Tunisia is a democracy. Here’s a man who still mourns for the old regime.
For the thousands of Tunisians who poured onto the streets to protest the despotic regime of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the day the dictator left power — Jan. 14, 2011 — represents a monumental victory. It was the moment they felt free for the first time in their lives.
Hatem Ben Salem does not share those fond memories. At the time of the uprising, he was in the government, serving as the country’s minister of education. “I remember the moment they announced that Ben Ali fled the country,” he says. “I was in shock. For me Ben Ali was not just a person. He was the president of the country. He represented the prestige and the power of the state.”
Unsurprisingly, Ben Salem took the revolution personally. “It’s still one of the biggest shocks of my life,” he says. “I said to myself that everything that I thought I’d been building throughout my life was destroyed, everything that I’d been building for the country, not for me personally.”
For many Tunisians, the uprising ushered in a welcome new era, giving them a chance to build an open society based on the participation of all citizens. Since 2011, Tunisia has experienced three rounds of fair and free elections and adopted a new constitution. Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly have transformed how Tunisians perceive and exercise their political rights.
Yet the transition has been marred by many problems. The rise of Islamist militancy and the decline of the economy have proven traumatic. Unemployment remains high and corruption is still rampant. Revolutionary demands for justice and equal opportunity are far from fulfilled, and the optimism of the early post-uprising years is giving way to creeping disillusionment and a certain wistfulness for the days of the old regime. That nostalgia was reflected in the victory of Beji Caid Essebsi and his Nidaa Tounes party in the 2014 election. Essebsi was a veteran of the governments of both Ben Ali and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba, so his ascension to power emboldened other former regime figures and facilitated their return to politics.
Today, Ben Salem serves as director of the Tunisian Institute of Strategic Studies, a government think tank. He was named to lead the institute by Essebsi in 2015, a decision that drew criticism from those who saw the appointment as the return of yet another familiar face associated with the ousted regime.
Ben Salem saw in the president’s offer a chance for political rehabilitation. Though he had initially decided to stay away from politics after the revolution, the new post made him feel appreciated: He was still being trusted to do something important for his country — in this case, helping to come up with ideas for fixing its persistent economic malaise.
One of the presidents main proposals for reviving the economy involves a controversial “economic reconciliation law,” first introduced in July 2015. The law has become a flashpoint for those who worry about overcoming the legacy of the old regime. As proposed, it would essentially allow those who profited from their closeness to a corrupt dictatorship to evade justice as long as they return the public funds they had diverted. The president and those who defend the law say it is an integral part of the transitional justice process, and that drawing a line under prosecutions of past malfeasance is a necessary precondition for attracting much-needed foreign investment.
When it was first proposed, however, the economic reconciliation law was met with a storm of criticism from activists, who worried, among other things, that its confidentiality provisions would prevent the public from learning details of corruption under the old regime. (The law’s critics ultimately succeeded in having it removed from consideration by lawmakers, at least for a while.)
Amna Guellali of Human Rights Watch notes that the law, which was resubmitted to parliament just a few weeks ago, “is not built around the idea of truth-telling. All the information obtained will be kept secret, preventing any future learning, teaching, or institutional reform based on the findings.” Guelalli notes that a transitional justice law passed in 2013 contains provisions on human rights violations as well as economic corruption. The law created a Truth and Dignity Commission that, while criticized for some failings, provided a transparent mechanism for reviewing transgressions committed under the old regime.
“Yes, there were corrupt people in the regime,” says Ben Salem, who denies having profited from his place in the pre-revolutionary government. “There were those who received bribes. But there were those who were not corrupt and who served the country like me. And there are many of them.”
Ben Salem says he was subject to unfounded accusations in the aftermath of the uprising. “I was interrogated because a teacher sued me,” he says. Ben Salem’s accuser had been turned down for a promotion, a problem he blamed on corruption. “At the time, I wasn’t even minister of education. I was interrogated but they let me go because they had nothing on me.” On the day he left his job as a minister of education, Ben Salem says, his assets consisted of $1,500 in his bank account and $2,000 in cash loaned to him by friends because he had recently built a house.
Corruption isn’t the only grievance that some Tunisians harbor against Ben Ali and those who worked for him. The former regime was notorious for its persecution and systematic torture of political opponents.
Ben Salem admits that the Ben Ali regime may at some point have used terrorism as a pretext to persecute various groups, but he claims that he was far from all the political entanglements between Ben Ali and his opponents. “My only involvement was when I was the general coordinator of human rights, and that lasted six months. I resigned because I couldn’t do anything.”
Nor is that all. Having served as Tunisia’s ambassador to various African countries, Ben Salem was part of the regime’s propaganda machine. In interviews at the time, Ben Salem denied the existence of torture in Tunisia. “There is no torture,” he declared in one interview. “This is an unacceptable phenomenon that Tunisia has always condemned.”
Ben Salem’s claim contradicts what many local and international observers have noted. “Torture was rampant in Tunisian prisons during the 23-year Ben Ali presidency, and blighted the lives of thousands,” said Eric Goldstein, Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Ben Salem not only attempted to deny Ben Ali’s infamous history of torture. He also sought to polish the regime’s image by claiming that press was free in Tunisia and that freedoms were respected. When asked about the interview, Ben Salem smirked. “What would you imagine me to say as the ambassador of the Tunisian Republic in Geneva? Did you want me to say the opposite? I’m proud of what I did.” He insists that he has no regrets. “We were in an information war. That was my conviction.”
He says that he knew that the regime was flawed. But he was convinced that the system had to be fixed from within. He believed, he says, that the authoritarian regime had no future and that one day it would be reformed. “I thought it would be reformed by us and not in the streets,” he adds.
After finishing his studies in France and earning a doctorate in public law, Ben Salem returned to Tunisia. He said he had two choices. He could join the private sector, making money by practicing law. Or he could try to work for the government. “I wanted to serve my country. I didn’t believe in political opposition. I believed in the possibility of changing the system from within. I saw how those who joined the opposition ended up being marginalized and did nothing for Tunisia.”
He started at the lowest level of politics, joining the Democratic Constitutional Rally party (known by its French acronym, RCD), as an ordinary member. He soon moved up to the post of mayor of the city of Manouba.
In pre-revolutionary Tunisia, the ruling party had a bad reputation among wide swathes of the population. Being a member, an RCDist, typecast you as an informant for the regime, and that you were not to be trusted. Ben Salem concedes that many RCD members were corrupt. But despite the bad reputation, he insists that the party represented an elite segment of Tunisian society, and that most of its members genuinely wanted to serve the country.
He says that he wanted to put his education and his experience at Tunisia’s service. “I did not want to stay away and let the corrupt take advantage of the country. I was better than many others. I was protecting the country.”
Ben Salem thinks that post-revolutionary Tunisia has been unfair to those with stories like his. He decries what he sees as the tendency to condemn everyone who served the regime, regardless of their actual actions. “Come see what I own and what I have in my bank account,” he says. “But people don’t want to do that. They would rather put everyone in the same basket.”
If he’s right about that, the logical answer would be to encourage transparency about the past, facilitating open discussion about old transgressions rather than obscuring them. In this respect, indeed, one could argue that the economic reconciliation law, presumably designed to enable the country to “move on,” will only lead to further demonization of former regime members. Whether or not Hatem Ben Salem actually has been involved in corruption or human rights abuses may never be known. If he’s innocent, he has nothing to fear from any future investigation conducted by the Truth and Dignity Commission. But if the economic reconciliation law passes, the world may never know.
Photo credit: SOPHIA BARAKET for Foreign Policy
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