A portrait of Tunisia as a dictatorship

From 1987 to January 2011, Tunisia has shown to the World the face of a fastly growing country, with a liberal culture and an educated population. But this did not show the other face of this nation, that of a dictatorship ruled by a mob, where corruption, censorship and the police reigned.

Pictures courtesy of tomfong, esthersmaycourt and hetgrotegeld.

Zine el Abidine Ben Ali (born 1936) took power through a "medical coup d'état" in November 1987, overthrowing Habib Bourguiba, the father of the Tunisian Independence in 1956. After an impressive rise to power as a General, he has been known from promoting the touristic development of his country, having good relations with Western leaders, winning reelections with 99% of the votes, installing a drastic censorship of the press as well an extremely corrupt system revolving around his family. Ben Ali seemed "orwellian" to Tunisians: just a symbol, an image (portrayed all over the country), but who never spoke and rarely made public appearances.  

Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser who went on to become Tunisia's first lady in 1992 was a key figure of the dictatorship. Having enriched herself without any limits, through corruption and embezzlement of public money, she was the most hated figure of the former regime. Upon fleeing the country on January 14th, she allegedly stole 1.5 tons of gold from the Central Bank's safe, half of the country's reserves. A book written in 2009 by two French journalists, “La Régente de Carthage”, puts into light the extent of her power and influence when Ben Ali was president. The French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique wrote that she “symbolizes the greed of the Presidential family”.  

The power and influence of Leila Trabelsi shined upon her close friends and members of her family, who were able to share huge slices of the Tunisian cake (see Al Jazeera English's article: "The Family Tunisians hate most"). Belhassen Trabelsi, her eldest brother, became the head of the financial affairs of the family, while taking control of Karthago Airlines. Moncef Trabelsi, an another of her brothers, enriched himself with Belhassen by buying coastal lands from the State at very low prices, and selling them back to investors who wanted to build hotels and tourist resorts. Leila’s favorite nephew, Imed, was a well-known trafficker who supposedly ruled the streets of Tunis, and was wanted by the French justice for stealing a yacht on the Côte d’Azur. However, he was killed during the riots that followed after Ben Ali’s departure.

These are few of many examples of dirty deeds perpetrated by the Trabelsi family, who US Ambassador Robert F. Godec often “heard barbs about their lack of education, low social status and conspicuous corruption” (Wikileaks).

This translated into society through censorship and repression to avoid rebellion, as in any dictatorship. Reporters Without Borders listed Ben Ali as a “predator of the press”. The press, although 90% private, is under high influence from the regime, except for the very small opposition newspapers and foreign publications, who are not sold anytime they publish something critical of the regime. The same goes for television, state owned and censored when foreign and covering Tunisian news. Finally, the Internet censorship is one of the heaviest in the world with all website requests within the country being filtered by a server, with a list of a forbidden websites.

The repression was heavy, and took a whole new level by 1991 when Abdallah Kallal became Minister of the Interior, and started a wreckless repression, jailing political opponents and reinstating torture, at first with the argument of fighting Islamic extremism, and then arbitrarily against any sign of political or moral opposition. 1% of the population worked for the Ministry of the Interior, and 10% were members of Ben Ali’s party, the RCD.

The fact and the matter is that the Tunisian people knew about all of this; this is why the Revolution was so quick to bring people of all ages and all social backgrounds to the streets. The unemployment, the lack of opportunities, added to the humiliation felt, as a people, by the Tunisian faced with the acts of its “leaders”, makes it all more surprising that a spark did not inflame the country earlier.