[On the 16th of September, the former minister Ahmed Ben Salah passed away in Tunis at the age of 94. His political career was synonymous with Tunisia’s attempt to set up a socialist economy during the 1960s after securing independence from France. Yet, Ben Salah has been a neglected figure in Tunisia and in the history of the Arab left. In fact, historians have overlooked his role in shaping the country’s history in light of more central historical figures, such as President Bourguiba, Ben Ali or the Ennahda Islamist party. Ben Salah’s career and the history Destourian Socialism fit the template of a rise and fall that is often associated with the broader history of the Arab left: his political career peaked in the 1960s when he convinced Bourguiba to adopt a planned economic model, state-led industrialization and rural cooperatives. However, the former caused his downfall when peasants and wealthy landowners stood against these collectivizations and orchestrated his ouster in 1969 by petitioning the President. Tunisia moved swiftly away from a socialist economic model to liberalize its economy, while Ben Salah was jailed and escaped prison in 1973. He spent the following years in exile, and was mostly ignored and forgotten by Tunisians and official history. He briefly returned to Tunisian political life in the early years of Ben Ali’s regime, and then made a more definitive return after the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. This article analyzes his role in Destourian Socialism and revisits the long-neglected career of Ben Salah in order to interrogate the multitude of leftist experiences in Tunisia that also underpinned the events of 2011.]
The Rise of Destourian Socialism in the 1960s
Ahmed Ben Salah burst onto the scene in 1954 as the young leader of the Tunisian trade union, the UGTT, after replacing the recently assassinated Farhat Hached. He belonged to a transnational Maghrebi generation of trade union leaders who led the struggle for independence, including the likes of Abdallah Ibrahim in Morocco or Mohamed Ramdani in Algeria, and who put in place the bases for a welfare state cognizant of workers’ rights while striving for a united Maghreb region. In fact, shortly after independence, at UGTT’s Sixth Congress in September 1956, Ben Salah penned a report containing an ambitious vision for economic and development. In it, he outlined specific proposals such as a guaranteed basic income of fifty Dinars per year per Tunisian, which aimed to redistribute wealth and alleviate poverty. The plan scared Tunisian elites and Bourguiba dismissed the report, and its author, as “communist” and schemed to replace Ben Salah with a more pliable figure, who they found in Ahmed Tlili, to ensure the support of the powerful trade union and its 150,000 members.
Ben Salah’s report was shelved for a few years and he himself was marginalized from power. A few years later, he gained access to the Tunisian “Supreme Combattant” and convinced him of the benefits of a planned economic development to materialize the promises made by the neo-Destour, the nationalist party that secured independence from France in the 1950s and took over the state apparatus. He once again joined the government in mid-1957 in charge of public health and added the Planning and Economy Ministry in January 1961. He published the Perspectives Tunisiennes 61-72, a ten-year vision for economic development that replicated his earlier 1956 report for the UGTT. Now these initiatives became government policy. With this plan, Tunisia made a decisive step toward its economic decolonization in 1961 after five years of hesitation and internal strife.
Ben Salah’s subsequent rise was meteoric. He was still in his 30s and began to accumulate so many ministerial portfolios that he was nicknamed the “Super-Minister”; in addition to the economy and planning portfolios, he was responsible for reforms in the domains of healthcare, social affairs, and education. This former teacher, known for his indomitable work ethic and unconventional methods, was widely seen as Bourguiba’s successor in waiting; he is said to have dressed up as a traditional woman one day to verify for himself complaints of overcrowded administrative services. Three years after the adoption of Perspectives Tunisiennes, at the 1964 Bizert Party Congress it was renamed “Parti Socialiste Destourien” as a nod to the state’s new ideological orientation.
On the political front, Destourian Socialism was a platform for popular mobilization through nationalist party structures in parallel to state institutions. “Coordination committees” were in charge of relaying political doctrine from the political bureau at the local level. Destourian Socialism was also an economic doctrine for accelerated economic development based on the central role of the state rather than the private sector’s role. This was crucial in light of the unbalanced economy left by seventy-five years of French colonial exploitation and a pre-existing economic disadvantage. Ben Salah subscribed to the principles of “industrializing industries” as formulated by the radical economist of development Gerard de Bernis. De Bernis worked in Tunisia in the 1950s and advocated for state investment in steel-mining in the Djerissa regions, phosphates mining in the Gafsa region, and chemical plants in the South-East. These costly plans would alleviate its dependency on industrialized economies, resolve its balance of payments, and absorb unemployment on a large scale. As such, Destourian Socialism draws similarities with the Arab socialist model found in Nasser’s Egypt in the 1950s.
