Ben Ali's Tunisia showed all the signs of being a stable and relatively prosperous country. Until it imploded.
January 19, 2011

In my numerous trips to Tunisia for Human Rights Watch since the mid-1990s, I grew weary of Tunisian dissidents telling me that at any moment the people would rise up in revolt against their autocratic president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Keep dreaming, I thought.

This country was not ripe for revolution. Anyone who traveled throughout the region could see that Tunisians enjoy a relatively high standard of living and quality of life. The country's per capita income is almost double that of Morocco and Egypt. It's higher than Algeria's, even though Algeria has oil and its smaller neighbor to the east has almost none. Tunisia scores high in poverty reduction, literacy, education, population control, and women's status. It built a middle-class society by hard work rather than by pumping oil from the ground; Tunisians export clothing, olive oil, and produce, and welcome hundreds of thousands of European tourists each year.

Although Ben Ali's Tunisia was a police state, his tacit bargain with the people -- "shut up and consume" -- seemed to hold, making the country appear to be a tranquil haven between strife-torn Algeria and Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya. However, a tragic protest by a street vendor caused long-simmering -- though not immediately visible -- grievances to spill over and unmask Tunisia's reputation for stability as illusory.

For the rare activist who rejected Ben Ali's bargain during his reign, this was not authoritarianism-lite: The president jailed thousands of political prisoners during his 23-year rule, the vast majority alleged Islamists serving multiyear sentences even though they were not accused of planning or perpetrating acts of violence. There was also the occasional leftist, journalist, or human rights activist or lawyer jailed for defamation or disseminating "false information," or on trumped-up criminal charges. Plainclothes police routinely tortured suspects under interrogation and broke up even the most anemic street protest, roughing up critics and openly tailing foreign journalists and human rights workers.

Still, those who experienced the repression were a minority of the 10 million Tunisians. The silent majority included most of the intelligentsia, who, since the early 1990s, had increasingly checked out of political life. Some supported the government because they feared the Islamists, who had grown strong before Ben Ali crushed them early in his rule. Others saw no point in joining a hamstrung opposition when the price was relentless harassment from cops in leather jackets and dark sunglasses, dismissal from government jobs, and restrictions on travel.

Ordinary Tunisians kept their heads down and attended to their work. And there seemed to be plenty of job opportunities: Compared with neighboring countries, there were fewer men lingering all day long in cafes, and fewer hittistes -- Algerian slang for the omnipresent youths who spend their days on sidewalks "holding up the walls." Tunisian women were highly visible in public spaces and well-represented in the professional class.

The government always had its critics, but by the mid-1990s Ben Ali's crushing of dissent had reduced them to a hard-core handful of "refuseniks." These lawyers, writers, and activists were hailed in Paris and Brussels for their courage -- but were virtually unknown at home because repression had atomized their movements and the media refused to cover them.

It was these refuseniks who insisted that ordinary Tunisians were fed up and ready to revolt. The Tunisian economic miracle was an illusion, they claimed. Ordinary Tunisians seethed over regional inequity, their eroding standard of living, the shakedowns and mistreatment at the hands of police and local officials, and the stories of colossal corruption and wealth among the president's in-laws and cronies.

Early in the 2000s, the small circle of political opponents widened modestly. A larger circle of Tunisians formed around the hard-core refuseniks; though not firebrands, they nonetheless wanted to be counted among those who said no to repression. These included intellectuals who realized that the president's problem was not only with Islamists, but with anyone who criticized his rule. A cautious journalism professor who had declined to meet me in 1999, explaining that such a meeting would bring police interrogation, began receiving me openly and attending the little gatherings organized by the beleaguered human rights community.

This outer circle also included families of political prisoners. In the mid-1990s, these families had hung up on me in fear, but five years later they decided they had nothing more to lose.

This circle also included former political prisoners. They too concluded that remaining silent got them nowhere because the state's policy was not to rehabilitate but rather to crush them, through harassment, surveillance, and effective bans on employment and travel.

Long before street-cart vendor Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself on Dec. 17 in the town of Sidi Bouzid, setting off weeks of protests that led to Ben Ali's ouster, more than one former political prisoner had sat down in public holding a sign that (ironically) offered to sell his children because the government had kept him from working to support his family. One, Slaheddine Aloui, an agricultural engineer from Jendouba, left prison in 2004 after serving 14 years on political charges, only to face a 16-year term of administrative restrictions that crippled his chance to resume a normal life.

Joining this outer circle was the occasional member of the business elite who had discovered that it wasn't only dissidents who could fall victim to the regime's strong-arm tactics. Mohamed Bouebdelli, the founder of a group of respected private schools in Tunis, is a dapper entrepreneur who had no interest in politics -- until presidential cronies demanded special treatment for their children, which he refused to give. Facing their reprisals, Bouebdelli publicly criticized the regime's strong-arm tactics -- only to have a court seize, on spurious grounds, a private university he had built and operated. Bouebdelli, who had educated many of the country's elite and their children, was thus transformed overnight into an impassioned dissident.

But beyond this somewhat widening circle there still seemed to be a politically neutered majority of Tunisians who lived in relative comfort -- and in keen awareness of the power of the secret police and of the ruling-party apparatus that dispensed or withheld services and favors. Tunisians had always told me that their country was ripe for democracy because its people are moderate, tolerant, educated, and middle class. This self-image explains in part why Bouazizi's self-immolation after the police confiscated his vending cart proved such a galvanizing event.

Bouazizi was no ordinary street peddler -- he was a university graduate forced to accept this menial job and the harassment it brought him from local officials. This was hard to swallow for Tunisians proud of the once exemplary educational system nurtured by their first president, Habib Bourguiba, whom Ben Ali ousted in 1987. And in a part of the world where public suicides are usually associated with zealots who blow up as many innocents as they can along with themselves, Bouazizi took his own life alone, to dramatize his own plight and that of others like him. His was an act of desperation that, true to Tunisians' moderate self-image, harmed no one else. This added to its potency as a catalyst for revolt.

If I did not foresee Tunisians rising up against Ben Ali, I knew he was finished the minute he appeared on television on Jan. 10 promising to create 300,000 jobs. Ben Ali ruled by fear, and when he thus implied that his government would respond to the Tunisian street, he was no longer Ben Ali. He was an emperor wearing no clothes. With that, the silent majority -- or at least a healthy slice of it -- poured into the streets to oust him.

Many factors helped fuel and sustain the protests, including Al Jazeera's saturation coverage and footage shot by ordinary Tunisians on cell-phone cameras and then posted on YouTube and Facebook and promoted on Twitter, even the WikiLeaks cables that signaled growing U.S. discomfort with Ben Ali as an ally.

But the bottom line remains, and should serve as a warning to other autocrats and the Western states that back them: A government that crushes dissent and censors the media might preside over relative prosperity and make the trains run on time, but its real stability remains in doubt as long as its citizens cannot express grievances through peaceful and open channels.

My Tunisian friends were right: A police state looks stable only until the day it is not.