In Tunisia, where the revolutionary impulses that are sweeping the Middle East began less than three months ago, with the self-immolation of 26-year old Mohamed Bouazizi, the flight of the dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, on January 14, was not just the end of a hated 31-year tyranny, but also the start of a determination on the part of Tunisia’s revolutionaries to make sure that the transition to democracy would not be derailed by remants of the old regime.
On February 27, Mohamed Ghannouchi, who was the Prime Minister in the transitional government that took over from Ben Ali, responded to the largest protests since the dictator’s fall — a weekend of violent protests that left five people dead — by tendering his resignation. Ghannouchi, who had been the Prime Minister under Ben Ali for ten years, had struggled — and failed — to convince a significant number of the Tunisian people that he represented a break with the old regime — hence the protests that led to his resignation.
His successor, Béji Caïd Essebsi, 84, is a lawyer, with a reputation for being “a political liberal,” as AsiaOne explained, noting that he “was a close aide of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president after independence,” and served in several ministerial posts. After Ben Ali came to power in 1987, he was elected a member of parliament (in 1989), and was president of the House of Deputies until 1991, when he resumed his profession as a lawyer.
Untainted by close association with Ben Ali, Essebsi immediately spoke of the elections planned for July 24, saying, “We will see to it that this election will be the first one in Tunisia’s history to take place in total credibility and transparency, which is an important step on the path of democracy,” and moved swiftly to distance himself still further from the Ben Ali years by asserting that “all persons proved guilty under the old regime will be brought to justice, starting with the deposed Head of State who committed the crime of ‘high treason,’ not to mention all those key figures of the ousted system,” as AllAfrica.com explained. He also announced a new government that “includes no new members from the old regime,” as the Guardian pointed out, although the Ministers of Defence, the Interior, Justice and Foreign Affairs kept their posts. The Guardian added that “All the newcomers are technocrats rather than career politicians,” and that they will help to facilitate the election of “a constituent assembly in late July to rewrite the Constitution.”
On March 3, the July 24 elections were offcially announced by interim President Fouad Mebazza, to choose a constituent assembly that will rewrite the Constitution and chart the country’s transition to democracy. A source close to the President’s office told Reuters that, “once elected, the constituent council could either appoint a new government or ask the caretaker executive to carry on until presidential and parliamentary elections were held.”
On March 7, Béji Caïd Essebsi also fulfilled one of the key demands of the popular revolution that overthrew Ben Ali by announcing the abolition of the hated secret police. In an official communiqué, the interim government stated that abolishing the secret police was done “in harmony with the values of the revolution.”
A brutal fixture of Ben Ali’s repressive regime, the secret police — the state security agency — had a fearsome reputation as human rights abusers. As the Guardian explained, the agency “functioned largely as a domestic spy agency and had wide powers to act against people deemed disloyal by the regime. Its officers, [who] monitored opposition politicians and journalists, could arrest people randomly” and regularly tortured those in its custody.
Ben Ali had remorselessly targeted political dissidents, including Ennahdha, a moderate Islamist party opposed to his dictatorship. In 1989, after Ennahda came second to the ruling party in elections, “officially winning about 17% of the ballot in a count widely suspected to favour the ruling party,” as the BBC put it, the party was banned. Its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, fled the country during a crackdown soon after, as did many members of the party, some of whom ending up living in Afghanistan or Pakistan, where a handful were unlucky enough to be picked up after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, and sent to Guantánamo as terrorists. This was a label that suited Ben Ali, who had sentenced them all in absentia on charges related to terrorism that were widely regarded as being based on confessions derived from their co-defendants through the use of torture.
On March 1, Ennahdha was given legal status as a political party, paving the way for its participation in the forthcoming elections under the leadership of Rachid Ghannouchi, who returned from exile after Ben Ali’s fall. Speaking of the announced dissolution of the secret police, Ali Larayedh, a member of Ennahdha, who spent 14 years in prison for political reasons, told Reuters, “It is a dream come true for everyone. People have suffered because of them. They wrecked politics, the media and the judiciary in this country.”