Ben Salah’s Fall in the Late 1960s
Ben Salah is perhaps best known for his role in setting up rural cooperatives because of the role they would play in his downfall. The rural economy Tunisia inherited at independence was dominated by large European landowners and a profound imbalance in the desolate interior of the country. As Max Ajl has argued, the efforts to “depart from the periphery” were common in the Global South. Thus, Ben Salah sought to increase Tunisian agriculture sector’s productivity in order to extract a surplus that would finance the state’s heavy investments into industrialization, equipment and infrastructures; here we note the towering influence of Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin on this thinking.
In Perspectives Tunisiennes 61-72 Ben Salah had intended to proceed progressively by setting up production units in 1962 and then moving to larger exploitation units based on pooling of small plots while accompanying small farmers with instruction, mechanization, and the use of fertilizers. In a later interview, Ben Salah notes that he was forced to adopt a faster pace after Bourguiba announced publicly (and without consulting him) that he would nationalize lands belonging to foreigners in 1964. From 1964 to 1969, increased the rate of collectivization often forcing peasants to rent or sell their land to the state to satisfy plans elaborated in Tunis. In 1969, the system accounted for 1762 cooperatives on 4.1 million hectares of land. This meant that at the height of Destourian Socialism, and on the eve of its downfall, one-third of Tunisian farming lands were under the collective model.
The speed of these collectivized farms sparked resistance among small farmers and fear among large Tunisian landowners. This was a top-down and authoritarian process with little consultation that left the peasants feeling powerless. There were reports of sabotage, theft and troubles following state instructions to replace olive trees with higher yield crops for example, which Ben Salah later dismissed as reactionary on the part of peasants who failed to understand his policies who saw “an olive tree as a family heirloom.” Yet, Bourguiba kept his faith in Ben Salah. In 1969, a second wave of protests proved fatal after a government official traveled to Ouardanine in the Sahel region in late January to open a new unit. He was met with local opposition that soon escalated into clashes with security forces and casualties. Ben Salah’s opponents pounced during the ensuing summer, with reports of Tunis liberals such as Ahmed Mestiri and older nationalists such as Prime Minister Ladgham lobbying Bourguiba and showing him a confidential World Bank report raising the alarm over Tunisian Finances to paint a picture of widespread social opposition to Destourian Socialism and a cover-up from the Super-Minister. Shortly after, Bourguiba decided to cease the socialist experiment. Ben Salah was first dismissed from his posts on 8 September. On 22 September, the cooperative experiment ended, which appeased the countryside.
In May 1970, a blatantly politicized tribunal charged him with having “deceived the President”. He was accused of public treason and “deceiving the President” while Bourguiba was convalescent abroad due to his recurrent health issues. The event was broadcasted publicly and showed Ben Salah in a relaxed mood, full of wit, combining expert explanation with popular Tunisian expressions to dismantle the accusations leveled against him, which made the regime look like amateurs. Unsurprisingly, he was condemned to prison and ten years of forced labor, but he managed to escape from prison thanks to the help of a guard in 1973 He then moved to socialist Algeria before settling in Europe where he established the Mouvement de l’Unité Populaire. In the following years, he was drawn into several “third worldist” and radical Arab nationalist movements but remained largely absent from Tunisian politics and soon forgotten. Yet, shortly after his escape, he sat down for lengthy interviews with the Swiss left-leaning UN development expert Marc Nerfin in 1973, to revisit his decade in power and his socialist vision. This book was published by Francois Maspéro and it constitutes a valuable document in the growing archive of the Arab left of the global sixties.
