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Tunisia yearn for old days of a strongman

Unemployment is up, investment is down and fear of violence by extremists is growing

  • A supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad carries a photo of Muammar Gaddafi during a demonstration at tImage Credit: REUTERS
  • Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shout slogans during a rally at the Avenue Habib Bourguiba in TImage Credit: Reuters
Gulf News

Tunis: The mother led her daughter by the hand to the back of the mausoleum, beyond the sarcophagus, to point out photographs of the mausoleum’s occupant meeting other dead dictators.

“See? That’s Nasser, and Saddam Hussain, and that’s Hafez Al Assad,” she said.

“Do you know who he was?” Silence. “He was president of Syria,” the mother continued. “You need to know history.”

A recent visit to the tomb of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president, was a chance for Fatima Trabelsi to teach her daughter Tawba about “the greatest Arab leader,” she says.

In reality, Bourguiba’s record is mixed. Although he modernised Tunisia, he also jailed and tortured his critics.

But these days many Tunisians, rattled by post-revolution instability, like to remember him as a fatherly figure who brought education, development, women’s rights, and a sense of direction.

That nostalgia could influence how Tunisians vote in elections later this year. It also raises a crucial question about democratic transition: whether the instinct to trust in charismatic leaders will be replaced by trust in democracy itself.

Many Tunisians say surer hands are needed at the tiller. They are delighted to be rid of Bourguiba’s successor, Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali, who was toppled in 2011. But according to a February poll by the International Republican Institute, only 52 per cent prefer a democracy, even if unstable, while 42 per cent want a stable dictatorship.

Promised democracy, practised dictatorship

Stable dictatorship is what Bourguiba offered, despite a promising start as a democratic voice.

He was born in 1903 in the coastal city of Monastir and was educated in France. Back home he joined the Destour party, which wanted a constitution to secure Tunisians’ rights under French rule. He formed a bolder splinter group, the Neo-Destour, and negotiated independence from France in 1956.

That involved ruthlessly sidelining a former ally, Salah Bin Yousuf. Bourguiba became president; Ben Yousuf was shot dead in a Frankfurt hotel in 1961. His murder remains unsolved, but his overall fate set a precedent. Bourguiba enforced a secularist order and stayed in power by crushing opponents. In 1987, old and ailing, he was removed by his prime minister, Bin Ali.

Bin Ali ran a police state and let development lag while his family enriched themselves through corruption.

After Bin Ali’s departure, the long-persecuted Islamists of the Al Nahda party won October 2011 Alections on a platform of democracy and a return to what they call Tunisia’s Arab-Muslim heritage. Al Nahda now heads a coalition government.

Not all Tunisians like Al Nahda’s approach. Three months after the party’s victory, thousands stood in a Monastir stadium, cheering a different brand of leader. “Oh Beji! Oh Beji!” they chanted as Beji Caid Essebsi took the podium.

Essebsi, an adviser to Bourguiba who also held several ministerial posts under him, steered Tunisia through a bumpy period in 2011 as head of a caretaker government.

Watching him in the stadium, economist Mahmoud Bin Romdhane recalled crowds cheering Bourguiba and urged Essebsi to re-enter politics. Last summer Essebsi founded the Nidaa Tounes party; Bin Romdhane is on its executive council.

The party’s rivals call it a haven for unreformed members of past regimes. That criticism is unfair, says Bin Romdhane, who describes Nidaa Tounes as a big tent. His own example is a case in point.

As a union leader and senior member of Amnesty International, Bin Romdhane opposed both Bourguiba and Bin Ali for their autocratic rule. But he admires the former’s vision.

“Bourguiba had culture, political acumen, and a strategy for Tunisia,” he says. “That legacy failed to bring democracy. What we want to do now is make that link.”

Demanding competence

Fatima and her husband, Mounir Dellech, run a business manufacturing work uniforms in their home town of Sousse. She says sales are down and customers are requesting to buy on credit.

“We’ve gone from crisis to crisis,” DAllech says. “These kinds of problems would never have existed under Bourguiba.”

On April 6 the family visited Monastir for the commemoration of Bourguiba’s death in 2000. Fatima, in dress and headscarf, explored the memorabilia with Tawba. Her husband trailed behind them in a gray-green suit, absently fingering an unlit cigar.

Outside, the wind was snapping banners with Bourguiba quotes. “Work is the first element of human dignity,” read one. A few vendors gloomily tried to sell cotton candy and knick-knacks.

It’s scenes like this that have some Tunisians looking to Nidaa Tounes. Dellech is one of them. He doesn’t see evidence of closet autocrats; he does see a record of competence.

“Beji Caid Essebsi is experienced, and we need people with experience,” he says. “And not all members of [Bourguiba’s and Bin Ali’s now-defunct party] were dishonest. Some kept the country working.”

Nidaa Tounes narrowly beat Al Nahda in a poll last month by EMRHOD, a Tunisian-Algerian research company. But success depends on presenting a clear economic programme and — ultimately — building a party with appeal beyond the glow that surrounds Essebsi, says Ben Romdhane.

Nidaa Tounes is opening offices around Tunisia and has links to trade unions and entrepreneurs, he says. It has also formed a coalition with four other opposition parties to counter Al Nahda’s electoral weight.

Those things matter. Increasingly, Tunisians stress that rhetoric comes second to results.

Among them are Wafa Jguirim and Saifddine Benaicha, information technology students in Monastir. They paused outside the mausoleum while Benaicha bought a Habib Bourguiba car air freshener.

Both see promise in Nidaa Tounes. “But every party needs to be scrutinised,” says Jguirim. “I think since the revolution, Tunisians have understood that.”

— Christian Science Monitor