The first Arab leader who was pulled down by the vortex of Arab nations’ fury later dubbed the Arab Spring was Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He had reigned over Tunisia for 23 years and following the self-immolation of Muhammad Bouazizi, Tunisian’s frustrations with his rule could no longer be contained. After days of massive bloody protests, on 14 January 2011, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia and thus his long presidency ended. But how did a man of no great intelligence and very humble background managed to ascend to the highest office of one of Africa’s most prosperous countries. This documentary strives to shed light on lesser known aspects of this dictator’s life and those of his immediate family while chronologically following his rise to power and his eventual presidency after a so-called Medical Coup against Habib Bourguiba .
TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00
On Screen: The presidential palace. Tunis. 09 Sep. 1988
SOUNDBITE [French], Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Second President of Tunisia: “The 7th of November, the law was ignored .The institutions were paralyzed.And I had to re-establish law and order .I did what I had to do –I mean, answer the call of duty and the call of the people.”
SOUNDBITE [French], Journalist: “So it wasn’t a military coup? It was more a medical coup?”
SOUNDBITE [French], Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Second President of Tunisia: “He was sick. His poor health prevented him from governing.”
On Screen: Episode 1: The child.
Narration: Hammam Sousse. It was once a small forgotten village near the city of Sousse,in the shadow of Monastir, the birthplace of Habib Bourguiba.Ben Ali was born here in 1936, in this modest house, no.11 Sidi Al Gharbi Street. And into a very modest family of 13.What do we know of this man, who will govern Tunisia for 23 years? His father was a watchman in Sousse port. And his mother, Selma, took care of her children and some olive trees. We know he loved his grandmother. He gave her name, Halima, to his youngest daughter. We also know he studied in the boys’ lycee in Sousse. This school was an active centre for the national movement and the Constitution Party. According to his official biography, Published in the 90’s, when he was in power, he claimed he was active in the national movement .He also claimed he was expelled from the school and imprisoned.But there is no mention of this in the French police records.The child was nick-named ‘Blue’, because of his dark skin.His results were not good enough for him to finish his secondary schooling.He left early, and drifted in the streets and port of Sousse,from one job to another, until he joined the army.Tunisia was just then welcoming back her triumphant leader, Habib Bourguiba.He had led the negotiations for independence from France.And Bahi Ladgham was appointed Minister of Defense and he set up the Tunisian defense forces.France proposed helping the new state to train some of them. Cells of the dominant party began working and proposed candidates. One of the old resistance fighters might have asked Hedi Baccouche, to include Ben Ali on the list.
On Screen: Hedi Baccouche, leader in the governing party.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Hedi Baccouche, Former Prime Minister of Tunisia: ”My closest friend in the resistance told me in front of Ben Ali’s relatives that he had convinced the cell secretary to include Ben Ali. It may be true – but I forget.”
Narration: That is how Ben Ali was sent to the Saint Cyr academy…with some companions who will one day be re-united. The most important was Haib Ammar.He later became commander of the National Guard,and he opened the doors of the Presidential Palace in Carthage20 years later, on 7th. November, 1987.
TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00
Part 2: The General
Narration: Ben Ali returned from France and lived in the officers’ quarter .He closed to General El Kefi, who had been an officer in the French army, and who became Chief of Staff of the Tunisian army. Also close was the general’s daughter, Naima. She was a pupil at the local Khaznadar School. Nobody knows how it happened, but Ben Ali got married to her. This marriage transformed Ben Ali’s life.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Safi Saeed, Author Of The Banned Biography Of Habib Bourguiba: “He worked for General Kefi, who was only a colonel at the time.When Bourguiba died, the army only had 3 generals.He got close to Col. Kefi, and asked for his daughter in marriage.And shortly after, the young in-law left for training in the U.S.He was at the Intelligence and Security Academy for 20 months.He was appreciated by the Americans.”
Narration: He made rapid progress after returning from the States. He was appointed Assistant Director of the new Military Intelligence, and then General Director.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Safi Saeed, Author of The Banned Biography Of Habib Bourguiba: “He monitored the officers and the army. After all, in the 3rd. world, that’s the work of Intelligence. In the 60’s, that’s all they did.”