Destourian Socialism failed for multiple reasons, but Ben Salah undoubtedly over-promised and under-delivered: the cost of setting up a large-scale industrial complex and an extensive cooperative system strained the state budget and caused the devaluation of the dinar and salary freezes 1964, when they were promised economic improvements in quality of life. In fact, agriculture production did not grow during cooperative years due to droughts and flooding. He had relied on the sacrifices and the commitment of Tunisians during these initial challenges, instead, he pushed the small peasantry in the arms of the landed bourgeoisie.
Ben Salah’s demise, beyond the cooperatives, is enlightening for the broader history of the Arab left. According to an anonymous document published in Esprit shortly after Ben Salah’s demise, the Super-Minister made a massive tactical mistake in failing to adopt a class-based approach or to build a strong constituency in an alliance with the GEAST, later the Perspectives Tunisiennes movement (despite sharing a name with his planning document). In fact, Ben Salah was named Education Secretary in 1968, shortly after the leftist student protests and Tunis trials that jailed its leaders. The anonymous document intimates that Ben Salah distrusted the teachers, bureaucrats, and intellectuals whom he frequently attacked sarcastically. Instead, Ben Salah continued to act as a labor union leader by engaging the “small people” and trying to convince them of his vision, while he ignored the large economic interests conspiring against his reforms One telling example of this tendency is the story of how Ben Salah scolded a small shop-owner for hiking the price of eggs, while overlooking how the price hike was decided upstream by large egg distributors. Finally, he banked on Bourguiba’s continued support and patience, while ignoring the president’s own quest for political survival. The system centered around the president’s feelings, and while he lay in bed convalescent, his younger Super-Minister toured the country energetically lining up speeches and official openings, more than the actual Prime Minister Bahi Ladgham.
Ben Salah’s swift political exit in 1969-70 is often treated as the end of Tunisian socialism when we read this decade as part of the Arab Left’s tendency to rise and fall. Yet, Ben Salah’s history is only a piece in the puzzle of the Tunisian Left in the 20th century that can be assembled once his legacy has been opened and processed by Tunisian historians today.
Ben Salah and the Complicated legacies of the Tunisian Left
Shortly after Ben Salah’s exit, the country took a definitive turn to the right. Bourguiba named Hedi Nouira the new Prime Minister and this trusted long-time nationalist adopted liberal policies that restored the confidence of Tunisia’s investing classes and attracted again foreign capital. The government divested from all but a few cooperatives which ended up falling into private hands by 1980, while encouraging tourism and other industries that opened the country to foreign markets. Quality of life improved as the government struck a deal with UGTT known as the “dialogue social” over regular salary increases, which are credited for fostering the Tunisian middle class and its access to consumer goods. This “experiment” was redressed as Tunisia returned to its liberal ways as seen in its robust engagements with international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, while orienting its trade and economic activity with the European Union in the 1970s. In the space of a few years, Tunisia erased all traces of Destourian Socialism. How did this impact the history of the other lefts in the country?
As a result, Tunisia’s socialist experiment has been presented as merely a blip in the country’s history. In recent years, whenever Ben Salah is mentioned in certain Tunisian media outlets, they always mention the “failed cooperative policies” as his greatest claim to fame. Ben Salah has been erased from Tunisian history as he has been from most accounts of the Arab Left. Yet according to Tunisian historian Juliette Bessis, his policies left a lasting mark and helped alleviate the structural imbalance between the interior and seafront regions. According to Lisa Anderson, his policies planted the seeds that would bloom a decade later, rather than credit Nouira’s liberal turn, by encouraging the emergence of a “new commercial bourgeoisie in construction, public works, and tourism” during the period of semi-autarky in the 1960s when Ben Salah restricted access to foreign markets. As for Ben Salah’s place in the history of the Arab Left, we may attribute it to a range of explanations ranging from his “short” tenure and sudden erasure of his name official media, the traditional marginalization of Tunisia as a “quiet country” (to borrow Jocelyne Dakhlia’s expression) far from the anti-imperial foreign policy battles, Ben Salah’s own rejection of doctrinal Marxist principles such as class analysis, or the greater attraction and nostalgia for radical and revolutionary movements. Historians and Journalists have made tentative attempts to revisit his legacy over the past twenty years. However, they have been unable to overcome the ill-feelings that continue to be associated with his decade in power, even after taking part in the Abdeljelil Temimi Foundation’s seminars on public memory in 2011 and 2015.
