The straw that broke the president’s back

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — The collapse of former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s government was a crisis waiting to happen. Those that watched the corruption and ruthlessness of the regime knew that sooner or later the situation would explode. And WikiLeaks may have provided the necessary push.

Already in 1993, in a report on Ben Ali’s first six years in office: “Promise Unfulfilled: Human Rights in Tunisia Since 1987,” Human Rights First (then the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) stated: “Tunisia has seen the independence of the judiciary undermined by the encroachment of military courts into civilian matters; freedom of expression has been severely constrained and freedom of association tightly reined in; lawyers have been subjected to harassment and intimidation, and discouraged from representing unpopular clients. Thus, safeguards that are the bedrock of any society in which basic human freedoms are upheld and protected have been undermined.”

Since that time, the situation has worsened, repression has increased and corruption has reached higher levels, particularly among those close to the president such as his wife and other relatives from the notorious Trabelsi family. They all left Tunisia in a hurry when they realized their reign of corruption and terror had come to an end.

Tunisia’s economy has gone from bad to worse in recent years, with unemployment rates of 14 percent, according to official figures — widely considered lower than the actual rate — and up to 50 percent in some parts of the interior. While these rates worsened, the government reduced or eliminated subsidies for food and gasoline, probably as a response to pressures from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Tunisia has a growing middle class and an increasingly educated public. But deteriorating economic conditions for most of the population is exacerbated by sharp inequality. Twenty percent of the population controls nearly half of national income. The two ruling groups, the Ben Ali and the Trabelsi families, attained considerable economic power mainly through abusive practices, some of them spotlighted by WikiLeaks.

After assuming power in 1987, Ben Ali ruled with an iron fist, quelling any criticism of his regime through extensive violations of human rights. The final straw probably came after an incident between the police and a young vegetable vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi.

When the young man refused to leave the market because, according to the police, he lacked a street vendor license, a policeman beat him up. Afterward, Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest these actions in the central town of Sidi Bouzeid.

Bouazizi’s self-immolation spurred public protests throughout Tunisia — from Sidi Bouzeid to other cities such as Tunis, Qasrain, Qabis, Binzert, Sousa, BinQairowan, Gafza, Qarqena, elKalf, Baga and Qibly. The violent suppression of these protests were increased people’s anger, leading to more riots, which toppled Ben Ali’s government.

The Arab world is watching with considerable interest what is happening in Tunisia. Already in Jordan there have been demonstrations against increased costs of living, and governments in other countries are fearful that anti- government demonstrations similar to those in Tunisia may spread to their countries.

Although the future of Tunisia is unpredictable, one thing is certain: Things will never be the same again. How change there takes shape will depend on the measures the new government takes and its commitment to democracy, which the Tunisian people have fought so hard to see realized in their country.

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., writes on human rights and foreign policy issues.