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.”
The amount of economic performance shaved off by corruption may never be known, and it will take a rigorous investigation to verify how the gossips reported in the diplomatic cable compare with the real extent of fraudulence. But the tales of the Trabelsis’ venality were enough to gut the regime of any legitimacy. Disgust was universal. When the economic crisis reached the shores of Tunisia, isolated acts of despair in the poorer hinterland—young men immolated themselves on high-voltage lines—quickly led everyone into the streets of Tunis. The speed at which protests spread caught everyone by surprise, and was itself a testimony to the technological advance of Tunisia. Protesters enjoyed instant communication. There was nothing to save Ben Ali and the Trabelsis.
One lesson of democratization processes is that people are reluctant to shoot their own children. This is why it is advisable for the offspring of the officer corps to be educated in palace schools and abroad. Were university students to riot, commanders would still find the poise to order the repression. In the final days of the Ben Ali regime, the police shot at the crowds, and may be up to fifty protestors were killed. But the army quickly abandoned the ruler, sealing his fate. The discontent was general, and if the children of officers belonged to the middle class catered to by Ben Ali, they too joined the others in the streets of Tunis. All-out repression would have been cannibalism.
By sacrificing the president, the army also hoped to save the regime and to preserve the profitable connection to the European Union, which would have suffered from bloodshed. The political system of Tunisia is notoriously closed, and old hands of the regime took over the transitional government, resisting calls for genuine political opening and multiparty elections. The odds are that the old men will have their way. Immediately after Ben Ali left, looters replaced protesters into the streets, creating chaos and pillage sure to scare off the middle class, which will demand of the army that it protects its lifestyle.
The middle class is also unlikely to want to open the door to the Islamists, whose historical leader, an exile in London since the 1990s, has made himself available as a Khomeini-like figure, ready to return to save the country. In 1987, a young Ben Ali, then Prime Minister, had deposed the elderly Bourguiba, his mentor and the historical figure of Tunisian nationalism. Bourguiba had been a temperamental autocrat in his own right, whose failed socialist policies had fed a powerful Islamist opposition that recruited from the have-nots and the rural areas. Ben Ali had pushed the old man aside on account of senility, embraced market-oriented reforms and crushed the Islamists. He built up a middle class to bolster his rule, but that group betrayed him. Ben Ali missed that the middle class could tolerate his autocracy, if that was the price to contain the radicals, but not systematic racketeering from the family of a hairdresser.
It is not clear who Tunisia’s next strongman will be, as contenders are advanced in age and politically tainted by a long career under Bourguiba and Ben Ali. But the money is that the regime will weather the crisis. Decades of quasi single-party rule did not allow for the development of a credible opposition, and a shift toward democracy would require that the urban middle class makes some kind of arrangement with the have-nots, the low-skilled workforce and the rural folks who are often attracted to the Islamists. Tunisia resembles prerevolutionary Iran: the shah’s twin sister had a terrible reputation that rubbed off on her modernizing brother, and helped his downfall. But a post-Pahlavi scenario is unlikely, the social and institutional structure of Iran and Tunisia being too different.
Tunisia is more like Italy after the fall of Mussolini: the dictator had made the trains to run on time, and democracy would have to work its ways within single-party rule. Over time, a responsible opposition may develop in Tunisia, allowing for a functioning democracy. In the short term, looters only have themselves to blame: mugging foreign tourists in a country living off tourism is a sure sign of self-destructiveness. The middle class took down Ben Ali, but it may not be strong enough yet to take over the country.