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  • The Islamist ChallengeThe Failure of Reform in Tunisia
  • Mark J. Gasiorowski (bio)

The bloodless collapse of President Habib Bourguiba's 30-year rule on 7 November 1987 created the possibility that a democratic regime might soon be established in Tunisia. Bourguiba's overthrow followed a decade of mounting popular unrest that stemmed largely from his failure to liberalize the country's political system and reduce the chronically high unemployment rate. Faced with the prospect of continuing unrest and the growth of foreign pressures for democratization, Bourguiba's successor, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, immediately launched a reform program that went a long way toward democratizing the country's political system. Although it is unclear whether Ben Ali intended to establish a fully democratic regime or a more limited, tutelary form of democracy, these reforms constituted a democratic opening that produced considerable optimism about Tunisia's prospects for democracy.

Unfortunately, however, the pace of political reform slowed after early 1989. The main obstacle was Ben Ali's refusal to extend legal recognition to Hezb al-Nahda (Party of the Renaissance), a rapidly growing Islamist movement whose clashes with the state had played a big role in Bourguiba's downfall. Ben Ali, like many other Tunisians, feared that al-Nahda would take advantage of the more open political environment to foment unrest and try to establish a nondemocratic Islamic state. The decision to withhold recognition exacerbated frictions between al-Nahda and the Ben Ali government; since the fall of 1990, their conflict has become increasingly violent. The democratic opening that began in November 1987 has since suffered major reverses, and Tunisia's future remains cloudy. [End Page 85]

The dilemma that Ben Ali faced in considering whether to recognize al-Nahda is similar to the one that confronted many Western leaders when popular totalitarian movements of the left and right arose after the First World War: extending recognition to a mass movement with suspect attitudes toward democracy could weaken or destroy the democratic regime, while denying recognition to such a movement would go against the basic principles of democracy and raise the specter of civil unrest followed by an authoritarian backlash. With the emergence of popular, potentially antidemocratic Islamist movements throughout the Muslim world in recent years, comparable dilemmas now face democratically oriented political leaders in many Muslim countries. The problem has assumed its most acute form in Algeria, where a democratic opening had been slowly widening until the armed forces seized power in January 1992 in order to head off a stunning electoral victory by the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS). Similar dilemmas exist today in other Muslim countries where democratic openings have occurred.

Ben Ali's Reforms

By the fall of 1987, the situation in Tunisia had become explosive. President Bourguiba, who had led the fight against French colonial rule and then held personalistic sway over the country since independence in 1956, was in poor health and had become increasingly erratic and authoritarian. Fueled by the autocratic character of Bourguiba's rule and by deteriorating economic conditions, unrest grew rapidly in the late 1970s and 1980s. Bourguiba countered initially with a program of political liberalization, permitting opposition groups to become more active and even extending legal recognition to several opposition parties. As unrest mounted, however, Bourguiba became increasingly repressive, jailing thousands of opposition activists and tightening his control over representative institutions. Beginning in the early 1980s, radical lslamist groups staged a series of violent attacks against the Bourguiba regime and symbols of Western influence. These attacks culminated in a plot, discovered in early November 1987, to assassinate Bourguiba and Ben Ali (who had recently been appointed prime minister) and seize control of the government. In response to the deepening crisis, Ben Ali assembled a team of doctors who declared the aged Bourguiba unfit to rule, paving the way for a constitutional transfer of power.1

Immediately upon assuming the presidency, Ben Ali took steps to end the most repressive practices that had occurred under Bourguiba. He quickly abolished certain legal mechanisms that Bourguiba had used to imprison and prosecute opposition activists. During his first four months in office, Ben Ali released over five thousand political prisoners and other...