Since President Ben Ali's bloodless ouster of his predecessor Habib Bourguiba in 1987, Tunisia has undergone significant changes on many levels. The country has witnessed an almost complete renewal of its political elites, a far-reaching overhaul of its public institutions, and a substantial reconfiguration of its ruling coalition. It has undergone structural adjustment, has transformed into an export-oriented market economy, and has become actively engaged in the Euromediterranean free trade area. Changes, however, have not provided for the establishment of democracy, an open-ended competition for political power, an exchange at the helm of the state, or popular control of government activities.
Ben Ali’s ‘New Tunisia’ therefore provides an illuminating example of the political modernization of an authoritarian regime. It illustrates how incumbent ruling elites can hold out against the odds and yet change from within, i.e. how they can adapt to a changed environment, but without relinquishing political power. In fact, a core argument of this book resides in that Ben Ali’s ‘New Era’ constitutes an essentially new system of political authority and domination, which functions according to a ‘source code’ substantively different from Bourguiba’s Ancient Regime. As such, it also exemplifies wider processes of authoritarian reform currently observable in many countries south of the Mediterranean.
This core hypothesis shall be substantiated by an in-depth analysis of the ‘elite variable’, i.e. of the constellation of strategic political players in the capital Tunis, their attitudes vis-à-vis certain core issues, and their relationships with other relevant actors. The insights derived from this analysis will assist us in understanding why the new rulers have been anxious to delay the establishment of democracy, how they have proceeded, and why they have prevailed so far. Analyzing the patterns of change in Tunisia, identifying the driving forces behind these processes, and highlighting the specific impact of political elite will thus allow to gain a deeper understanding of the survival strategies, change mechanisms, and democratic prospects of political authoritarianism in that country and in the region at large.