The President and the Hairdresser

Camille Pecastaing 

The irony about American diplomacy is that while official statements from the U.S. government are often met with skepticism, the famously leaked secret diplomatic cables from American overseas embassies have been received as scriptures. Local gossips collected by American ambassadors became irrefutable indictments of regimes and rulers. It was already public knowledge that Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali ruled Tunisia with an iron fist. Everyone knew of the political prisoners and the political exiles, of the lack of human rights and of organizations to protect them, of the quasi single-party rule. But the other side of the regime, the incredible corruption of the ruling family, was only exposed to the world at the end of 2010, in an American diplomatic cable dated from June 2008. Barely two months later, a couple of protest suicides had snowballed into mass protests, riots, and a palace coup. After twenty-three years in power, Ben Ali was on the run, seeking exile in Saudi Arabia.

In a region where regimes are coup-proof, when republics endure hereditary presidencies, the matter of the fall of Ben Ali invites investigation. Tunisia was another Middle Eastern autocracy, but it had unique characteristics: it aimed to excel economically, to be modern, global, part of the information age, with internet startups and call centers. These ambitions had driven the government to nurture a substantial middle class, whose well-educated young are capable of assuming demanding jobs in Paris or London or New York. Some actually do, but many others have preferred to return home after a period abroad. There is the appeal of a small country, the mild climate, the Mediterranean beaches, the old town of Sidi Bou Said, the glamour of Hammamet. There is also security: the absence of risk from Islamists and leftists, all the trouble makers being in prison or exile. Tunisia is a safe place to raise children, with strong family values, Muslim but in a Mediterranean rather than a Wahhabi sort of way.

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