a darling of the West and of the IMF, the home of an “economic miracle”. Thanks to an excellent relationship with France and, beyond France, with the European Union, the Tunisian economy hummed along as a satellite of the vast Common Market on the northern shore of the Mediterranean. Tourism, agricultural goods, textiles and tech services are produced locally by a wage competitive and reliable workforce, for the enjoyment of northern neighbors.

The relative economic success—5–6% of GDP growth per year in the 2000s—allowed to employ Tunisians of all classes and give them decent standards of living, reducing the demographic pressure. Relatively fewer Tunisians, by comparison with their Moroccan and Algerian neighbors, sought to immigrate to countries of the European Union. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement: Europe invested in the small country to keep the locals local, and the regime helped by blocking emigration and welcoming foreign direct investments. The IMF was delighted. So were Brussels and Paris.

But a storm gathered. First, economic success had fed expectations. Tunisia had bet on tertiary education in order to integrate the global economy at a higher level on the value-added chain, in the service sector, churning out university graduates destined to join the middle class. But as Europe stalled under the global economic recession of the late 2000s, so did Tunisia. A gap opened between population growth and job growth, and unemployment grew across the board, from university graduates to low-skilled workers.

Worse, joblessness coincided with severe inflation in food prices. Autocracies find it politically expedient to use a combination of subventions and price controls to keep food prices artificially low. But Tunisia was no longer that kind of economy. As it liberalized its markets, prices fluctuated according to supply and demand. The global recession did not affect demand much—the social contract promised Tunisians they would be fed meat and fish. But the government, with its credentials as a low-risk country with a balanced budget, could not resort to price subsidies. So prices went up, up until the regime fell.

Perhaps the regime did not need to fall. The nail in Ben Ali’s coffin was not economic duress but the hatred that cut across all classes for the corruption of his “family”: that is, his relatives and those of his second wife, twenty-one-years his junior, Leila Trabelsi, a hairdresser. The “Family” owed its fortunes to its political connections. Legitimate owners were expropriated from valuable lands, turned over to members of the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans. Government contracts and gifts were awarded to members of the clans. Banks made nonperforming loans to well-connected borrowers. Two nephews were involved in the theft of the yacht of a French tycoon (eventually returned), and a brother was a notorious drug trafficker. Businessmen had to pay protection money to the “Family.”

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