‘Why So Much Cruelty?’

‘Why So Much Cruelty?’

Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission is unique in the Arab world. But is the country too small a place to tell the truth about human-rights abuses?


On a warm, quiet evening in May, people trickled past a police cordon and into a conference hall in a suburb of Tunis. A few demonstrators stood outside, holding banners: “No Reconciliation Before Accountability.” Inside, people sat on rows of chairs upholstered in worn red velvet, facing a brightly lit stage. The audience stood up to sing the national anthem. The 10th public hearing of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission was under way.

The commission—known as the Instance Vérité et Dignité, or IVD—is tasked with reviewing human-rights abuses that occurred between 1955 and 2013, from the time of Tunisia’s founding revolution to its second one. The IVD is a unique experiment in the Arab world. Headed by 15 commissioners, with a staff of 640, it began its five-year mandate in 2014 and has received over 60,000 reports of human-rights abuses. These include 603 homicides, 194 forced disappearances, nearly 14,000 illegal arrests, and 10,502 cases of torture.

Since last November, the IVD has been holding regular, nationally televised hearings in which victims speak of the abuses and injustices they suffered. However, the session on May 19 was different: The star witness wasn’t a victim but a high-profile perpetrator, and the focus of the hearing wasn’t torture but another problem that Tunisians feel passionately about, and that may present just as existential a threat to their chances for democracy—corruption.

Imed Trabelsi, the 42-year-old nephew of former first lady Leila Trabelsi, is a good-looking man with a Roman nose and silver hair. He had been at the center of the Trabelsi family’s Mafia-like takeover of the Tunisian economy in the mid-1990s. His nervousness during his testimony—he fidgeted with a tissue as he spoke—couldn’t conceal a lifetime of swagger. Trabelsi described how he and other friends and relatives of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had monopolized huge swaths of the economy with the collusion of public officials. For Trabelsi, whose business empire included real estate, import-export, and alcohol sales, “the doors were always open.” Permits from the country’s notoriously difficult bureaucracy were instantly forthcoming; well-bribed customs officials turned a blind eye to his dealings while holding up the shipments of any would-be competitors.

Trabelsi was arrested while trying to flee the country on January 14, 2011, hours after his aunt and her husband had fled to Saudi Arabia. He has already been convicted on multiple charges of corruption. By testifying in front of the IVD, offering an apology to the Tunisian people as well as financial restitution, he hoped to shorten his 108-year prison sentence. In fact, for security reasons, his testimony had been pre-recorded in prison.

Trabelsi insisted that he was sorry for what he’d done, but he still seemed to take pride in his vast operations and to suggest that he was being unfairly singled out. “There’s been a revolution, but nothing has changed,” he said. “According to what I hear, the same system is still in place.” Later, my driver Anas—who watched the session on his mobile phone while waiting outside for me—would say of Trabelsi, “This guy is the reason we had a revolution.… Where did all that money go?”

The IVD’s public hearings are featured on prime-time TV and run late into the night. Anas and I left before that day’s session was over, and as we drove through the city I caught glimpses, in cafés and restaurants, of flickering TV screens showing the hearing. “I’m in shock,” Anas said, shaking his head and repeating the figures for bribes and lucrative contracts that Trabelsi had nonchalantly related. He agreed with the fallen regime operator on one thing, though: Not much—not nearly enough—had changed since the revolution.

Earlier that week, I had spent several days at the IVD’s headquarters, a nondescript office building in central Tunis. Before beginning my meetings with several commissioners, I spoke with Seif Soudani, who works on communications and outreach for the commission. “People were vaguely aware that these things happened,” Soudani told me, referring to the former regime’s violations. “But the fact of saying it out in the open is unprecedented in the Arab world.”

