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Danger: Falling Tyrants

As dictatorships crumble across the Middle East, what happens if Arab democracy means the rise of radical Islamism? Does promoting American values while protecting American interests—most notably, containing Iran and preserving our access to oil—require the Obama administration to call for more democracy in one country while propping up the monarch next door? In a word, yes.


The Librairie al Kitab is a crowded bookstore on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the main boulevard of Tunis, the once-drowsy capital of the previously lethargic North African republic of Tunisia. Today, of course, Tunisia is known as the cockpit of the Great Arab Revolt of 2011. During the reign of the now-deposed president, the debauched kleptocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali—whose capitulation in January in the face of furious street protests triggered uprisings across the Arab world—the employees of the Librairie al Kitab kept a weather eye on the secret police. As luck would have it, the secret police kept their headquarters just across the street, in a whitewashed building housing the Interior Ministry. If the Librairie al Kitab had dared to carry a book containing even an insinuation of Ben Ali’s perfidy, it would have been “goodbye to the bookstore,” Kamel Hmaïdi, one of the employees, told me when I visited in late March. “We would go to jail,” he said, pointing out the window toward the looming ministry building. “Just there.”

Today, though, the display window of Librairie al Kitab is a shrine to the glories of free speech, given over in large part to works excoriating Ben Ali’s regime and his family. The titles include Le silence tunisien; La Tunisie de Ben Ali: La société contre le régime; and Ben Ali: Le ripou, which translates to “Ben Ali: The Rotten One.” Also: a number of books illuminating the transgressions of various other Arab dictators, and two books on the pitiable life and ghastly death of the Tunisian fruit-and-vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation, provoked by unending privation and the intolerable humiliation of a policewoman’s face-slapping assault, set off the revolution. The store had sold several hundred copies of Le ripou since January, Hmaïdi said.

Some time earlier, in Damascus, I had visited a bookstore in search of a reasonably non-hagiographic biography of Syria’s hereditary dictator, Bashar al-Assad. I could not find a single one, only book-length condemnations of Western treachery, and copies, in three languages, of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was a suffocating little shop. The Librairie al Kitab, by contrast, is a joyous place: little else in the world could give a visitor from a free nation as much happiness as the sight of a bookstore in a once-totalitarian state selling, finally, the books it wants to sell, without fear of imprisonment and ruin.


It is true that Ben Ali, for all his now well-cataloged sins, was not a top-tier Middle Eastern tyrant. His secret police operated with a degree of refinement, at least in comparison with the thuggish practices of Hosni Mubarak’s secret agents; and his cult of personality was underdeveloped, certainly when compared with that of his neighbor to the east, Muammar Qaddafi. But Ben Ali was a virtuoso thief, a ravenous looter of the state treasury. The new head of the Central Bank of Tunisia, Mustapha Kamel Nabli, brought back from self-imposed exile to help right his country’s broken economy, described his work so far as an adventure in forensic accounting. “Anything they could steal, they stole,” he told me. “I think it will take years for us to understand the extent of the corruption. The family of Ben Ali treated Tunisia as their personal property.”

Ben Ali’s wife, Leïla Trabelsi, an arriviste hairdresser who would dispatch government airplanes to Saint-Tropez for shopping trips, carried herself as if she were the uncrowned queen of Carthage. Her daughter and son-in-law maintained a mansion of extraordinary size and tackiness on the Mediterranean, whose grounds included a very Uday Hussein–esque enclosure for a pet tiger named Pasha. On at least one occasion they sent a government aircraft to Europe to fetch their favorite frozen yogurt. Before they fled to Saudi Arabia, Ben Ali and his wife reportedly looted the Central Bank, taking as much as a ton and a half of gold bullion. All told, the family may have stolen billions of dollars from the treasury. Thirty percent of young people in Tunisia are unemployed.

A former American ambassador to Tunisia, Robert Godec, told me recently that the family’s brazenness infuriated ordinary Tunisians. (His acerbic observations about Ben Ali’s family, made in cables later exposed by Wikileaks, are believed by many Tunisians to have provided a crucial spark to the anti–Ben Ali movement.) “My sense was that there was profound anger at Ben Ali, his wife, and many of their family members,” Godec said. “When the family wanted a piece of land, the local municipality would tell the owner there was a problem with the title. Then the title would be suddenly transferred to an entity controlled by someone in the family. You can understand how people could become quite angered by this.”

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