Tunisians yearn for the good old days of a strongman

Tunisians still revile ousted leader President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but admiration is rising for his predecessor, who had strongman tendencies of his own but also helped Tunisia flourish.

Anis Mili/Reuters
Beji Caid Essebsi (r.), former Tunisian Prime Minister and founder of the Nidaa Tounes party, arrives for a round of consultations with other political parties at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, last week. Mr. Essebsi, an advisor to Bourguiba who also held several ministerial posts under him, steered Tunisia through a bumpy period in 2011 as head of a caretaker government.

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 Hussein, 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 modernized 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.

Unemployment is up, investment is down, and fear of violence by Islamic extremists is growing. Many Tunisians say surer hands are needed at the tiller. They are delighted to be rid of Bourguiba’s successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled in 2011. But according to a February poll by the International Republican Institute, only 52 percent prefer a democracy, even if unstable, while 42 percent want a stable dictatorship.

Promised democracy, practiced 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 Ben Youssef. Bourguiba became president; Ben Youssef 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, Mr. Ben Ali.

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

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


Not all Tunisians like Ennahda’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. 

Mr. Essebsi, an advisor 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 Ben Romdhane recalled crowds cheering Bourguiba and urged Essebsi to re-enter politics. Last summer Essebsi founded the Nidaa Tounes party; Mr. Ben 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 Ben 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, Ben Romdhane opposed both Bourguiba and Ben 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 

Mrs. Trabelsi 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,” Mr. Dellech 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. Mrs. Trabelsi, 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 Ben Ali’s now-defunct party] were dishonest. Some kept the country working.”

Nidaa Tounes narrowly beat Ennahda in a poll last month by EMRHOD, a Tunisian-Algerian research company. But success depends on presenting a clear economic program 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 Ennahda’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 Mr. Benaicha bought a Habib Bourguiba car air freshener.

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

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