On July 31, some 200 Tunisians protested in front of the headquarters of the National Constitutional Assembly against a new government programme. Announced just after the state’s welfare system was scuttled, the new law would compensate about 11,000 victims of Ben Ali’s security apparatus with a package worth 750 million Tunisian dinars, or $470m, averaging payouts of $42,000.
Mohammad Sudani is one of the resistance’s veterans targeted by the bill – but he does not want the money.
“We have so many other things to worry about,” 27-year-old Sudani said, pointing to a desperate economy, rampant regional inequality, and continued top-down national leadership. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s notorious security forces took him away several times in the middle of the night because of his political views. The perseverance of Sudani and others like him forced the dictator to seek refuge in Saudi Arabia after stoking the flames of discontent lit by Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. Sudani’s brother was one of the 107 who have followed Bouazizi’s sacrificial example since the revolution.
“This is just for Ennahda to get votes. Using it to help one political party and not Tunisia is theft.”
– Mohammad Sudani
According to Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s current president, the former regime tortured 30,000 people political activists and others who opposed Ben Ali’s rule.
Tunisia’s Finance Minister Hussein Dimassi resigned last week in protest over disagreements with the Ennahdha-led government, including compensation, according to Reuters. Dimassi’s office stated that the programme was partisan and would hand out state funds to mostly Islamist victims of Ben Ali.
“This is just for Ennahda to get votes,” Sudani said. “Using it to help one political party and not Tunisia is theft.”
Official and piratical reactions
Ennahdha quickly reached out to the public. The day after Dimassi’s resignation, Minister of Transitional Justice Samir Dilou spoke on Mosaique FM, one of Tunisia’s most popular radio stations, to calm fears regarding compensation. The programme featured him debating against Samir Bettaieb, a member of the liberal Democratic Modernist Pole, who argued that political heavyweights should refuse compensation during widespread economic hardship.
“No one is against the principle,” Bettaieb said. “But I was hoping to see leaders from Ennahdha set an example by publicly saying that they will not take compensation. So far, besides Mr Dilou, I haven’t seen any other leader declare that.”
Dilou defended the core idea behind the programme and how it was developed, before comparing Tunisia’s situation with South Africa’s reconstruction after apartheid.
“People are always mentioning Nelson Mandela and how he spent 30 years in jail and never asked for any compensation,” said Dilou, before stating the fund would be equitably spread between Tunisians, and that Ennahdha would not unfairly benefit from its dispensation. Dilou said Ennahdja leaders would not take compensation, listing the current Prime Minister Hammadi Jebali, Minister of Interior Ali Larayedh, and Sadok Chourou (who has the unique honour of having spent more time in jail – 20 years – than any other Tunisian political prisoner).
Dilou did not respond on the show to accusations of partisan spending of public monies to influence voters.
Non-state actors have also joined in the compensation fray. Anonymous Tunisie, the loose cabal of digital activists central to the Tunisian revolution, hacked the Facebook page of Rachid al-Ghannoushi, Ennahdha’s co-founder. Citing files reportedly “stolen” from Ennahdha, they posted a memo accusing the Islamist party of cooperating with Ben Ali and conspiring to use public funds for solely to compensate Nahdhaouiun or “the Ennahdians”.
“We strongly oppose the theft of public money and the promotion of the use of the Tunisian economy for political purposes,” the statement read in French. “The people of Tunisia have the right to protest draconian programs that they will carry on their backs.”
Anonynous Tunisie published on the site what purport to be copies of an email sent on June 24, 2008. If real, the email suggests Ghannouchi attempted to persuade Ben Ali to let him participate in the 2009 elections. Ghannoushi argued that the public grace of allowing opposition participation in democratic elections would help the dictator’s campaign.
Ben Ali didn’t take the bait. Instead, he won his fifth term with a widely contested official vote count of 89.62 per cent.
The mistake-makers are still here
“The people are fed up with the new Trabelsis,” chanted the protesters outside the 13th century Bardo Palace which houses Tunisia’s constitutional assembly. Their slogans raised the spectre of the family of the former First Lady, a allgedly ruthless mafia donna named Leila Trabelsi who was infamously corrupt.
Sitting in the shade of palm fronds, Sadok Ben Mhenni lamented the continuation of undemocratic power in Tunisia. He is another activist with jail experience against compensation. Now 60 years old, Mhenni began his activism in 1960 against Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president, who started as a secular constitutionalist and became an octogenarian dictator. Mhenni has spent approximately four years since then behind bars.
“The revolution was enough for me,” Mhenni said. “Compensation is not material – it is mostly spiritual support.”
Instead, he calls for increased economic development across Tunisia’s impoverished hinterland. He is not against compensation as an idea, but the programme’s development, without dialogue or diverse input, reminds him of Ben Ali’s authoritarianism. “It was a perpendicular way of making decisions.”
The details, too, are murky.
“Today we are beginning the second stage of the revolution – not a second revolution. Not just the head, but the body, the mentality, must be cleared out of Tunisia.“
– Sadok Ben Mhenni
“How will differences in compensation be measured?” Mhenni asked. “How can you compare a man who spent one night in jail, but was severely injured, to someone who is healthy now but spent four years in jail?”
Like Sudani, Mhenni criticised the Ennahdha-led government for continuing the dictatorial policies of the former regime and keeping some of its old officers.
Before Ben Ali fled the revolutionary discontent January 14, 2011, he made a speech blaming the terror and mistakes of his regime on insiders’ bad advice. Graffiti from the artist collective People of the Cave have highlighted the anxiety within Tunisia about these insiders: Ben Ali h’rab wi elli ghaltouh mazalou – “Ben Ali fled, those who made him make mistakes remain.”
Mhenni pointed to the continued use of prisons for political suppression. The day before the compensation demonstration, four trade unionists were tried in Sfax for protesting the appointment of a hospital’s director linked to Ennahdha.
They reportedly remain shackled for their activism.
“Today we are beginning the second stage of the revolution – not a second revolution,” Mhenni said. “Not just the head, but the body, the mentality, must be cleared out of Tunisia.”
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