Political Repression in Tunisia

Twenty Years of Suffering

Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali came to power on the back of a coup d'état twenty years ago. While the people of Tunisia are relatively well off in economic terms, they have absolutely no political rights. Mohammed Abbou, a member of the Tunisian opposition, takes stock

Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (photo: AP)
In November 1987, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took over the reins of power from Habib Bourguiba in a coup d'état; his style of government has remained authoritarian ever since

​​How distressing it is to live in a society run by a State which does not guarantee human rights, nor dignity, or freedom, and which mobilizes its institutions to repress its citizens without being accountable for its acts to anyone.

And how painful it is for an intellectual to see that the majority of the citizens of one's country are terrorised by fear, busy ensuring the subsistence of their family, and seeking personal safety and individual salvation.

How sad it is to see that the opposition, despite the sacrifices, has not succeeded in wrecking despotism.

Taking stock

A State that does not respect the rule of law, a people paralysed by fear, and a weak opposition, here is the result of 20 years in power of the second President of the Republic of Tunisia.

The State is necessary to secure society, to make sure that justice prevails over individual vengeance, to make laws and have them respected by citizens equal in rights and duties.

In our country, Tunisia, we often use this definition as a reference in our daily lives. But we are facing institutions that work more or less normally. We are facing a security apparatus, which at times pursues and sanctions criminals, and at times acts as a gang which threatens, hits and tortures without any respect for the laws it is supposed to enforce.

photo: private copyright
Mohammed Abbou, shown here shortly after his release in July 2007, is one of Tunisia's most prominent opposition leaders

​​It deliberately places above the laws the powerful who are not accountable to anyone. Nobody is allowed to criticize the powerful, nor to denounce or to evoke the corruption they are involved in. If you do, you will be thrown in jail. No attention is ever given to the cries for help coming from inside, nor to the declarations of our Western partners which sometimes conflict with the secret positions of those who rule Tunisia.

These very institutions are sometimes used to persecute the opponents to the current regime who dare criticize it. Their resources are cut short, they are starved and humiliated in such a way they will never forget. They are attacked on the street. Their children are harassed. All this is aimed at ensuring the continued existence of the regime and at guaranteeing its absolute power, a power whose legitimacy rests upon elections which take place in a climate of fear.

A minority of voters are forced to vote in the regime's favour by casting ostentatiously a red ballot in the ballot box. At the same time, the chiefs of polling stations vote for the absentees, while some western partners of Tunisia are in charge of promoting Tunisia's image abroad.

A people paralysed by fear

The Tunisian regime spreads fear among its citizens in order to reinforce its power. When I dared denounce the reality of the situation that prevails in Tunisia, I broke a taboo by denouncing the scandals and by evoking corruption. That's when the regime decided to hit the interests of my family and to persecute my family. Then it threw me in jail, seeking to humiliate me.

Despite various pressures it experienced, the Tunisian regime prolonged my detention as much as it could. Not because I was heading an association that would be a threat to the regime. Not even because I am trying to steal the potentate's throne, a throne covered by blood and tears. No, the only reason was that in its view from then on I was a model of confrontation that risked contaminating other parts of society.

This is only a glimpse of the policy this regime has been leading for 20 years. A policy that was also led by the previous President.

This policy of fear (as a tool of the government) has grown into a tradition and was reinforced and spread under the current President. This policy has become a school with sophisticated techniques. The power goes as far as spreading its exploits in this field for the citizen to understand clearly that it is uncompromising and has no mercy for those who defy it.

The sanction no longer takes the shape of jailing or torture only, but also encompasses collective retaliation by starving the families. In order for someone to sacrifice one's freedom and one's health for a cause, one must understand that one also exposes one's family and children to hunger, terror and desolation.

This power has wonderfully succeeded in this policy and, up to now, the majority of Tunisian citizens are terrified at the very idea of speaking about politics.

Ideal conditions for democracy

Tunisia differs from the other Arab countries in one way – ethnically and religiously speaking the country is homogenous. The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni. In Tunisia you do not find a minority which needs particular protection. Therefore you do not have in Tunisia any of the causes that allow for conflicts to appear in other Arabic countries.

The various civilizations that have taken root successively in Tunisia, as well as the natural and geographical characteristics of Tunisia have conferred on the Tunisians a mild and tolerant temperament.

In addition, the country has been visited by an important number of tourists for the past 50 years. The Tunisians have grown accustomed to these tourists. The Tunisians also benefit from a high level of education thanks to the decisions made by Tunisia upon becoming an independent country.

All the above characteristics are enough for Tunisia to be prone to becoming a democracy where the rule of law prevails in order to ensure dignity, freedom and progress to all citizens, without fear of schism or chaos.

The Tunisian opposition is fully aware of these facts, but it hasn't yet found the way to becoming a true political force. Swinging between the fear of repression and its own ideological divisions (which are sometimes fed by the power), it has thus far failed to attract a significant number of citizens, liberating them from fear.

This is a distressing reality, as if our dream refused to come true.

But the consciousness of the seriousness of the situation, and the various reconciliations that start appearing among the various political currents and schools of thought on the one hand, and some early signs showing rejection of this regime on the other hand will prevent us from renouncing our dream. And that is despite increasing repression and the pressure of voices casting doubt and spreading despondency.

Our determination will lead us to victory, and if we don't get there, we have full confidence in our children.

Mohamed Abbou

© Mohammed Abbou 2007

Tunisian dissident lawyer and writer Mohamed Abbou was released, on 24 July 2007, from prison in Le Kef, Tunisia, where he had been held since his arrest in March 2005. Abbou was sentenced to prison for three-and-a-half years for exposing torture in Tunisian prisons on the Internet. Abbou's case is a symbol of Tunisia's worrying human rights record.

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