- Ben Ali's "New Tunisia" (1987-2009): A Case Study of Authoritarian Modernization in the Arab World
For anyone wishing to probe beneath the headlines about Tunisia's transition to democracy, Ben Ali's "New Tunisia" offers the starting point, an invaluable understanding of the political landscape on the eve of the uprising. Although the author did not and could not predict the spectacular events leading to Ben Ali's resignation on January 15, 2011, just months after the final editing of the book, he did note the "autonomization" (p. 227) — that is, the spiraling out of control — of corruption (in fact, kleptomania) within the presidential entourage in the previous two years that helped to precipitate [End Page 512] the uprising. President Ben Ali and especially his wife, former hairdresser Leila Trabelsi, offered captivating targets.
Based on a total of about six months in the field, spaced over six visits between 2001 and 2009, Dr. Steffen Erdle demonstrates familiarity with a wealth of resources and documents the informal as well as formal structures of power. He discovers obvious similarities but also significant differences between the Ben Ali regime and that of his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba (1956-1987). Both regimes rested on three pillars: president, party, and state bureaucracy. Ben Ali essentially "modernized" the ancien régime by broadening the social bases of party and state and by converting the bureaucracy's economic role from manager-CEO to strategist and regulator, as Tunisia continued gradually to open up its economy to foreign competition and investment and to promote export-oriented growth, especially in light manufacturing sectors (not only textiles).
Erdle is careful, however, to hedge his bets about Ben Ali's authoritarian "upgrade." He notes the critical changes in the presidency, which not only created a "shadow government" of advisors (p. 140) and transformed the prime minister into an executive coordinator but also substantially upgraded the security services, including a Presidential Guard, and brought members of the seven presidential families into the core politically relevant elite (PRE). Bourguiba had also included family members in his inner circle but never in such large numbers or with such grave economic consequences. The Ben Ali families "simply 'grafted' themselves on existing (or emerging) [economic sectors]...The 'good thing' about this strategy is that there is little immediately perceptible disruption to outside observers; the 'bad thing' is that it will have incremental ripple-through effects for the entire economy" (p. 228, n. 10). Not only did these practices discourage private investment; the biggest impact may have been political: the further de-institutionalization of the ruling party. The "familization" of politics may have helped Ben Ali be the supreme arbitrator — at least until his wife appeared to be taking over, given his state of health (p. 147) — but, as Erdle notes, "it tends to infringe upon (and undermine) the political authority, functional autonomy, institutional integrity, and procedural effectiveness" (pp. 184- 185), in short diminishing the various indicators of institutionalization prescribed by Samuel P. Huntington. Erdle also shrewdly notes one cost of selectively recruiting Tunisian peripheries to broaden the regime's social bases: the "shadow fiscality" (p. 176) of national solidarity funds not only escaped any public accountability but may also have engendered further resentment among critical middle classes.
Erdle is prophetic about the consequences of political decay: "... in the hypothetical scenario of a regime (ex)change, all cards would be on the table, absolutely vital interests of all key players would be at stake, and no arbiter would be at hand" (p. 449). Indeed the ruling party, which had briefly succeeded in institutionalizing pluralism in 1971, may no longer serve as a vehicle of political transition as it was formally abolished after Ben Ali's departure. In its place a co-opted Higher Authority for Achieving the Objectives of the Revolution has grown into a 155-member transitional consultative mechanism that represents substantial segments of civil society, liberated since Erdle's able description of its tethered associations. He rightly singles out lawyers, including...