The Amilcar Notes (Part 1): Zine Ben Ali’s Sorry Legacy

Introduction

Rachid Ghannouchi is returning to Tunisia after a brief tour of Washington DC. The leader of the Ennahdha Party, the moderate Islamic party that won 41% of the vote in the country’s first open election in its history, Ghannouchi probably went to the U.S. for two reasons – to calm Congressional fears in Washington that Ennahdha is little more than Al Qaeda with a makeup job, and to solicit investment possibilities. From the press reports coming out of the U.S. that I am reading here in Tunisia, it seemed his visit was successful from the public relations view point at least.

Le Bandit

45 years ago when I lived in Tunisia as a Peace Corps volunteer and staff member, it was rare that people would talk about politics or openly criticize the government. “How’s your family? How’s your health? What do you think of the weather” and other non- subjects were the focus of conversation. But the country is living in another political age today. Less than a year after Ben Ali fled the country with as much of the nation’s treasury he could carry on his plane, the country, finally liberated from fear, seems to talk nothing but politics. It is on nearly everyone’s mind…and tongue.

Amilcar, a suburb of Tunis.

Amilcar, a suburb of Tunis.

What has been most striking is the utter contempt that has been expressed to me – now a week in Tunisia – towards the country’s deposed president Zine Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi. Ben Ali is known to have had two favorite hobbies during his presidency: playing with his grandson and torturing people. A few examples of how his former countrymen evaluate his 25 years in power will suffice. An elderly man at a train station engages me in conversation without my soliciting the exchange. Refusing to stoop to even mentioning Ben Ali’s name, he speaks of the country getting rid of “le bandit.” A cab driver, an admirer of the country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, speaks of Ben Ali in harsher terms, calling him a fascist, un salaud’ (that translates in English to something approaching a scumbag).

No doubt the system of repression that existed under Ben Ali is at the root of this pervasive contempt for the former president. With a state security force of 250,000 given a free hand and encouraged to torture, intimidate and break the spirit of anyone questioning his authority, Ben Ali ruled with an iron hand. He himself was trained for the job in the U.S. (Baltimore) and France. No one of the many people I have spoken to has one good word to say about him. Yet despite being aware of Ben Ali’s record, five American presidents – Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2, and until the last moment Barack Obama – supported the dictator as a “moderate” and important ally in Washington’s “war on terrorism.”

This past Wednesday a Tunisian court found Abdullah Khallal and Mohamed Ali Ganzoui – the former a Minister of the Interior under Ben Ali – guilty of having promoted and practiced torture and government blackmail . The specific case involved the torture of 17 former Tunisian military officers unjustly accused of plotting a military coup against Ben Ali; they were arrested, savagely tortured and imprisoned. The two were sentence to – five years in prison – minus time served. The court also ruled that the accused pay considerable but undefined restitution payments to the victims.

A very light sentence given the extent of the repression used against the Tunisian people during the Ben Ali years! Consider only a part of the data relating to Ben Ali’s attempt to suppress the Islamic Ennahdha Party; it gives a suggestion of the scope of the repression. According to several sources, over the course of the Ben Ali years, some 30,000 supporters of Ennahdha would serve prison terms, another 30,000 would be placed under “administrative detention” forced to report twice or thrice daily to the police. 20,000 were purged from jobs, 4,000 went into exile, 105 were assassinated with another 30 having simply “disappeared.”

It is as if Ben Ali were competing for something akin to an anti-Nobel prize and he is right up there in the running with the worst of them: the Guatemalan dictators, Pinochet, Mobutu and that great cast of right wing dictators the United States has supported – whether it be in defense of the war on Communism or the war against terrorism – for decades.

Abed Moneen Ben Chabaane.

Abed Moneen Ben Chabaane.

The case of Abed Moneen Ben Chabaane, an Ennahdha activist, illustrated the nature of Ben Ali’s repressive machine as well as any. Arrested, imprisoned and tortured because of his work as an organizer for the Islamic university student organization, Ben Chabane is one of the more fortunate ones. He survived. Many of his friends and comrades in arms did not.

From Amilcar to Le Cram

To this day, the Arish Ben Chabaane clan to which Moneen belongs has properties “from Amilcar to Le Cram” – two suburbs north of Tunis. There they prospered for several hundred years, raising crops and engaged in dairy farming. Interviewed yesterday in Amilcar, Moneen told how at harvest time, he would watch his grandfather slaughter a cow and distribute to meat to the needy people of the district. The family would also give away milk to the poor rather than sell it because they thought that the right, Islamic thing to do. While still influential family to this day, their family farming business took a hit in the 1950s, just after independence, when then President Bourguiba put an end to their dairy activities on the pretext that foreign tourists would be offended by the sight of the Ben Chabanne cows and sheep.

