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‘Surge of nostalgia’ for Ben Ali in Tunisia

Text by: Assiya HAMZA
4 min

As Tunisia gets ready to mark the three-year anniversary of the 2011 uprising, there has been a surge of nostalgia for the country’s former dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, currently in exile in Saudi Arabia.


“Ben Ali, they fooled us! Come back soon!” is a slogan one could hear on Tuesday, January 7, in the streets of Tunis, Ariana, Mahdia, Sfax and other cities in Tunisia, as the country prepared to mark the three-year anniversary of the uprising that sent former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali packing.

The protesters were in the street to voice their anger at tax hikes affecting public and agricultural transportation vehicles, but many expressed a nostalgia for the Ben Ali days that seems to be increasingly common.

In the capital, “Vive Ben Ali” can be seen scrawled on walls of buildings, and a Facebook page entitled “Forgive us, Mr. President” has been flooded with messages of affection and tribute.

Indeed, according to a survey carried out by the polling agency 3C Etudes and published on January 6, a significant portion of the Tunisian population, roughly 35 percent, regret Ben Ali’s departure.

But do they really miss Ben Ali, or does their nostalgia stem more from a rejection of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that has dominated the Tunisian political scene in the post-Ben Ali era?

FRANCE 24 spoke to Vincent Geisser, a specialist in Islam and the Arab world at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), for further insight.

F24: Are Tunisians truly nostalgic for Ben Ali?

VG: There has been a surge of nostalgia, but on several levels. First of all, this kind of nostalgia is a common historical phenomenon. Political transitions foster uncertainty and fear of the future. Citizens talk about how great the old days were, without necessarily specifying how. There are also Tunisians who are nostalgic for the Ben Ali regime, but not for Ben Ali himself. As a person, Ben Ali is widely detested. He symbolises nepotism. Nostalgia for his regime, however, can be based on… the impression that things were better before. Some people miss the sense of order and security that they feel the old regime offered.

Finally, there is the nostalgia of people in power who were also in power under Ben Ali, particularly high-level civil servants within political parties or companies. They are nostalgic, but don’t shout it from the rooftops, because it’s still taboo. Ben Ali is not a charismatic figure; he was personally unpopular and intellectually mediocre. People can still openly admire former Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba, but not really Ben Ali.

F24: Is it a rejection of the Ennahda movement?

VG: People are expressing anxiety and fear of the future. Political transitions cause feelings of uncertainty. Tunisia is currently in a grey zone: the old regime is over, but the country is not yet a democracy.

But Tunisians have discovered freedom of expression. They can say whatever they want and however they want to say it. What surprises people in the West is above all the virulence of what they’re saying. Ennahda is in a crisis of transition. The Islamists won the elections, but internal divergences remain. The party is still functioning as if it were the 80s or 90s. It needs to implement reforms if it wants to look like a modern Muslim party.

F24: Are Tunisians simply disillusioned with the results of the uprising?

VG: They are disillusioned given the changes they had hoped for. Tunisians carried out this revolution to improve their employment prospects, for example, and some cities that were key in the uprising have not seen their economic and social situations improve.

There is also a part of the population that is frightened of Islamism. If these people detest the former authoritarian regime, they also feel that Islamism is a catastrophe. Certain political elites would be delighted to see what happened in Egypt happen in Tunisia: Islamists going to prison.

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