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.]

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