Why Tunisia must preserve Ben Ali’s legacy

Tunisia must preserve the legacy of Ben Ali. Since January 2011, starting with the transition and continuing with the new Ennahdha-led government, Tunisia has begun a process of systematically removing elements of the old regime. It started with the man itself and his family. It continued with the spontaneous removal of Ben Ali’s photograph, previously ubiquitous in all public places. It continued with the removal of top bureaucrats, governors, and administrators close to the regime.

Little by little, in the last 12 months most public vestiges of Ben Ali have been erased from public life. This fall, one of the main squares on Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis was renamed from Place November 7 (the date Ben Ali came to power) to Place 14 January – the date of the revolution. Meanwhile, the central bank started the process of changing the bank notes, which had previously praised November 7 (see image).

Tunisia's 20 dinar bills before and after the revolution (courtesy of Rue89.com)

After 23 years of looking at shrines to Ben Ali in every public space in the country, there is something not only natural, but cathartic in removing these elements. But as a get-out-the-vote campaign video so clearly and viscerally showed, dictatorship can return at any time.

Indeed, while the fear of Ben Ali coming back is not a common fear in Tunisia, the fear of a return to dictatorship has been one of the most commonly heard refrains after the elections. It comes not only from the secularists, who were largely defeated and fear the rise of the new Islamic forces in the country. It also comes from Islamists, who accuse secularists of wanting to return to the methods of Ben Ali, with indiscriminate imprisonment and intimidation of any religious act.

While Ben Ali and his legacy are fresh in all Tunisian minds now, they will not be forever. The preservation of this period of corruption and torture must be embedded into the historical memory of the country. Older Tunisians often cite the example of Ben Ali himself, who came to power in a palace coup which overthrew Tunisia’s first authoritarian president, Habib Bourguiba. He promised to open an era of democracy and freedom, and yet quickly went down an authoritarian path himself.

It is for this reason that the state must preserve and publicize the actions of Ben Ali and his regime. As Juan Cole recently pointed out on his blog, myths around the Arab spring abound. But history will be written by the winners – and not necessarily accurately or objectively. All the more reason for Tunisia to begin the process now of establishing its history by rejecting the methods of Ben Ali. This can only be done by preserving the memory and the methods of the former regime.

[A note from Kefteji: I'll be off on holidays for the next week.  Looking forward to the new year with a look back at the anniversary of the January 14 uprising and more blogging on Tunisia and its transition. Happy new year to all my readers.]

Mythologizing the Tunisian Revolution

The French have the Bastille, the Americans have the Boston Tea Party, the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace. The Arab Spring, and Tunisia in particular, have Mohammed Bouazizi’s humiliation, self immolation, and the subsequent people’s revolt.

The famous revolutions in France, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were based on an idealized version of events and their implications – and so too, it seems, the Tunisian revolution.

In a recent article (in French) in the French daily Liberation, Christophe Ayad, suggests that it is highly likely that the humiliation of Bouazizi was an exaggeration of events to help inspire other Tunisians. In particular, one of the key elements of Bouazizi’s story is that as he was peacefully selling fruits when he was approached by a female police officer. Lacking a permit for his stand, the police officer overturned his cart and slapped him.

Ayad writes that the police officer incarnated the entire system that so many Tunisians fought against, especially in the restive center of the country, where gainful employment remains out of reach, especially for young men. His humiliation came not just from being slapped, but from being slapped by the pitiless autocracy – embodied by a woman – of all things.

And yet, after the revolution as the officer was put on trial, the case fell apart. Two eyewitnesses recanted, another had such a grudge against the police his testimony was deemed inadmissible. Ayad spoke with a local union official in Bouazizi’s hometown of Sidi Bouzid, who described the actions taken against the regime long before anyone knew the name Bouazizi. And…..he admitted to inventing the whole story about the police officer, a ruse to get public support behind the unions movements.

In Sidi Bouzid, Ayad reports, the Bouazizi name is not the one of heroes. His family has moved to La Marsa on the northern coast. But across Tunisia and the Arab world, he remains an inspiration. Obama’s recent speech on the Arab World mentioned him by name. And the slap itself was profiled on 60 Minutes back in February.

History likes heroes and a good narrative. Bouazizi, whatever the story may be, fits our expectations of revolution and struggle against oppression. My guess is that the slap is here to stay.