This openness is one of the few dividends—besides free elections—that the Tunisian Revolution has paid thus far. In a country where people used to weigh their every word (every Tunisian, an activist here once told me, had “a policeman in their head”), they can now speak freely. This is a premise of the transitional-justice process, as is the hope that exposing past abuses and mechanisms of oppression will usher in their end. Yet that battle is far from won. The transitional-justice process has faced fierce resistance. “The civilizing virtue of Tunisia is hypocrisy,” said Thierry Bresillon, a French journalist who has covered the country for years, speaking with me one evening in May. “This is too small a place to tell the truth.” But Adel Maïzi, an IVD commissioner in charge of the “preservation of national memory,” told me that Tunisia must acknowledge its hidden history—the history of those who were victimized and marginalized—and make it part of its collective consciousness.

Tunisian society is divided, but the best thing to do is to face those divisions, not bury them, Maïzi said. He quoted Abul-Qasim al-Shabi, Tunisia’s national poet: “Beware, for beneath the ashes there are flames, / He who sows thorns reaps wounds.” Al-Shabi is even more famous for another poem, one that was sung by protesters across the Arab world six years ago. It begins: “If, one day, the people want to live, / Then fate will answer their call.”

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, in 2011. It is the only country, of all those that embraced revolution and attempted regime change, to still be engaged in a democratic process, albeit a flawed and fragile one. Yet the feeling of disappointment, almost seven years after the uprising, is pervasive. A recent survey found that 89 percent of Tunisians are dissatisfied with the economy and 83 percent think the country is headed in the wrong direction.

In La Marsa, a wealthy seaside town a half-hour’s drive from Tunis, there are shopping malls, gelato shops, and restaurants and bars with stunning Mediterranean views. One evening at such a spot, I listened over pizza and glasses of white wine to well-off and well-educated 30- and 40-year-old Tunisians discuss their plans for start-ups and complain of how little the government has accomplished. Democracy in Tunisia so far is “just parties and political debates,” one entrepreneur told me. That’s not bad, he added, shrugging his shoulders—but, like many, he was uneasy about the country’s dire economic situation and the depth of people’s mistrust of the government. Tunisia’s former finance minister has said that the country will need $3.7 billion in foreign loans this year; unemployment stands at 15 percent, and it’s at least twice that number for young people and university graduates. Even as we spoke, protesters had set up camps in the country’s interior, in dusty towns on the edge of the Sahara; they had assembled in front of the governor’s office and also shut down an oil pipeline. The protesters were mostly young men, demanding jobs and a portion of the region’s oil revenues.

Those who supported the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 say that its demands—for dignity and justice—have never been met. Those who opposed it say that it is time to set those demands aside and focus on order and stability instead. The IVD is a flash point in these debates, because it forces Tunisia to reckon with its past and raises the questions of how much has changed, of whether anyone has been held accountable. It is also an orphan: an institution created at a time of revolutionary zeal, but pursuing its work today under a government that is bent on scuttling its mission.

After Ben Ali’s ouster in 2011, Tunisians elected a Constituent Assembly and an interim government led by Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party that was ruthlessly suppressed under Ben Ali. The IVD was established by the Constituent Assembly. But within a few years, the country was in crisis, destabilized by a virulent Islamist/secularist divide, the rise of extremist Salafi groups, and several political assassinations. Ennahda and its allies were pressured into stepping down from power and calling new elections.

Some leftists and secularists, along with much of the former ruling party’s money and manpower, united behind elder statesman Beji Caid Essebsi and his anti-Islamist party Nidaa Tounes. In 2014, Nidaa Tounes won the largest share of seats in Parliament and Essebsi won the presidency. Nidaa Tounes almost immediately began splintering into rival factions. It also needed the support of other parties to reach a governing majority. So it formed a coalition with Ennahda, whose leadership was bent on integrating the political system, even at the cost of significant concessions. Tunisia’s political leaders reached an accommodation, but this fragile backroom deal hasn’t improved the lives of most people in the country.

