Last Friday, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia after 23 years as president. He was driven out of the country by the cumulative pressure of a month of protests, sparked by a young man's economic despair and subsequent self-immolation. Much of the reporting on the demonstrations has emphasized Tunisians' economic grievances: unemployment, inflation, and the high cost of living.
But material difficulties were not the central driver in pushing Ben Ali from power. After all, economically motivated riots broke out in Tunisia in the early 1980s but did not bring down the government of then President Habib Bourguiba. And Ben Ali's promises in the middle of the most recent unrest to boost employment and cut the prices of basic goods could not stop the momentum of the protests.
On a more fundamental level, Tunisians are protesting dictatorship. They have had just two presidents since the country's independence from France in 1956. The first was Bourguiba, who led the independence battle against the French and then erected a secular, single-party authoritarian regime. The second was Ben Ali, who engineered Bourguiba's ouster in 1987, when it appeared that Bourguiba had grown too old and detached to govern effectively. Despite his early rhetoric emphasizing political pluralism, Ben Ali cracked down against free speech and any potential dissent. He cited the danger posed by the country's Islamists, who gave some cause for concern over the extent to which, if elected, they would respect democracy and the relatively equal rights Tunisian women had achieved after independence. During the 1990s, he eliminated the Islamist movement and consolidated an even darker and more repressive dictatorship than that of Bourguiba. Ben Ali retained Bourguiba's governing political party, renaming it the Constitutional Democratic Rally. The name was a cynical choice, for Ben Ali's Tunisia would come to have zero press freedoms, a censored Internet, monitored phone and e-mail communications, and only token opposition in a toothless parliament.
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