Tunisia's Lessons for Repressive Regimes

Even the most repressive regimes need a fig leaf of legitimacy.


William J. Dobson, former managing editor at Foreign Policy magazine and senior editor for Asia at Newsweek International, is writing a book on the challenges to democracy, to be published by Doubleday.

There were two dogs wandering in the Algerian desert. One dog was Algerian, the other Tunisian. The Algerian dog was scruffy, rough, and looked like he'd been in a hundred fights. The Tunisian dog was well groomed, with a stylish new collar. The Algerian mutt asked, "You have it so good, why would you leave Tunisia?" The Tunisian dog replied, "I just wanted to bark."

I heard this punch line from an Egyptian friend while in Cairo last year. Tunisia, like other Middle Eastern autocracies, is highly repressive. But the joke was aimed at another dimension of its dictatorship that was supposed to make Tunisia the exception, a modern authoritarian duchy on the banks of the Mediterranean. Whereas Algeria and its other neighbors struggled with poverty and bouts of violence, Tunisia is an economically successful state in a region that has rarely tasted success. In 2010, Tunisia was the highest ranked African country on the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index, even surpassing European countries like Italy, Poland, and Spain. Literacy rates are at nearly 80 percent. More than 95 percent of pregnant women receive prenatal care. It takes only 11 days to start a business. It is far more secular than any of its neighbors. When Europeans think about Tunisia, they think of beautiful beaches. It was a country for tourism, not terrorism.

For all its supposed modernity, the regime of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali kept Tunisian society in a stranglehold for more than two decades. In the 1990s, more than 10,000 political opponents, Islamists, or suspected enemies of the state were imprisoned. Ben Ali, a former Minister of the Interior himself, moved unsparingly against anyone who dared to criticize his government. The political opposition was wiped off the map, and media censorship was unflinching. Among Middle Eastern dictatorships, Tunisia was considered one of the most repressive. That is why the Tunisian dog had to wander into the desert to bark. But you probably won't hear that joke anymore. Last week the Tunisian people found their voice.

The popular uprising against Tunisia's strongman began a month ago. The regime's effort to quell protests with its own crackdown only fueled public anger, as more of the country's educated youth took to the streets. First person accounts and video footage of Tunisian police firing on citizens spread over Facebook. The regime was left flatfooted, unable to predict where the next protest or riot would take place. By last week, a nervous Ben Ali was addressing the nation, promising to hand over power at the end of his term. But, after 23 years of rule, Ben Ali's promises no longer had meaning. Sensing that he might become the next Nicolae Ceausescu—the Romanian dictator who was summarily executed with the collapse of Communism—Ben Ali and his family fled the country. For the first time, a modern Arab dictator had been deposed by his people. Talk of a "Tunisia scenario" in other Middle Eastern autocracies is now rampant across the region.

But it's not a "Tunisia scenario," it's a "dictatorial scenario" that is at work. Although it is often unrecognized, even dictatorships require some fig leaf of legitimacy in order to remain in power. Without democratic legitimacy, authoritarian regimes must find a substitute to rationalize their rule. For some, it might be nationalism. For others, it might come from stoking fears of instability. For Tunisia, its only shallow right to rule came from its economic performance. It had maintained an average of 5 percent economic growth for over 20 years. But its minor economic miracle had begun to come undone. It has one of the highest levels of unemployment among Arab states. The global recession damaged an economy that was largely dependent on European vacationers. And a recent rise in the price of basic foods like sugar, cooking oil, and grain hit the population hard. When its economy sputtered, there was no refuge for a regime whose only other commodity had been political repression.