The government’s focus has been on reestablishing control, not reform. Since the revolution, the Tunisian police haven’t been restructured or held accountable. Human-rights organizations continue to document cases of torture by police. The authorities have faced the threat of extremism—in 2015, several terrorist attacks all but destroyed Tunisia’s tourism sector, and thousands of Tunisians have traveled to join the Islamic State (ISIS)—by reverting to the same repressive practices of the past, including targeting the entire families of alleged jihadists.

According to Michaël Ayari, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention think tank, the Islamist/secularist divide in Tunisia has obscured an ongoing and real power struggle to capture key posts in the administration. Controlling these posts allows one side or another to monopolize important sectors of the heavily regulated economy and shut its rivals out. The main battle in Tunisia today is not ideological, Ayari argues, but rather is based on class and regional identity, pitting established coastal elites against emerging middle classes from the interior. The established elite has “contempt” for the newcomers, he says, and “an atavistic fear of being replaced.”

Many Tunisians who fared well under Ben Ali view the corruption investigations as a threat to their status. Since taking office in 2014, the 90-year-old Essebsi—who served as a minister under both Habib Bourguiba, the nationalist leader who proclaimed the Tunisian Republic in 1957 and became its first president, and Ben Ali—has championed a law of “economic reconciliation,” which would grant amnesty to corrupt officials and allow businessmen to negotiate restitutions and pardons behind closed doors. After strong opposition from civil society and protesters who rallied under the slogan “We won’t forgive,” a vote on the law has been postponed, although the president has not yet abandoned it.

Critics say Essebsi wants to give a pass to the very businessmen who finance his party. The IVD views his proposed reconciliation law as undercutting the commission’s mandate. Hundreds of businessmen who had been on the point of coming forward to the IVD are now waiting, hoping for a better deal under the law proposed by the president, says Commissioner Oula Ben Nejma, a lawyer who runs the IVD’s investigations unit. “We want to understand how the corruption machine works; we want to take it apart. Otherwise, what is the point?” she asks. Tunisia won’t become a country under the rule of law “if people who steal a mobile phone are punished and those who steal public money and the future of this country get off scot-free,” she adds.

Corruption is closely linked to other human-rights abuses: It is precisely to protect their unfair access to state resources that those in power bend the law and terrorize critics and dissenters. And corruption in Tunisia today is worse than ever, more than one person told me, because it’s no longer held in check by the authority of a dictatorial president. Corruption has been democratized: Well-connected businessmen—those whom Ayari calls “shadow men”—exert undue influence on the political process. Islamist and secularist political leaders have entered a power-sharing arrangement, which is based on a continuation of the cronyism of the past. This has created a volatile situation and has caused many Tunisians to lose confidence in the transition. If reforms aren’t enacted, Ayari wrote in a recent report, the country could face “an upsurge in violence and a return to dictatorship.”

Under Ben Ali, Tunisia was a photogenic, well-run, nightmarish little police state. The intelligence services oversaw a web of surveillance and kept (or fabricated) secret files that they used for blackmail. They didn’t just imprison and torture dissidents—they prevented them from working and studying, harassed and threatened their families, smeared their reputations, cut them off from society.

Sami Brahim, a researcher and activist, spent eight years in prison under Ben Ali. When he testified in front of the IVD in November 2016, he said it was hard to speak of what had happened to him, out of concern for his family and shame for his country.

Brahim was arrested in the 1990s, in the midst of a vicious campaign against Islamists. Two of his friends died under torture: The body of one was left on the road, supposedly killed in a car accident, he said; the other was thrown out a window at the Ministry of the Interior and declared a suicide. In prison, said Brahim, the regime tortured detainees in unspeakable ways: “It was worse than Abu Ghraib.” Brahim had a breakdown after the political prisoners were forced to strip and sexually assault each other. The goal of the constant physical, mental, and sexual abuse was to leave a man “sterile, destroyed, defeated, with no respect for yourself,” Brahim said. He still seemed shocked by the evil he’d suffered, asking, 20 years later, “Why so much cruelty?”