Narration: This post allowed him to discover the secrets of the military, when the state was threatened by crises. The powerful New Constitution Party split into two wings. One was led by Bourguiba, who was negotiating for independence. The other was led by Ben Yusuf, who fled to Cairo, to his ally, Gamal Abdul Nasser. In an atmosphere of approaching civil war, the French bombed Sakiet Sidi Yusuf on Tunisia’s border with Algeria, to hit the rearguard of the Algerian resistance. This was the first test for Tunisian Intelligence. Ben Ali claimed later that he was injured in the attack. But no-one could have prevented it. Then the real test for the new leader of Military Intelligence… came from within the army itself. Wassila Ben Ammar, Bourguiba’s wife, discovered, quite by chance, a coup plot in 1962. Half of the plotters were in the military, yet Military Intelligence failed to detect the plot. This failure could have ended this young officer’s career. But it didn’t. Perhaps because Ben Ali wasn’t a great talker, and avoided taking decisions. he wasn’t sacked.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Hedi Baccouche, Former Prime Minister of Tunisia: “He did what he was told, and he wasn’t sociable. He listened carefully to you, but said little. He wasn’t Cultured, but every minister kept him on.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Ahmed Mestiri, Leader of an opposition party: “When you talked to him on the human level, his narrow vision meant that you couldn’t exchange ideas. So you felt frustrated. He didn’t open up.”
TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00
Narration: This life in secrecy didn’t last long.The hand of destiny intervened and crossed it out,using the pen of Moamar Gaddafi, who realized his dream of unity…between Libya and Tunisia, on the 12th. January, 1974.That day, in a hotel in Jerba, the name of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali…appeared on a list for the new union government that was proposed by Gaddafi.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Tahar Bel Khoja, Former Minister: “I was present that day with Mohammed Sayah and Habib Chartti.We sat down to sign the declaration of the united republic.Gaddafi took a piece of paper out of his pocket.Even Bourguiba didn’t expect it, and only made some remarks.On the list, Zine Ben Ali was to take charge of military security in the two armies.”
Narration: Many will talk for a long time about the secret relationship…between Zine el Abidine ben Ali and Gaddafi, and about the role of Ben Ali’s brother, Moncef.Moncef worked in Libya, and was close to the army,He supplied drinks and women to friends from Libya and Algeria.Many will also talk about more serious suspicions that have never been proved.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Safi Saeed, Author of the Banned Biography Of Habib Bourguiba: “I’m sure Ben Ali had a very good relationship with American intelligence,in the early 70’s and late 60’s before he became president.His name was found in the records of the Wheel us Airbase in Libya under the monarchy.It was the biggest US base in the Middle East, with 10 thousand Americans on it.When demonstrators later invaded the base, they found the records the Americans had left behind.They discovered all the cells working for the US in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria.Col. Gaddafi and the Revolutionary Council at that time….there were names that weren’t revealed to Tunisia and to Morocco,so as to make use of them, to force them to work for them.This happened in other countries…in East Germany, when the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union collapsed.West Germany took over the East German archives.They found out the whole Russian intelligence system in east Europe.”
Narration: The unification project collapsed, and the proposed government with it.Prime Minister Hedi Nouira came to Bourguiba and expressed his amazement…that Ben Ali’s name had been proposed by Gaddafi, and also about their mysterious relationship. We had apprehensions, but no proof. In politics, you need proof. But we knew there was something in it, so we sent Ben Ali to Rabat as military attaché. We examined his case. If we proved something, we could bring him back. The Moroccan period seemed a new and different page for Ben Ali. He frequented a bar called ‘Balima’, where he drank on credit, paying at the end of the month. In those years, he discovered the strength of the political system built by King Hassan II. He was impressed by the great prestige of the throne. News came from Tunis that Bourguiba’s regime was facing strong Marxist opposition. Prosecutions of leftists followed one after another. A new constitutional amendment was passed at a congress of the ruling party. It gave Bourguiba the presidency for life.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Safi Saeed, Author of The Banned Biography Of Habib Bourguiba: “The world was divided into two camps: the camp of the government and the authorities, the bourgeois camp, the military dictators, the one-party states with one point of view. And there was the other kind of political activity, in the street, the new university, and the new generation. And the new spirit, expressed by slogans of socialism, of the left, human rights, and so on.”
