MONASTIR – Flanked by columns of private security, Tunisian lawmaker Abir Moussi recently swept onto a stage to address an adoring crowd at a rally filled with symbols evoking the North African country’s past.
Since winning a parliamentary seat in 2019, Moussi has become one of the country’s most popular — and most controversial — politicians, riding a wave of nostalgia for a more stable and prosperous time, just as Tunisia marks 10 years since protesters overthrew autocratic former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Moussi, a lawyer and former official in Ben Ali’s ruling party, freely stokes that yearning and purports to offer a way back, telling the crowd in the coastal town of Monastir on a recent afternoon that "Tunisia is bleeding, that Tunisia is sick and wounded. Tunisia wants us to save her from this situation.”
Tunisian President Kais Saied, overwhelmingly elected in 2019, holds a strong anti-dictatorship stance. But some see Moussi and the backward-looking movement she espouses as a threat to Tunisia's young democracy, and criticize her refusal to even acknowledge the flagrant repression under Ben Ali, who was toppled on Jan. 14, 2011, in a revolution that unleashed uprisings across the region known as the Arab Spring.
Ben Ali fled in disgrace to Saudi Arabia and died in 2019. A truth commission found tens of thousands of victims of torture, execution or corruption under him and his predecessor.
While countries in democratic transition often experience such nostalgia, Moussi has tapped into widespread frustration with the failure of Tunisia's post-revolution democratically elected governments to tackle searing poverty.
Since 2011, Tunisia has been plagued by sinking wages, growing joblessness and worsening public services. Unemployment has risen amid the coronavirus pandemic from 15% to 18%. Attempts to migrate to Europe by sea have soared.
“It’s not nostalgia for a dictator — Tunisians still hate this fallen regime — it’s the nostalgia for the certainty that has been lost,” says Michaël Bechir Ayari, a senior analyst of Tunisia at the International Crisis Group.
“People want public services,” he said. “They feel that under Ben Ali it was easier because the paternalistic system was much more reliable than now.”
Moussi often denies the legitimacy of the Tunisian revolution, and says that Islamist movement Ennahda, the largest party in parliament, is a terrorist group that should be banned. She advocates returning to a strong presidency and security apparatus but is careful not to overly praise Ben Ali.
She finds a welcome ear in many quarters: Her Facebook lives of sit-ins that frequently disrupt parliament are watched and shared by thousands. Her Free Destourian Party, known by its French acronym PDL, took 17 seats in 2019, but two recent surveys suggest it could win the most votes if parliamentary elections were held today.
"Abir speaks the truth. She’s a lion. She’s the one that’s going to save Tunisia," said Morad Jaaidi, a retired bank manager, who attended the Monastir rally.
“What happened is not a revolution, what happened was a coup d’état,” says Abir Jlassi, 27, who is studying to become a lawyer. “Abir’s program of recovery is a clear vision for the future.”
But critics say it's exactly because she lacks a concrete political program that she resorts to populist rhetoric.
Symbols harkening back to Tunisia’s past abounded at the Monastir rally. A portrait of the country's first leader Habib Bourguiba — who led Tunisia to independence from France — gazed paternally upon the crowd. Speakers played a song popular during the Ben Ali dictatorship, with gauzy lyrics about perfect beaches and sunny weather. Even a few shouts of “God Bless Ben Ali!” could be heard.
Mohammed Jegham worked under Ben Ali for 13 years, including as interior minister, defense minister and the president's chief of staff.
“If you try and do an assessment of those 23 years that Ben Ali was in power, there is the good and the bad,” Jegham, who now runs an air conditioning company on the outskirts of the capital, Tunis, told The Associated Press. “The country without question advanced during those years. There was lots of investment.”
But Tunisia's Truth and Dignity Commission, established by the democratically elected government in 2013, uncovered numerous abuses in a sweeping investigation of the governments of Bourguiba and Ben Ali and the aftermath of the 2011 revolution.
The commission received 63,000 complaints, identified 30,000 victims of serious violations and transferred 200 cases of corruption, torture, rape and assassination to the courts. Its report details the grim torture methods of the former security apparatus, including mock executions, drownings, rape and electrocution. One testimony details how a pregnant woman was beaten so badly she miscarried, another how a man was suspended from the ceiling, burnt with cigarettes and flayed alive.
Moussi herself appears in the report in documents showing that she was paid to give the Ben Ali government information on her fellow lawyers. She has previously attacked the work of the commission; she declined requests to be interviewed.
Asked about accusations that Moussi glosses over such abuses, fellow PDL parliamentarian Mohammed Krifa said: “If you give us freedom of speech and we are starving, what does that mean?”
“Even with the mistakes of the old regime, with the bad things, the growth of the country was 7%,” he added.
Human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine, who led the truth commission, recognizes Tunisia's economic troubles, but says: “A citizen is in need of both his freedom and his security. You can’t have one without the other.”
She emphasizes the strides Tunisia has made since 2011: the establishment of democratic institutions, an independent justice system, free and fair elections — but acknowledges there's still work to be done and warns against backsliding.
Still, analyst Ayari calls it “a sign of good health of the Tunisian democracy” that people like Moussi are allowed to participate in the public debate.
"It’s better to have ideas, even extremist ideas, framed by political parties and conflicts that are peaceful but inside parliament not out in the streets,” he said. “What is a threat is the economic and social situation. This is much more dangerous.”