The Long Shadow of Ben Ali
How a decades-old fake coup attempt is taking its toll on Tunisia.
Three years ago today, on Dec. 17, 2010, a young vegetable vendor lit himself on fire, committing suicide to protest life under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship in Tunisia. This spark set Tunisia — and then the Arab world — ablaze with political change in the wave of revolutions that became known as the Arab Spring.
Tunisia seemed poised to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of its dictatorial past, bringing democracy to northern Africa for the first time. But success in the transition to democracy has proved elusive. This year, extremist Salafists gunned down two prominent opposition politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, in broad daylight and in front of their families. Dozens of soldiers and policemen have been killed in a string of attacks, with the numbers killed rising significantly at the end of this year. In October, a suicide bomber blew himself up on a beach full of tourists, though he botched the attack and killed only himself. In addition to such grave security risks, the elections that were already overdue at the start of this year are now unlikely to take place before October 2014 — and then, only if everything goes according to plan.
In spite of these challenges, Tunisia remains the best hope for democracy among the countries involved in the Arab Spring. But Tunisia has stumbled slowly and awkwardly through its transition, which still has a long way to go.
Tunisia’s new government — a troika led by the Islamist Ennahda party — was elected in October 2011. They are largely inexperienced, with politicians learning on the job. This has deadlocked the transition government even as it struggles to contain the deteriorating security situation. Moreover, though the governing coalition is working to bolster military capacity, the army is still weak and does not have the necessary capacity to neutralize mounting terrorism threats.
These problems are a legacy of Tunisia’s traumatic past. And now that victims are finally free of the dictator’s iron first, they are speaking up and exposing the full extent of that trauma.
The stories they’ve told show that Ben Ali’s legacy continues to cast a long shadow over the transition. One particular story — involving a fake coup d’état, brutal torture, and a twenty-year cover-up — shines light on the tangible, chronic impact of a dictator’s single-minded determination to hold onto power, no matter the cost. The story has only been told in local Tunisian media (almost exclusively written in French or Arabic), though a few Western NGOs (Human Rights Watch and the Organisation Mondiale Contre la Torture) have also taken note.
The tale starts in 1987, after Ben Ali took power in a coup. Once in power, he was paranoid, worrying that he would share the same fate as his predecessor, who was toppled by internal opposition. Specifically, he feared two groups most: Islamists and the military.
In 1991, Ben Ali killed both birds with a single diabolical stone.
To eradicate his potential rivals, the regime needed an excuse to justify an unprecedented crackdown on Tunisian Islamists and a simultaneous purge of the military elite. On May 22, 1991, Ben Ali’s Ministry of the Interior, Abdallah Kallel, announced that the regime had uncovered an alleged coup plot, and claimed that more than 200 military officers were conspiring with Islamists of the Ennahda movement.
The supposed plot, now largely forgotten, is known as the "Barraket Essahel Affair," after the town where the men were accused of scheming against Tunisia’s strongman. For two decades, it was assumed to be a genuinely foiled coup attempt, a victory of the Tunisian state to protect itself from would-be military usurpers.
With the fog of history lifted, it has become clear that there was no military plot. There is no record of the alleged meeting in Barraket Essahel. Ben Ali’s government never offered any proof that the implicated officers were involved in any way. The only thing these army officers were guilty of was being competent at a time when Ben Ali feared the threat of a strong military that could feasibly, one day, launch a coup.
In short, the plot was fabricated as a pretext to jail political opponents, force others into exile, and purge the military of effective leaders. The suffering it caused, however, was all too real, both for Ennahda members, and for more than 200 soldiers.
One such soldier was Lieutenant Colonel Mohamed Ahmed, a humble, soft-spoken man still sporting a military-style haircut when I met him in Tunis in November.
Ahmed and up to 200 other officers were transported to the Ministry of the Interior, a building that is reputed to be "as deep as it is tall." During interrogation, he was accused of being affiliated with Ennahda and plotting to overthrow Ben Ali. Neither accusation was true.