By the end of Brahim’s testimony, many in the audience were in tears. But his voice caught only once, when he concluded by calling on his torturers to step forward. “If they come to confess, apologize, explain, answer questions—I am ready to forgive them.”

Until now, the public hearings have almost exclusively featured the testimony of victims, but a session in which perpetrators will speak is being planned. The day after Brahim gave his testimony, two former police officers with knowledge of his detention and torture visited the IVD’s offices. Moved by his appeal, they confirmed his account and offered to testify.

The IVD has conducted thousands of in-person interviews. The longest lasted nine days. Investigators try to confirm the testimonies using media and public records. But they have received scant cooperation from the ministries of the Interior and Defense. In 2014, just as President Essebsi was preparing to take office, the commission’s head, Sihem Bensedrine, led a convoy of trucks to the presidential palace to take possession of its archives, but was prevented from doing so by the presidential guard. Eventually, the IVD was granted access—but only to 13,000 boxes of documents, out of what it was originally told would be 30,000.

Accessing official documents is just one of many hurdles the commission has faced. It had trouble booking a venue for the public hearings: One location after another canceled, offering various excuses. The venue in which the IVD held its first hearing—a luxury spa owned by the former first lady and confiscated by the government—charged the commission six times the regular rate.

The IVD should be able to award reparations to some victims and to refer some cases for prosecution. But the government has yet to release the funds allocated for reparations, while the case referrals have had to wait on the formation of special chambers and the training of judges.

The IVD’s biggest accomplishment so far is the gathering and sharing of testimonies. The commission prides itself on having, at the least, undercut any incipient nostalgia for the Ben Ali era and changing some minds in the country. For example, after Brahim’s testimony, the liberal Tunisian blogger Jolanare wrote her own “mea culpa.” She explained that she “was ashamed of all the times I jokingly mentioned Fanta bottles, I was ashamed of all the times I made fun of the torture inflicted on Islamists.” “Fanta bottle” is a taunt aimed at Islamists, a reference to the way that the police sodomize prisoners. Jolanare went on: “I was ashamed of our intellectuals, I was ashamed of our artists. I was ashamed for those who called the witnesses liars, as if the word of a dictator was more trustworthy…. To all those who didn’t have the decency to be silent in this moment of national catharsis, you make me sick.”

And yet many critics of the IVD have not been silent. Because it was created at a time when Islamists were in power, and because about 70 percent of the cases that have been investigated so far have concerned the Islamist movement, these critics accuse the commission of serving the interests of Ennahda. Given a platform in Tunisia’s virulently anti-Islamist media, the commission’s detractors accuse it of digging up the dead, settling old scores, rewriting the country’s history.

Much of the criticism of the IVD is focused on its head, Sihem Bensedrine, a well-known opposition journalist and activist. Under Ben Ali, Bensedrine headed several independent media outlets and human-rights NGOs. She faced constant harassment, including a smear campaign that accused her of prostitution, and was eventually driven into exile in 2009, only to return when Ben Ali fell from power.

In Tunis, I heard Bensedrine dismissed as spiteful, self-serving, in the pocket of Islamists—with no real evidence to back these accusations up. Even her allies admit that her personality is “divisive” and “dictatorial,” and that she has personalized the IVD’s mission and alienated potential allies. Six of the commission’s members have resigned thus far, and a protracted battle has taken place over their replacements. But the animosity directed toward her also seems like a convenient way to undermine the IVD without coming right out and calling its mission into question.

For her part, Bensedrine has been clear: Essebsi and his government are bent on “obstructing” the transitional-justice process, she told Le Monde in June. Essebsi has never attended any of the IVD’s sessions. He frequently emphasizes the need to think of the future and “not cling to the past.”

Yet Essebsi and his supporters have been clinging to the past, too. Just last year, the president reinstalled an equestrian statue of Habib Bourguiba in downtown Tunis. (Ben Ali had it removed in 1987, after having forced his predecessor from power.) A secularist and modernizer who supported women’s emancipation, Bourguiba presented himself as the embodiment of the Tunisian state, made himself president for life, and encouraged a cult of personality that lingers to this day. The current president, who variously served as Bourguiba’s minister of the interior, defense, and foreign affairs, would clearly like to see himself as the heir to the founding father’s legacy.

