“Syria with a smile” is how Tunisia is often described. Relatively liberal and open in cultural and social terms, presenting a benign face to tourists and visiting journalists, it is nevertheless rigorously authoritarian in its politics – and arguably becoming more so.
“Unlike most of its semi-authoritarian neighbors, which have – under increasing domestic and international pressures for democratization – embarked on a (however limited) path of political reform, Tunisia shows no signs of opening up politically,” writes Kristina Kausch, in a recent analysis for the Democratisation and Rule of Law Program of FRIDE, the Madrid-based think-tank.
Indeed, the opposite is true. Whilst in countries like Morocco, Jordan and Egypt openly violent repression belongs largely in the past, behind the façade Tunisia remains an old-style dictatorship built around one man, whose rule is held up by an openly repressive police state with few aspirations to subtlety.