Narration: The country was gradually losing its political immunity, which was based on the personality of Bourguiba, the father of the nation. It was heading for a severe economic crisis. Everything indicated that a storm was coming. Ben Ali hoped that at least he would be recalled, and he was.
On Screen: Part Three: The Director.
TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00
Narration: The unhappy birds on Avenue Habib Bourguiba returned to their nests in the dark winter of 1977. The smell of blood emerged over the fire at the meetings of the party in power. They were keen on a decisive battle with the national union, the oldest in the Arab world. The killing started in the streets of Kaser Hellal, an industrial town. The machine was ready for the decisive battle. The interior minister was sacked. The minister of defense, Abdallah Farhat, took his place. This was the first step towards a more important decision… to bring back Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, to become General Director of National Security.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Mahommed Chakroun, Syndicallist: “Ben Ali was brought in late December, to support the party militia… and to suppress the union and the students, and the popular anger at that time. This brought on the general strike, held on the 26th. January, 1978. After a series of break-ins at union buildings and attacks against union members, and political trials and arrests, came the general strike… to defend the union, and its members, and the country. On the day of the strike, he was in Bab Alewa. He fired on the crowd from a helicopter. That’s point one…Point two: Ben Ali came to see union members who had been tortured and wrapped in blankets. I saw this. He kicked some with his foot, and said: ‘He’s still alive,’ or ‘He’s in a coma ’or‘a half-coma.”
Narration: Despite international pressure, Achour was kept in prison with some companions Ben Ali seemed to have scored an unexpected victory for the government. Some people considered him the strongman of the regime. He was promoted to the rank of general, but he remained far from the centre of power. He was the violent man in the shadows, charged with special missions. These he carried out exactly as instructed, and no more, and no less. But he failed to foresee the infiltration in Jan. 1980 of an armed group from Libya. They took over the mining town of Gafsa for three days with the help of the Libyans and the Algerians.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Safi Saeed, Author of the Banned Biography of Habib Bourguiba: “After the failure of the unity agreement in Jerba, Libya didn’t want to unite with Algeria. And Algeria didn’t want Tunisia to unite with Algeria. That’s why they both took part in the operation, to prevent any tripartite relationship. This girl was courted by two suitors, Algeria and Libya, who quarrelled over her. It was like a bomb in the bride’s house, and it turned them into three enemies.”
Narration: The army quickly occupied the town. Some of the attackers were executed.But questions remained. Had the attackers really deceived the security forces?Or had Ben Ali connived with Gaddafi to let the attackers in?Why had no-one taken any notice of reports from the Tunisian Embassy in Beirut?They had warned the government that there was a terrorist threat to Tunisia.Bourguiba didn’t wait for an answer. He exiled Ben Ali to Warsaw.Wassila Ammar, the wife of the president, made a sarcastic remark about that:‘You sent him where he’ll be trained in planning coups.’ She didn’t know how right she was.In Poland, Ben Ali found a strong union, led by Lech Walensa, in the streets,opposing the Communist dictator, Jaruzelsky, in his general’s cap.The African general saw the toughness of the Polish general,and the efficiency of his campaign against Solidarity,and against the elite who were calling for democracy.This practical lesson was stimulating, and no doubt, Ben Ali learned a lot from it.
TIME CODE: 20:00_25:00
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Safi Saeed, Author of the Banned Biography of Habib Bourguiba: “It was a big opportunity for him to learn how to resist a union and solve the problem,when you see what he did later when he came back.He initiated political trials of union members and of the opposition in general.”