Whatever influence the family clan possessed was not enough to save Ben Chabaane from Ben Ali’s jails. On September 10, 1992 – the day of the prophet Mohammed’s birthday, le mouled – at a café in Sidi Bou Said on the Ave de la President Habib Bourguiba, Ben Chabaane was sitting drinking coffee and chatting with a group of friends. In short order several police cars pulled up, surrounded the place and arrested him. He would spend the next month and 29 days in a jail cell at the Ministry of Interior in Tunis and the next 11 years in Ben Ali’s prisons.

Ennahdha’s Election Victory: in Part a Sympathy Vote

It has been acknowledged that the victory that Ennahdha won in Tunisia’s October 23 elections for the Constituent Assembly was, for many Tunisians, a result of a sympathy vote for the party that was easily the target of Ben Ali’s most vicious and sustained repression. There was also a deep desire among those who went to the polls to “return to normalcy.” After Ben Ali’s hasty exit from Tunisia with as much of the country’s national treasure as he could haul away, it was a network of political prisoners – hardened and disciplined by their time behind bars – in concert with their families, which provided Ennahdha with the organizational backbone for its re-emergence and stunning victory at the polls.

Was Ennahdha exaggerating the hardships it had endured, or “playing the victim”? From what can be gleaned from various sources here in Tunisia, Ennahdha’s suffering under Ben Ali was not at all overstated. The former dictator conducted nothing short of a campaign of annihilation against the party. He personally oversaw much of the worst repression personally. Ben Ali was obsessed with Ennahdha and went to all necessary extremes to crush it. That it survived and now is flourishing can only be explained by its connection to and sympathy from broad sectors of the country’s population.

The repression took many forms – arbitrary arrest, exacting signed confessions through torture, disappearances of political activists and critics, threatening and intimidating the families and friends of political prisoners, purging Ennahdha supporters from jobs – all the now familiar and well-worn methods of dictators everywhere. That either the United States or France were unaware of the scope and brutality of the repression is not credible. Whatever Nicolas Sarkozy or Barak Obama might now be saying, praising Tunisia’s role in starting the Arab Spring, these leaders and their governments did not lift a finger to press Ben Ali when it might have helped. They spoke of him as a “moderate” and praised his role in supporting them in their war on terrorism. Their current praise of Tunisian democracy rings hollow.

Torture With a Cat

During the nearly two months spent in the basement of the Ministry of the Interior in 1992 Ben Chebaane was repeatedly tortured. A young university student in his early 20s he was the subject of Abu Ghraib-like tortures, eerily resembling those inflicted upon Iraqis by the U.S. military occupation forces a decade or so later. He described several.

Besides repeated beatings I will only describe one of the more common forms. Among the more demented creative forms of humiliation to which political prisoners were subjected involved a cat. First forced to strip nude in front of fellow prisoners and guards, a prisoner had to then put on a pair of baggy pants the bottoms of which were tied closed at his ankles. Then the cat placed in his baggy pants and while there beaten with a stick. Programmed to panic, in its panic and inability to escape, the cat would scratch and tear at a prisoner’s stomach and scrotum.

Repeatedly and savagely beaten, himself, Ben Chebaane was forced to sign a confession that he had a bomb-making factory in his home, although the ingredients were never found. Instead the authorities confiscated a bag of sand and a bottle of cough medicine – material from which it is rather difficult to make bombs.

The bomb-making scenario was key to the prosecution, and to convincing the press and the international media that Ben Chabaane and his colleagues were not being arrested for their political views, but because they were terrorists. This was especially important as at the time, the European Commission was already putting pressure on Ben Ali for him to set free the imprisoned Islamists, whom the Europeans understood, had nothing to do with radical Islamic extremism. But Ben Ali would have none of this. Raising the specter of an Islamic radical movement like that which had emerged in Algeria, he was able to fend off the pressure and continue what was a merciless crackdown of the Islamic movement in Tunisia.

The extent of the torture was such that Ben Chabaane admits he would have signed anything put before him. “If I was told to sign a document that I would kill my father, I would have signed it.”

Transferred to Tunis’ main prison (since demolished), he had to wait another four years before he was finally brought to trial. Charged with having explosives in his possession, he denied his guilt. But the judge waved Ben Chabaane’s signed confession before his face and, he sentenced him to 11 years in prison. Having already served four of them waiting for trial, he spent the next seven being transferred from one prison to another throughout Tunisia – seven in all. Most of them were far from Tunis and his extended family.

All that because he was an open supporter and political activist for Ennahda. He had committed no crime, to act of violence against persons or property. “That is not our way,” he told me.

In prison, the humiliation only continued. While life for anyone in a Tunisian prison is not easy, for Ennadha supporters it was that much harder. They were denied many privileges permitted others, the right to read newspapers, watch TV. Reading the Koran was banned as was any manifestation of prayer. It’s the kind of treatment that breaks the soul and spirit of many – which is exactly what it is meant to do. But many of those who survived the mental and physical torture became hardened political activists and would take the survival and organizational skills honed in Tunisia’s prisons out into society at large once released.

Call it the school of hard knocks! … Very hard knocks.

Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.