Although Egypt generally seems to have been mirroring events in Tunisia, overthrowing its own dictator, Hosni Mubarak, on Febuary 11, and then forcing the resignation, on March 3, of Mubarak’s tainted Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, it is not known if events in Egypt, on the weekend immediately before the Tunisian interim government’s announcement of the dissolution of the state security agency, had influenced its neighbor’s decision. In Egypt, protestors had stormed the headquarters of the state security agency in Cairo, and several offices in other locations, including Alexandria, rescuing files, videos and torture instruments after hearing that agents had been shredding and burning documents. The events may be related, or it may simply be that, as the Guardian described it, Tunisia “has gone further than neighbouring Egypt in seeking to rid itself of an apparatus associated with decades of repression.”
Nor was this the end of the changes. Two days after this momentous announcement, on March 9, a Tunisian court dissolved Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s party, the Rally for Constitutional Democracy (RCD), announcing that it had decided “to liquidate its assets and funds.” The RCD, which has said it will appeal, was suspended from official activities in February by the Interior Ministry, after Ben Ali fled the country. As Al-Jazeera reported, “The party, which claimed a membership of two million people out of a population of around 10.4 million, was accused of violating the constitution to set up a one-party ‘totalitarian regime’ under Ben Ali.” The Interior Ministry noted that, “Since it was created in 1988, the party had never been audited and had never filed annual accounts.”
Confirmation of the extent of the changes enacted in Tunisia since Ben Ali was deposed came from a friend of mine in the UK, Ann Alexander, who told me:
On a happy note, I had a call today from Abdul, a Tunisian friend in London. He had been given political aslyum here having been blinded in an Tunisian prison many years ago.
He asked, “Guess where I’ve been?”
“Tunisia,” I said. And I was right.
He had been home for the first time in nearly 20 years and was reunited with his family and friends. He said that although he is back in London, he still feels that he’s dreaming. He told me that all the police stations were burned down. I reminded him that he told me less than a year ago that his only hope for Tunisia would be after the death of Ben Ali and we agreed that miracles happen.
He also was happy to report that all political prisoners had been released including Sayfullah Ben Hassine, his friend, who was sentenced by a military court a few years ago to 60 years imprisonment. He was on his way back to the airport when he got a call from Sayfullah to say he was released so he didn’t get the chance to meet him but they have spoken a lot on the phone since.
I have been told, although not by Abdul, that the Tunisian embassy in London contacted dissident Tunisians and offered them Tunisian passports so I think he had plenty of company on the plane.
I was delighted to hear about Abdul’s story, especially as I had the pleasure to meet this resolutely positive man a few years ago, and also to hear about the abolition of the security services in Tunisia that caused so much misery and devastation to people’s lives. I really hope that it signals the end of the false presumption, cultivated for nearly ten years now in the “War on Terror,” that devout Muslims are terrorists and that we, in the West, must support the most vile dictators to ensure that they are imprisoned and tortured and killed.
If a new world is to be formed from the ashes of these dark decades of tyranny, it will, if there is finally to be real representation of the people, include all those who contributed so decisively to Tunisia’s revolution — young people, trade unionists, women and groups like Ennahdha — and will never again lead to a dictatorship dominated by a brutal state security apparatus that, for 31 years, as in Tunisia, violently suppressed almost every murmur of dissent, and when it suited the Bush administration, was a willing partner in the disastrous “War on Terror” that, to his shame — and despite praising the will of the people in Tunisia — President Obama has done so little to overturn.
In Tunisia after Ben Ali, Abdallah Hajji (also identified as Abdullah bin Amor), a 55- year old former member of Ennahdha, was recently freed from prison, where he was serving a seven-year sentence after a show trial that followed his repatriation from Guantánamo by the Bush administration in 2007.
In Guantánamo, meanwhile, five Tunisians still languish, even though one, Lotfi bin Ali, was cleared for release by the Bush administration in 2007, and was only prevented from being repatriated after what happened to Abdallah Hajji. He, presumably, could be released immediately, and it is also likely that the other four men would now be willingly repatriated.
Instead, however, Obama seems intent on holding them indefinitely — perhaps because, after all, America likes dealing with dictators, but also, presumably, because lawmakers in Congress have insisted that they have the right to interfere in decisions regarding the disposition of prisoners, and many of them, if pushed, would state explicitly that they do not regard Tunisia as a safe country for the release of any Guantánamo prisoners — even one cleared by President Bush four years ago.
As hope continues to spring to life throughout the Middle East, it seems that, in the corridors of power in the United States, it is missing, presumed dead.