After Revolution, Tunisians Call for Dictator’s Return

High unemployment and lawlessness makes Tunisians yearn for the old regime.

Closeup of a portrait of former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Saint Romain, Rhône-Alpes, France, February 14, 2011
Closeup of a portrait of former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Saint Romain, Rhône-Alpes, France, February 14, 2011 (Abode of Chaos/Thierry Ehrmann)

Nearly two years after the start of the “Arab Spring,” Tunisians are openly calling for the return of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who resigned and fled the country in January of last year after a month of protests.

“Ben Ali put people in prison but he didn’t shoot at us,” a mother whose son was shot in the eye by police during a riot told a reporter for the Dutch Nieuwsuur program. “I regret the revolution and would give up freedom of speech for more jobs,” a student told the BBC in October.

Ben Ali was the first Arab dictator to fall in a wave of revolutions that swept the Middle East and North Africa in early 2011. He was also the most aggressively secular one. Although 98 percent of Tunisians is Muslim, Ben Ali’s government banned headscarfs, closed mosques and persecuted Islamists who were suspected of radicalism or ties with terrorist groups.

Since his regime’s downfall, attendance at prayer services is up and religious schools, where students are separated according to gender — something that would have been unthinkable while Ben Ali was president — are growing in number.

Politically, the main beneficiary of the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia has been the Islamist Ennahda movement which won a plurality of the seats in the Constituent Assembly elections in October of last year. The body is tasked with rewriting the Constitution. While the party rejects religious fanaticism, opposition members criticize it for tolerating Salafist groups that have been accused of intimidating women and attacking secular leaders.

The main source of discontent is high unemployment and rising food and fuel prices. While the latter are likely more a reflection of global trends, the jobless rate has certainly suffered from the political turmoil. Where it stood at 13 percent in 2010 — high enough to fuel the revolution in the first place — it rose to almost 19 percent the next year and is now estimated at over 17 percent. Strikes, which were forbidden under Ben Ali’s rule, regularly disrupt production and public services.

Ben Ali pursued a liberal economic policy, characterized by strong investment relations with countries in the European Union and a heavy reliance on tourism. During his administration, Tunisia’s per capita gross domestic product more than tripled from $1,201 in 1986 to $3,786 in 2008.

Tourism has come to a near standstill and is unlikely to pick up while the country remains in disarray.

Elections are scheduled for June of next year. Ennahda had hoped to install a parliamentary democracy but under pressure from other parties, which feared Islamist majoritarianism, agreed to a mixed system with a powerful presidency to balance the legislature.

Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s interim president, warned last month, “If this experiment fails, another cycle of violence will undoubtedly take place. But,” he added, “if it succeeds, it can become an example for the rest of the Arab and Muslim countries.”