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Ben Ali: Tunisian Revolution Essay

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Updated: Apr 7th, 2022

“Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was born on 3 September 1936 in Hammam-Sousse, Tunisia” (Pierre para 1). In his teenage, Ben Ali got into the anti-French independence Neo-Destour movement. This made him be expelled from the schools that were under the management of the French. Ben Ali involvement with the Neo-Destour movement earned him a scholarship at a military school in France after Tunisia got independence in 1956 (Pierre para 2).

On returning to Tunisia, he joined the military security in 1964-1974, where he was the head of Tunisian military security. Ben Ali then quickly rose to the ranks and became the general in the year 1979, then the Tunisian ambassador to Poland in 1980 and the Head of national security.

He then became the minister of interior in 1986. In 1987, Ben Ali was then appointed prime minister by the president. His appointment in October 1987 later led to the ousting of president Habib Bourguiba in November 1987 after a successful coup d’ etat. Ben Ali then assumed the position of the presidency (Pierre para 2).

During Ben Ali’s twenty three year rule (1987 -2011), he first claimed to ease up on stern political measures concerning opposition movements, particularly the Mouvement des Démocrates Sociaux (MDS; Social Democratic Movement) and the MTI. His interest in multiparty system led to the signing of the national pact with opposition leaders in 1988.

Human rights activists, Islamic, and opposition leaders increased protests over the years since Ben Ali took power as president over his oppressive leadership. He manipulated and controlled the politics through his Constitutional Democratic Rally party. The key positions in the state and local government were held by the CDR party.

Ben Ali put into place changes in the constitution to ensure his presidency could be extended without limit through his party which held most of the parliamentary seats. He also allowed a few political parties and imposed strict rules and regulations to minimize opposition to his rule. His political party constantly held majority of the seats in the lower parliament during his political tenure; the ruling party had constantly won elections with a great majority over the five terms.

Hizb An-Nahdah, (Renaissance Party), an Islamist opposition which rose in the 1990’s led by Rashid Ghannouchi was banned and branded a terrorist organization. The Islamist opposition was believed to be a terrorist organization which was pushing for the establishment of an Islamist state according to the United States State Department in 2003. Ben Ali pushed the passing of the anti-terrorism law in 2003, leading to arbitrary arrests and cases of torture (Pollock para 9).

Repression was a major crisis faced in the country. Ben Ali often controlled the news and information in and out of the country. Journalists and human rights activists were constantly the target of police brutality and were subjected to surveillance by intelligence services.

Foreign journalists were often accompanied by an official from the Tunisian Agency for External Communication – this was done to control news and information flowing out of the country through any means including the internet. Despite the repressions, Ben Ali was still influential to the international organization due to his zero tolerance towards terrorism (Bembo para 7).

The first lady self proclaimed herself as the Arab’s most successful female politician. She frequently headed charitable foundations and promoted women rights. Ben Ali’s entire extended family – the Trabelsis, dubbed “the Mafia” and his associates indulged in lavish lifestyles at the expense of many ordinary Tunisians.

The Trabelsis openly engaged in corruption that led the North African country’s economy down to its knees. Ben Ali’s wife was known to be a shopaholic with frequent visits to western countries with private jets. Investors in Tunisia feared the long arm of the first family- they often took they want, most business deals did not go through without the involvement of the first family in the country.

Bribes were also collected for those who operated businesses in Tunisia. The Trabelsis owned extensive wealth including an airline, hotels, two radio stations, food distributions and more which are both locally and foreign owned. The Trabelsi’s was cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption.

The Arab idiom – “The straw that broke the camel’s back” which means a pile of small things which causes failure. In Ben Ali’s fall, his involvement in corruption openly, nepotism and the flagrant abuse power and the system led him to his demise. Ben Ali had become a dictator to the Tunisians.

His extended family’s brutality and economic crimes had gradually angered Tunisians over the years. Saad Djebbar an Arab political analyst said that “Ben Ali was so arrogant that he undermined his own power base, alienating supporters in the party and the business community” (Zisenwine para 3).

The conditions in Tunisia led to ousting of Ben Ali – the high levels of unemployment, poverty, corruption and repression provoked Tunisians to detach themselves from Ben Ali’s oppressive leadership. During his presidency, he continually increased his internal security apparatus to neutralize any plausible threat. Intelligence was gathered through phone – tapping and the belligerent were threatened, beaten and assassinated.

Tunisia’s revolution might have been started by Mohammed Bouazizi who was aged 26 on 17th December 2010; he was selling produce illegally to provide for his family. When he was shut down for lacking a permit and he protested through self-immolation. This made Mohammed a martyr hence inspiring public protests against the government. Cases of Self – immolation and other forms of suicide become rampant over the months stirring more public protests.

As the government tried to crack down on the protestors by arresting and killing them, the crowds only grew more rapidly. Reports by the Tunisian government confirmed that at least 21 people were killed during the protests. Although the demonstrations were peaceful at that time, the police used excessive force to try to quell the protests.

Soon the trade union movement joined in the protests; this stirred the repressive response of the police resulting to more killings due to the union’s involvement. The union eventually embarked on a general strike which paralyzed Tunisia’s economic activities (Pierre para 4).

