Where ideologies mattered less: transitional justice reveals the other face of Tunisian dictatorship

A dysfunctional system

On January, 26, 2017, six Tunisians testified at the Truth and Dignity Commission in a public hearing session about the human rights abuses of the regime of Habib Bourguiba. The symbolic date marked the 39th anniversary of “Black Thursday” when Tunisian trade union UGTT staged a protest across the country, a protest that was violently repressed leaving over a hundred people dead, wounded hundreds more, according to non-official sources with several arrests of UGTT leaders.

Throughout the month of January, Tunisians commemorated three main events in their contemporary history: the “Bread Riots” of December 1983-January 1984, the 6th anniversary of the Tunisian revolution and the “Black Thursday” events of 1978. They came to represent a turning point in Tunisian history that has been revisited by witnesses of those events: trade unionists, students and political activists. The events marked the end of the autocratic regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali successively and contributed to the emerging of a more politicized civil society and unions ever since.

One exceptional character of Tunisian transitional justice lies in making economic corruption as one form of abuse suffered by Tunisians under dictatorship and used by the latter to silence dissent.

TDC’s public hearing sessions revealed to the Tunisian public another dark side of dictatorship which through the systemic economic corruption as a tool to perpetuate the autocratic regime, while keeping the country’s economy shackled and caught in a vicious circle of cronyism and clientelism.

Ahmed Ben Mustapha, was Tunisian ambassador to UAE between 2004 and 2006. On January 14, 2017, he testified about the Ben Ali’s regime’s rampant corruption where the economic model inherited from the Bourguiba era remained heavily dependent on the former colonizer, France and its economic system and to the EU’s dictated policies on Tunisia, since 1969.

Ben Mustapha’s testimony resonated with that of Gilbert Nacccache, a Tunisian left-wing political activist (of Jewish origin), 76 years-old, who was member of the Trotskyist student movement “Perspectives” in the 1960s and was jailed for his “dissident activities against the Bourguiba regime” between 1968 and 1979. He also deplored the state of Tunisia’s quasi-dependence on France, economically speaking, with the “liberalization policy” of Bourguiba’s Prime Minister in the 1960s, Hédi Nouira. Ben Mustapha went on to credit Tunisian economy lagging behind other countries in the region, including Morocco, to the policy that started under Bourguiba and continued under Ben Ali.

«What matters is get economic independence from Europe », Ben Mustapha he reiterated during his testimony at TDC’s public hearing session, stressing “the unequal relationship with the northern neighbors because of the unstudied and unequal openness to Europe that started in 1969”. He further deplored the presence of “a parallel diplomacy whereby a network was run by the clan of the Ben Ali among the Trabelsi family. This further contributed to the deepening corruption in Tunisia during the Ben Ali regime and the weakening of the state and its economic model, according to Ben Mustapha.

Alternatively, Naccache denounced the inefficient and bad economic choices of Bourguiba and the failure of the collectivist experience of Ahmed Ben Salah in the 1960s, rendering the Tunisian economy fragile while remaining under the patronage of France. Both Ben Mustapha and Naccache pointed out the necessity of Tunisians to know the truth about the former regimes in running the country’s economy.

“No real economic independence was achieved in Tunisia”, Ben Mustapha stated in his testimony.

Transitional justice also revealed the financial crimes of the Ben Ali regime. Amid the controversy following the “National Reconciliation Act”, an economic reconciliation bill that was adopted in July 2015, providing amnesty for public officials for acts linked to corruption and misuse of public funds, the bill was abandoned in October 2016 and revealed the major played transitional justice actors, including TDC in highlighting such crimes (although TDC also insists on repentance of perpetrators of crimes as a pre-requisite for reconciliation). TDC was put on a hard test about “its weakness at resisting” what its proponents referred to as “intimidation on the commission to downplay its role and smear its reputation in revealing the truth and bring perpetrators to justice”. The controversy surrounding Slim Chiboub, Ben Ali’s son-in-law who came to TDC and stated his readiness to testify about any wrongdoing he committed showed the “tight rope walker” attitude of the commission in its work as a transitional justice body. “Manich Msameh” (I will not forgive” in English), civil society campaign, was particularly critical of the controversial bill and of TDC.

“Whatever they do, truth can only be revolutionary”.

Tunisians discovered the intricacies of the security machine of the autocratic regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali in gagging the population. In fact, the systematic silencing of political opponents of the former regime from all ideologies has cemented alliances between some seemingly “ideological foes” during dictatorship. Tunisian leftists, mainly from the Extreme Left (Communists) and Islamists have both suffered the wraths of Bourguiba and Ben Ali’s repressive security apparatus in the Ministry of Interior.

As Naccache stated in his testimony on TDC’s first public hearing session that “truth is revolutionary”, truth was withheld from Tunisians for over half a century: historical narratives were manipulated by Bourguiba and Ben Ali.

In his book “Cristal” (1982, re-edited in 2011), he described “writing as a therapy” for him when he was jailed in a cell in the notorious Bourj Erroumi prison in Bizerte, northern Tunisia, in a setting where “paranoia gripped him” while knowing that his fate was sealed when he was kept in solitary confinement and the feeling of injustice overwhelmed him. It was the first literary depiction of torture of the Tunisian state regime. Naccache, an ardent left-wing political activist remains the “public conscience” of many Tunisians, particularly the leftists but also highly regarded by many Islamists, and constitute for some the “unifying figure” of the Tunisian Left.

The general perception that only the Islamists were the victims of the regimes because of the old fight for power and the influential role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region came into question with the building of an alliance between Islamists on the one hand and non-Islamists, including Communists, other leftists who were also victims of the regime’s security apparatus in its use of torture to intimidate and oppress. The bread riots of 1984, the Black Thursday of 1978 were events in which Tunisian intellectuals from the left, students, trade unionists were repressed violently by the regime. There were Islamist victims among the rioters too.

During their incarceration, Tunisian Islamists found themselves sharing the plight of persecution with their leftist counterparts. The testimony of Sami Brahem, a Tunisian academic and researcher who was jailed in the 1990s, when he was a student for his “Islamist leanings” brought to light the relationship he and his fellow inmates built with non-Islamist ones. He endured torture while he was moved to several prisons during his eight-year jail sentence. He reminisced about the time he would read Gilbert Naccache’s prison diary “Cristal” and its influence on him as a young student learning about the Tunisian leftist movement as well as on the philosophy of existence and justice, political engagement, freedom under authoritarian regime written in “a Sartrean logic with Camusian accents”.

What the TDC public hearing sessions have shown was the extent to which the former regime has gone to lengths “to falsify Tunisian history”, employing an efficient propaganda tasked with manipulating narratives. All those who testified insisted on the necessity of letting Tunisians know the reality of the regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali for a true reconciliation to occur between the victims and the perpetrators.

Link to the Arabic translation of the blog post

الدور الفرنسي وشبكات الدبلوماسية الموازية والفساد.. ما تعلمه التونسيون من جلسات هيئة العدالة الانتقالية

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