As we mourn Ben Salah’s passing, Destourian Socialism needs to be recast in its context in order to excavate Tunisia’s long and multiform tradition of leftism throughout the tumultuous 20th century. This starts with UGTT’s crucial role during the anti-colonial struggle after it mobilized workers in the mining basins and the docks to put pressure against the French authorities. The Tunisian Communist Party offered disruption in the cities by committed and well-organized forces. During the late sixties and seventies, Maoist students and the Perspectives Tunisiennes group shook the university, and in the 1980s and 1990s, they reconverted themselves into the vibrant civil society sector that pushed back against the Ben Ali regime (Ligue Tunisienne des Droits de l’Homme). In 2011, the UGTT’s involvement in protests led to Ben Ali’s departure and stabilized the tumultuous transition process. While the political parties of the Tunisian Left remain fragmented, they are significant enough to play kingmakers under the (often challenged) leadership of Hamma Hammami.
By contrast, Ben Salah’s Destourian Socialism in the 1960s stood at the heart of the state edifice rather than the margins of power. For nearly a decade shortly after independence, the state embraced a version of socialist ideology that shaped the new structures of the state, the beliefs of a new generation of bureaucrats, and the political system. As the above has argued, Destourian Socialism’s fall in 1969-70 should not be synonymous with the fall of all forms of leftist ideology and mobilization. These histories, like Ben Salah’s own historical journey, remain to be written.
 Perspectives Tunisiennes, 1962/71 (Tunis: Kitabāt al-Dawlah lil-Akhbār wa-l-’irshād, 1962).
 Perkins, History of Modern Tunisia (2014), 151.
 Rondot “Le ‘tournant tunisien’ de 1963. Causes, caractéristiques et justification des aménagements internes,” L’Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord 2 (1964), 182.
 Bessis, Belhassen, Bourguiba (Tunis: Elyzad, 2012) (second edition), 238-248.
 De Bernis, “La Tunisie et la zone franc,” Les cahiers de Tunisie VII (1959), 109-110.
 Ajl, “Auto-centered development and indigenous technics: Slaheddine el-Amami and Tunisian delinking,” The Journal of Peasant Studies (2018), 2-3.
 Le Gendre, Bourguiba (Paris: Fayard, 2019), 251-2.
 Ajl, “Auto-centered development and indigenous technics: Slaheddine el-Amami and Tunisian delinking,” The Journal of Peasant Studies (2018), 5.
 Nerfin, Entretiens avec Ahmed Ben Salah (Paris: Francois Maspero, 1974).
 Le Tourneau, “Chronique Politique” Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord 8 (1970), 386.
 Ibid. 388.
 Belhassen “Le compte rendu du procès de Ben Salah” Jeune Afrique 492 (09 June 1970), 58-60.
 Poncet, “Les structures actuelles de l’agriculture tunisienne,” L’Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord 14 (1976), 45.
 Nellis, “A Comparative Assessment of the Development Performances of Algeria and Tunisia,” Middle East Journal 37, 3 (Summer 1983), 374-5.
 Belhassen, Bessis, Bourguiba (2012), 322-366.
 Bessis, Histoire de la Tunisie (2019), 392.
 Anderson, The state and social transformation in Tunisia and Libya 1830-1980 (Princeton University Press, 1986), 241.
 Dakhlia, Tunisie, Le pays sans bruit (Actes Sud: 2011).
 Melfa, “A Patriotic Internationalism: The Tunisian Communist Party’s Commitment to the Liberation of Peoples,” The Arab Lefts. Histories and Legacies, 1950s-1970s ed. Guirguis, (Edinburgh University Press, 2020), 96-109; Hendrickson, “March 1968: Practicing Transnational Activism from Tunis to Paris,” IJMES 44, 4 (Nov. 2012), 755-774.
 Borsali, Livre d’entretiens avec Ahmed Ben Salah: L’homme fort de la Tunisie dans les années soixante (Tunis, 2008); Salem Mansouri devoted a lengthy book on “Ahmed Ben Salah and his Epoch” (Ahmad bin-Salah wa zamanuhu) (2018).