Media played a great role in the revolution of Tunisia and other North African countries. The ousting of Ben Ali was facilitated by the media through unearthing the real conditions in Tunisia. Most Tunisians were not conversant with the popular websites like Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Google, CNN and Aljazeera before.

The internet’s gain in popularity all over the world created a platform for the Tunisians to express their views and grievances. The advancement in mobile phone technology propelled the easy access and flow of information. The use of camera phones and the internet exposed the injustices instigated by Ben Ali’s government. Before Tunisia’s election in 2009, Ben Ali’s blocked Facebook for two weeks to minimize the spread of information.

Online censorship was frequently used to control information. Facebook and Twitter were used to circulate videos of each demonstration and to schedule the next demonstration. The internet successfully encouraged the ousting of Ben Ali. It made it difficult for Ben Ali to control information in the media. Therefore the media was able to expose the repressive nature of his administration especially the Aljazeera, which played a bigger role in covering the news in the early stages of Tunisia’s revolution (Pollok para 5-7).

After Ben Ali’s exposure, the international organization started withdrawing support from him. He had a good relationship with the United States of America since he was known for his strong fight against terrorism, this earned him leniency in the international organization.

In June 2008, the US congress donated aid to Tunisia and noted that the repression, restriction on political freedom and human rights violations were of concern for the relationship of both countries to strengthen. Later, president Obama said that he congratulated the Tunisian people for their “courage and dignity”. The U.S. offered a hidden helpful hand in the ousting of Ben Ali; they planned, oversaw and directed the revolution (Pollock para 9).

At the beginning of January 2011, Ben Ali grew cold feet when more protesters sporadically joined the streets in the capital Tunis. More deaths occurred when Snipers situated on roof tops and the army in the capital city killed the protesters. On the 13th of January 2011, the army withdrew from Tunis and consequently the Central Intelligence Agency called for the overthrow of Ben Ali.

Ben Ali and his family eventually left the country on the 14th January 2011 to seek refuge in Saudi Arabia. His family owned a lot of wealth which they got through a series of organized corruption. “They bled the country systematically” (Pierre para 7) says Nicolas Beau, co-author of the Regent of Carthage.

Ben Ali’s family constantly acquired wealth illegally and transferred the ill-obtained wealth abroad during his presidency. The French media reported that Ben Ali’s wife withdrew bars of gold from a bank in Tunisia before leaving the country. Most countries abroad have frozen assets belonging to Ben Ali’s family and allies since his exile. Some of his relatives were caught with cash and jewelry while they tried to leave at the airport.

Tunisia’s ousting of Ben Ali paved way to the second stage of the country’s revolution. Tunisia had a long list of pressing matters and among these were the questions on how to address these matters as they push for stability within the country.

These questions included issues regarding the political system along with initiating a reconciliation process to unite diverse political and social currents, and the issue of unemployment and corruption in the country. Indeed, Tunisia needed a ‘savior’ to salvage the country from the abyss which Ben Ali and his regime had thrown the country into.

An interim government was set up to lead the country. It immediately issued arrest warrants to Ben Ali and his family. In addition, his close associates were also detained. Although the interim government was in place, a few ministers and other loyalists of Ben Ali still held key positions in the interim government. These still fuelled a few protests over Tunisia’s revolution (Freeman para 2). They were undoubtedly enough reasons to make the Tunisian’s protest even after the ousting of Ben Ali.

Zisenwine (para 4) states in his article “An early step by the interim government to enhance national reconciliation” showed that the government’s interest in addressing public grievances. A three day national mourning for those who lost their lives during the protests was set up and the announcement of compensation of lost property during the riots was also made.

This further showed the interim government’s commitment for revolution of Tunisia. Former political prisoners were released and leaders in exile accepted back to the country, including the leader of the “Renaissance Movement.”

The interim government provided a roadmap to a free and fair election in October 2011. Previous holders of ministerial positions were replaced from the interim government due to the public’s unrest. This would go a long way in building public trust in the interim government.

The government established a 10-year vision for political action, as well as a 5-year economic revival program. Experts were allowed to manage the social and economic projects to tackle issues of employment, security, health and poverty with the new government. Revolutionaries were concerned mainly on drafting a new constitution which would protect their rights, which included a fresh electoral law, a free press and a good political system for the country (Bembo para 5).

Tunisia for the first time held a “free and fair election” in October 2011 since Ben Ali’s rule. Tunisia’s relation with the international partners has continued and a sense of freedom in the country is imminent. Most injustices have been addressed including the president’s term limits, a steady political freedom, a free press and an establishment of good economic policies.

Works Cited

Bembo, Pietro. Biographical highlights. The world’s perspective. 2011. Web.

Freeman, Colin. “Tunisia’s first family.” The Telegraph, 16 Jan 2011. Web.

Pierre, Tristam. “Profile: Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.” Middle East Issues. 2011. Web.

Pollock, John. “Green Revolutionary,” a profile of Norman Borlaug. Technology Review, January/February 2011. Web.

Zisenwine, Daniel. Telaviv Notes: An update on Middle Eastern developments. Moshe Dayan Center. March 27, 2011. Web.

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