But what the IVD has shown is the continuity of repression and exploitation from the colonial era through independence and up to the present day. “The police knew only one method—torture,” explained Gilbert Naccache, an elderly leftist who was arrested and tortured multiple times under Bourguiba and who testified before the IVD. They were too incompetent to solve cases any other way, he said. “You had to provide them with the confession and the evidence.”

If the transitional-justice process has tarnished the memory of a national father figure, it has also shattered the myth of Tunisia as a bastion of feminism, one that passed the Arab world’s most progressive legislation on women’s rights. Hamida Ajengui, a middle-aged woman in a tightly pinned head scarf, alternated between tears and strained smiles when she testified before the IVD about how she was arrested in 1991 for bringing food and money to the wives and children of Islamist detainees. She was suspended naked for hours at a time in excruciating positions, beaten, and threatened repeatedly with rape—and on her wedding night, plainclothes police filled the reception hall and tore the headscarves from her female relatives. Another Islamist activist, Meherzia Belabed, said that when she was detained, she told a female prison guard that she was pregnant, hoping for compassion. The guard replied, “I’ll make sure there’s one less Islamist,” and beat her so badly she miscarried.

Women who were tortured and sexually assaulted faced a double hell, as they feared becoming social outcasts if they revealed what was done to them. Some women were forced to divorce their husbands, and a few were then forced to marry police officers or members of the ruling party, who abused them. As this was happening, feminist organizations in Tunisia were silent, if not supportive of the regime. As president, Ben Ali regularly used women’s rights as a form of propaganda, posing as a staunch defender of those rights in the battle against Islamic fundamentalists.

“Tunisia may have been the best country in the Arab world for women’s rights,” said Commissioner Ibtihel Abdellatif, “but not all women enjoyed those rights.” Abdellatif, who as a veiled activist faced harassment herself under Ben Ali, heads the committee in the IVD tasked with encouraging women to testify (their cases make up only 23 percent of the total lodged).

The repression was “atrocious, for Islamist women and women of the left. Their testimony is very moving,” said Khadija Ben Hassine, a Tunisian academic I met one afternoon in a café next door to Tunis’s municipal theater. But in the next breath, Ben Hassine accused the transitional-justice process of being “biased” and aiming to inspire “a feeling of guilt toward Islamists…. This work on memory is good if it isn’t manipulated,” she told me, “if people come to speak without wanting to change the country’s history.” But, of course, that is exactly what people want to do.

Again and again, the men and women who have described the worst moments of their lives on Tunisian television over the last nine months have circled back to the significance of their own testimony. “I want this dark period recorded in history, so it cannot be repeated,” said Sami Brahim. But he also said, “I am not sure it couldn’t go back to the way it was.”

Gilbert Naccache concluded his own testimony on being tortured under Bourguiba by commending the commission: “This institution has been attacked, insulted—not directly, because no one dares insult the revolution, but indirectly…. Maybe if obstacles continue, they will succeed in preventing the IVD from completing the rest of its work. But today, they haven’t been able to prevent the IVD from participating in a radical and fundamental way in the most important thing for the revolution: the establishment of truth.… The truth, whatever may happen, is revolutionary.”

I believe that—and yet I still wonder if it’s enough. In the days following Imed Trabelsi’s testimony, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed launched a dramatic “war on corruption,” arresting a number of prominent businessmen with shady reputations. While many Tunisians cheered the arrests as evidence that the government was getting serious about corruption, others raised questions about their timing, legal basis, and the choice of targets. The arrests took place under the country’s emergency law, which may no longer be legal. Those arrested are mostly self-made smuggling barons from the country’s interior; in addition to corruption, they are accused of treason and of undermining national security. Several of them are connected to political rivals of the prime minister. 

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