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Recent events in Tunisia suggest two lessons.  First, the west is wrong to think of old dictators as useful allies.  Like other longstanding authoritarian despots before him, President Ben Ali managed to convince the United States (and also western allies like France and the UK), that the repressive nature of his regime was essential for regional stability.  In this case, his bloated police state was viewed as a necessary inconvenience by western diplomats, given the alleged threat of radical Islam, even if it meant that the West was maintaining close diplomatic relations with a corrupt and increasingly unpopular regime that could probably not win more than 15% of the vote in a free and fair election.

In an uncertain world with so many unreasonable people, the logic of this kind of realpolitik is not without its appeal.  Ben Ali was useful to successive administrations in Washington.  And there were many regimes around the world worse than Ben Ali, whose administration was reasonably capable and avoided the egregious excesses of some autocracies, notably in the Arab world.

On the other hand, most regional experts protested that Tunisia possessed one of the largest educated middle classes in the developing world, had had a longstanding tradition of relatively tolerant politics until Ben Ali, and could be expected to evolve towards stable liberal democracy if allowed to. [A1] They pointed out that in the long run, Tunisia could be more useful to American diplomacy by demonstrating the possibility of liberal democracy in the Arab world.  But as in other places, the West was risk averse and preferred the known to the unknown devil.

Unfortunately, providing unconditional diplomatic support and foreign aid to a dictator may be smart in the short run, but often leads to disaster in the long run. Indeed, our second lesson is that  leaders of extraordinary tenure are rarely good for their own countries. To be sure, old dictators are remarkably durable.  My research with Henry Bienen shows that the risk of losing power for a head of state declines over time: the longer a leader is in power, the less likely he is to  lose power in the next year, no matter how long he has been in power (and, he is the right pronoun here: they are nearly always men).  Over time, they get better at staying in power.

Nonetheless, it is also true that the longer a dictator is in power, the less well he  governs.  Indeed, it is remarkable the extent to which the world’s economic basket cases are led by long standing authoritarian rulers.  In my 2005 book,  Overcoming Stagnation in Aid-Dependent Countries, I showed that in the world’s poorest countries, the average leader stayed in power more than 11 years. The dismal economic performances of these countries did not seem to hamper the political careers of their leaders.

Some authoritarian leaders are terrible for their countries virtually from their first day in power.  It is hard to say anything nice, for instance, about Samuel Doe in Liberia, and he managed to stay in power for 14 awful years.  Ben Ali was probably in the category of leaders who were not always awful.  When he came to power in 1987, he was initially viewed as a moderate technocrat and reformer, who would steer the country towards slow but progressive democratization.  The economic reforms he pushed through brought steady economic growth rates to a country blessed by many natural advantages and an industrious people.

Nonetheless, ineluctably, the quality of his rule decayed over time. The longer he was in power, the more personalized and arbitrary it became. His relatives were allowed to engage in massive corruption and abuses of power.  He encouraged an Orwellian cult of personality which was widely ridiculed by most Tunisians.

As his popularity waned, he increased the share of budgetary resources going to an ever expanding repressive apparatus, which is today said to include over 100,000 police and intelligence personnel, whose sole purpose was to keep him in power.  The economy, which had seemed on the verge of a real take off, now stagnated, while income inequalities increased.

The West was taken in by his claim that his security apparatus was justified by the Islamic fundamentalist threat, rather than by his own careerist preoccupations.  Yet Tunisia had a fairly strong secular tradition built up during the rule of Habib Bourguiba; though the Tunisian middle class was willing to put up with Ben Ali’s strong hand for a while in the name of political stability, it soon tired of his excesses.  Observers could not help but notice that the regime’s repression of any kind of independent secular civil society or media actually increased the likelihood that opposition would be framed in fundamentalist terms.  Even so, the absence of Islamic rhetoric during the last month of protest has been striking.

If Ben Ali had undertaken real political reform and left power in the mid 1990s, he could have orchestrated a progressive democratization process for which the country was clearly ready.  Every town in Tunisia would have soon named a street for him and his visionary rule, and his retirement would have been spent being toasted in Western capitals for his work on various well-meaning international commissions.  As it is, he is reviled by his countrymen, and will spend the last few years of his life hiding from the law in far away places.  And Tunisia, currently on the edge of civil war, faces an unsettled future. His own, now desperate praetorian guard tries to foment chaos, to prevent the emergence of democratic rule.

In sum, little good comes from allowing a president to remain in power much longer than a decade.  That is why I have long argued that the imposition of presidential term limits is perhaps the single most important measure to improve the governance and economic performance of developing countries.  I have recommended that the Western donors send a strong signal that “presidents for life” are no longer acceptable by withholding foreign aid to any low-income country with a leader in power longer than three terms or 12 years.  Such a policy would directly concern such close U.S. allies and aid recipients as presidents Meles in Ethiopia (in power since 1995), Museveni in Uganda (since 1986), or Biya in Cameroon (since 1982), or Mubarak in Egypt (since 1981).

In each case, the risks of democratization and alternation exist but are minor compared to those linked to the continuation of the current regime decay.  These countries would each be well served by the graceful retirement of a president who has exhausted his welcome.


Bienen, Henry and Nicolas van de Walle.  1991.  Of Time and Power: Leadership Duration in the Modern World.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Van de Walle, Nicolas. 2005. Overcoming Stagnation in Aid-Dependent Countries. Washington DC: Center for Global Development.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.