Ahmed was isolated and tortured. He was suspended on a metal rod in the so-called "roasted chicken" position for hours. He was beaten, hung by his feet with his hands tied behind his back, and brought to the brink of drowning in a basin of urine and feces. After three weeks of torture, Ahmed could not stand. His feet were swollen, his lips burst and bloodied. In this state — and with the assistance of two security officers — he was brought to his feet to be interrogated by Ben Ali’s right hand man himself, Minister of the Interior Abdallah Kallel.
Ahmed attempted to explain that the "plot" was fictional and that any confessions of guilt were desperate attempts to stop the suffering. His insistence on the truth earned Lt. Col. Ahmed even more severe torture that evening. A week later, inexplicably, the ministry released the officers and them wished a happy Eid al-Kabir. This was ironic timing; the Muslim holiday marks Abraham’s willingness to make a sacrifice in submission to a higher command.
The nightmare was not over. In addition to lifelong psychological scarring, the government confiscated their victims’ passports, eliminated their eligibility for pensions, and intervened to ensure they would not find work. They were stripped of their uniforms, the ultimate humiliation for these decorated officers.
For Ennahda members, the suffering lasted longer. Many were imprisoned for years and continually tortured. Others fled Tunisia and began decades in exile.
For Ben Ali, this was a clear victory. The Islamists and the military were neutralized jointly, even though they had never been linked. The Islamists were imprisoned, or forced into hiding or exile. The military was severely weakened, creating what torture victim and ex-army Captain Mohsen Kaabi calls an "inverse pyramid of competence," where incompetence wins career advancement. This guaranteed a weakened military incapable of launching a coup d’état — and equally incapable of keeping Tunisians safe during today’s tumultuous transition. As Kaabi put it, "Ben Ali felt he could rest comfortably in his throne after the purge."
Such methods kept Ben Ali in power for another two decades, until he was toppled by t
he first of the Arab Spring uprisings. He fled Tunisia on Jan. 14, 2011.
Nearly three years have now passed. Many of the members of Ennahda who were tortured, imprisoned, or forced into exile are now running the transitional government, finding justice by taking Ben Ali’s reins of power. But they are hobbled by a lack of experience; many are more familiar with European capitals or jail cells than with the workings of parliament or bureaucracy.
This inexperience has furthered unrest. The long period of deadlock has entrenched political and economic woes, prompting repeated downgrades by external creditors. Inflation is high. Youth unemployment is out of control. As these problems worsen, there have been attacks on Ennahda offices, as the lofty expectations of the revolution are replaced by the harsh reality of stagnation. And of course, the military remains weak even as unrest builds and terrorism threats continue to emerge.
Meanwhile, there has been no justice for the victims of the Barraket Essahel Affair, who have not yet received compensation, or even pensions. Lt. Col. Ahmed and other victims formed an NGO, l’Association INSAF, in order to put pressure on the government. (The photo above shows Ahmed (right) standing with fellow victims and l’Association INSAF members, Col. Ahmed Ghiloufi and Col. Moncef Zoghlami.) While the victims have received official recognition by the President, the government has only offered empty verbal overtures — further evidence that Ben Ali’s accusations of collusion were unfounded, as Ennahda is doing little to help its fellow victims. Some of the military victims — who are still struggling to make ends meet — have been approached by terrorist groups that hope to take advantage of their anger and their military-level munitions skills. L’Association INSAF is actively working with the government to ensure that does not happen. Meanwhile, the military has done nothing to bring their falsely accused comrades back into the fold, depriving itself of 200 military experts who would doubtless be determined to aid the transition.
This long shadow of Ben Ali continues to obscure Tunisia’s path to democracy. Three years after the start of the Arab Spring, Tunisia is the last, best hope for success in the region. The government has done many things well, avoiding the traps that derailed transitions in Libya, Syria, and Egypt. But Tunisia’s transition is nonetheless darkened by the decades-long shadow of a paranoid dictator. Until the government grapples with Tunisia’s dark past, inexperienced leadership, a weak military, and injustice will continue to block democracy from taking root.