Is Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali the Pinochet of the Arab world?
They both orchestrated economic revivals that ranked their states among the top economies in their regions.
Both suppressed any viable opposition in their ranks and in staged elections -- Ben Ali earning himself the moniker Mr. 99%, opting for the façade of democracy over its real implementation.
Both maintained police states, with internal security apparatuses that dominated over civil life -- banning public meetings, press and expression that were not pre-approved by the state. The consequences for transgressions were swift and severe -- being singled out by secret police, interrogated, intimidated, and sometimes tortured, disappeared or killed. Pinochet's regime was marked by over 3,000 such deaths and tens of thousands tortured. Ben Ali was able to maintain his grip more subtly, but no less severely.
Both rationalized their authoritarian rules as in the best interests of their populations, convinced that they were better equipped to make decisions for their countries than any participatory process. Facts, however, proved that growth rates in post-Pinochet Chile far outpaced those under his authoritarian rule.
In the end, both regimes proved unsustainable and were despised by their own people. Pinochet was removed from power by the ballot and then humiliated by war crimes charges. Ben Ali was brought down by a month of unrelenting demonstrations and fled the country in shame, followed by calls across Tunisia for the removal of the rest of his party.
By some accounts, Ben Ali maintained a force of over 25,000 plain-clothes secret police for a state the size of Wisconsin; Chile, reportedly, had over 9000, in addition to a network of paid informants several times that number. While the actual numbers are not known, the fact is that the leaders ruled by intimidation, force, and bureaucratic control, while maintaining an image of order and stability. Unwanted meetings were cancelled. Editors faced legal battles for expressing displeasing views. Lawyers who exposed human rights abuses were blacklisted. Jobs became scarce or unattainable for those who persisted in speaking out. And activists who protested in the streets were detained and tried by legal systems which clearly served at the behest of the dictator. Chile experienced a particularly brutal implementation of this strategy -- yet, in Tunisia, too, the ever-present state apparatus was able to silence all opposition.
Seeking the legitimatization of their regimes, Pinochet and Ben Ali often used the legal system to their benefit. Similarly, savvy reform activists used the same tools to confront the regimes, challenging the state on legal grounds for its use of excessive force and detentions, and on the politicized application of laws. In Tunisia, lawyers became the most effective and active opponents of the regime over the past several decades.
Chileans, used to democracy, persistently resisted the restrictions on their rights. Thousands who went into exile in Europe and the United States fought to raise awareness of the regime back home and the plight of their fellow countrymen and succeeded over the years to brand Pinochet as a pariah in the international community.
Tunisians -- while enjoying strong cultural and political ties to Europe -- have never known democracy in their 55 years of independence from French colonial rule. Though embracing the French language and secular liberalism in social issues, the regimes of Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba before him never loosened their grip restricting people's political participation.
The demise of both leaders is no coincidence.
Deny peaceful political expression and the people will rise up in opposition -- in 15 or 55 years. Suppression of people's voice -- and their internationally recognized human and civil rights -- cannot be bargained for in exchange for short term economic gains.
Richard Eisendorf is a consultant specializing in media, democracy and civil rights in the Middle East.