Lying, Denying, or Justifying?

Rethinking Authoritarian Repression Strategies in Light of Ben Ali’s Tunisia

in Middle East Law and Governance

In Tunisia under Ben Ali (1987–2011), marked human rights rhetoric coincided with intense repression. This points to a more general puzzle: what happens when authoritarian regimes uphold their repressive power maintenance agendas while simultaneously trying to avoid negative international consequences?

This article argues that authoritarian decision-makers attempt to evade negative consequences from international audiences by applying cushioning strategies in the form of obfuscation, rhetorical justification and/or procedural justification. In that way, they adapt their repressive tactics and manipulate the visibility and perception of their repressive behavior. Ben Ali’s main strategy was to obfuscate, i.e. to deny and cover repression.

However, as international audiences are far from applying the same yardstick to all human rights violations, ruling elites often repress targets differently depending on whether audiences have links and sympathy. Again, this becomes apparent in the Tunisian case study, from which hypotheses are generated for future research.