The Tunisian Change

20 years after taking over, Ben Ali gets ‘change’ award

On November 7, 2007, it was precisely 20 years ago that “the change” took place. Today, one month later, the streets of Tunis are still colored red with tens of thousands of the nation’s flags and images of President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, while you cannot open a magazine without reading about the incredible progress the country made under the inspiring guidance of its great leader.

So, the national press agency reported that on the 20th anniversary of “the change” 3,000 intellectuals, members of civil society and jurists had signed a declaration praising the gains the country had achieved, while emphasizing that these could not have been achieved without the will and “perseverance” of the Tunisian President. Réalités Magazine put a heavily retouched photo of the president on the cover with the headline: “The new face of Tunisia.”

This kind of journalism can hardly do any good for the country, as it just screams for an ironic reply, knowing that “the change” first of all, and rather euphemistically, refers to the disposal of former President Habib Bourgiba by current President Ben Ali. After some 30 years at the helm, Bourgiba was judged “senile”. Newly sworn in, Ben Ali solemnly declared he would never stay as long in power as his predecessor, yet 20 years and two constitutional amendments later, Ben Ali still firmly sits on the throne. Hence, he also known as “Ben a vie” (Ben for life).

Still, putting irony aside, one cannot but admit that Tunisia has booked impressive results under Ben Ali’s leadership. For “the change” not only refers to the change at the top, but also to gradual transformation of Tunisian society: From a socialist-inspired model, in which the benevolent state took care of everything and everyone, to a more liberal scheme, in which free market forces and private enterprise were allowed to take center stage. Remarkably, Tunisia achieved its change without any major social upheavals or financial crises, despite the fact the country’s economy was in a deplorable shape by 1987.

While countries such as Egypt, Syria and Algeria are still struggling to come to terms with the reality of the post-Cold War era, the Tunisian private sector today contributes 76% to the country’s GDP of some $33 billion, employs 71% of the country’s workforce, and represents 64% and 85% of annual investments and exports respectively. In addition, Tunisia has known a more or less constant annual economic growth rate of 4% to 5% annually and consequently saw its GDP almost double since the infamous change.

The good thing about the Tunisia transformation is that economic progress so far did not come at the expense of social development. So, still some 80% of the population belongs to the country’s middle class, while less than 4% lives under the national poverty line. Nearly every household is connected to the electricity grid. An increase in health centers and hospitals, combined with free medical care for the needy, saw life expectancy increase to an average 73 years, while illiteracy has been reduced to less than 20%.

The latter may still seem a lot, yet one should know that by the end of the French colonial rule in 1956 no less than 98% of Tunisians were illiterate. In that sense, it is no exaggeration to state that Tunisia has come a very long way, especially as it did so without an abundance in natural resources. Add to that the country’s safety record and, last but not least, the fact that in 2008 Tunisia’s free trade agreement with the European Union will go into top gear, and one understands why Tunisia has become a darling destination for international investors.

So, the Spaniards bought themselves into the country’s formerly state-owned and quite lucrative cement industry. The Italians have signed up to construct an electricity plant and industrial city. The Turks are building an airport and the Indians a phosphate producing plant. In recent years however, it has especially been the Emiratis who have come to appreciate the Tunisian model and the country’s strategic position on the edge of Europe.

It made President Ben Ali a busy man. In July, he laid the cornerstone for “The City of the Century,” Dubai Holding’s $15 billion dollar mixed-use project on the edge of Tunis, while in November he laid yet another symbolic first stone for “Tunis Sorts City,” Bukhatir’s $5 billion theme-based development on the shores of the capital’s Lac du Nord.

Seeing Tunisia’s achievements over the last 20 years, it is all rather unfortunate that the country’s media still too often behave as a caged bird. Its overzealous parroting and personal worship only leads to unintended irony. Ben Ali, the new face of Tunisia? No, not quite. Ben Ali, the face of a remarkable Tunisian turnabout? Like it or not, but most probably the only reply to that question would be a wholehearted: yes, indeed.


Peter Speetjens

Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist & analyst based in Brazil.