Narration: In September 1979, an Islamist group, leaders of political Islam, held a rally on a university campusto celebrate the beginning of the 15th century of the Hegire calendar.Its emerging leader, Racheed Ghanouchi, declared that the century would see the setting up of an Islamic state.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Ziad Krichen, Journalist and Former Member of the Islamist group: “The Islamist group in Tunisia was born in the early 70’s.It oscillated between the Pakistani El Tablir movement, and the Egyptian Brotherhood movement,in its latest version, emanating from the prisons – Sayed Qutb’s version.It was a very radical movement. We were young, and hostile to society and modernity.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Rachid Ghanouchi, Islamist leader: “The conflict between the sector unions and the National Union of Workers attracted our attention to another aspect of the issue: that the conflict didn’t only have a religious dimension, of Islam versus Marxism, or Islam versus secularism. There were social dimensions to it as well. They weren’t the focus of our attention in the 70’s. because our focus was on religious belief.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Habib Bourguiba, First President of Tunisia: “The raising of the prices of bread, flour, and macaroni…no! Those increases… we’ll go back to where we were”
Narration: With this sentence that cancelled the raising of the prices, Bourguiba put out the fire of a revolt. It had lasted several days and had spread from the north to the south of the country. The bread revolt exploded in the last days of 1983. It was a difficult crisis for the weakened regime of the old leader. The situation required the intervention of the army, causing many deaths and injuries among those whom Bourguiba called ‘his children.’ This revealed the store of gun powder hidden beneath the ashes of a decadent society.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Mansour Moalla, Former Minster: “In 1982, inflation was for the first time near 14%. This had never happened before.”
Narration: Mezri Shkeir, with the help of Kamel El Taief, persuaded his frightened Prime Minister, Mohammed Mzali, to invite back the man of Black Thursday who had been exiled in Poland. On the 29th January 1984, three weeks after the suppression of the bread revolt, Gen. Zine el Abidine Ben Ali returned to Tunisia to become the new Director of National Security.
Narration: It never occurred to any of those ministers that he would attend a cabinet meeting with them. He was the first soldier to do so since independence. Silence was the main trait of his character. He attended cabinet meetings but never gave his point of view, and never defended a position. He behaved in the same way he did when he worked in Military Intelligence.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Beji Caid Sebsi, Former Minister: “No, he didn’t talk, and he didn’t attend many cabinet meetings.This period didn’t last long.Secondly, it proved there was a change in Tunisia… a deviation in Tunisian politics.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Safi Saeed, Author of the Banned Biography Of Habib Bourguiba: “He didn’t have the calibre or weight of a statesman.He was a high-ranking civil servant.Step by step, he became Director of Security, through seniority and by manoeuvring.He wasn’t a man of decision, or of political planning or methodology.When did he think of becoming president or someone important in this country?When others thought he could”
Narration: Ben Ali realized that the lift wouldn’t take him any higher if he didn’t make changes in Security to attract attention. He removed those who were accused of inefficiency in suppressing the bread revolt. But he didn’t forget the more important matter… dealing with the national union. He used the same methods he had used in ’78 – prisons and coups.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Mohammed Chakroun. Union Official: “He took the initiative and suppressed strikes. Then he put the union leaders on trial for using violence, for moral offences, for stealing. All on trumped up charge”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Hedi Bacouche, Leader in the Ruling Party: “He was primarily responsible for the arrests and the trials.But the politicians adopted his methods, so this wasn’t obvious.People associate the arrests during the bread revolt with Hedi Nouira and in ’78 with Mzali.They don’t know any better. For them, soldiers just obey orders.”
TIME CODE: 25:00_30:00
Narration: It’s here, in one of the cells of Nadhour Prison, facing the Mediterranean Sea, that the union leader, Habib Achour, was thrown, far from the violence in the streets of Tunis. In all the cities of the country, ‘noble union members’ – that’s what the government called them – attacked the offices of the National Union and took them over. Then they announced the formation of the ‘National Union for Work’.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Safi Saeed, Author of the Banned Biography Of Habib Bourguiba: “They came in and the beat up union members. Some members were arrested by the police. They took over the union offices. That was the role of the ‘noble members’, as Mohammed Mzali called them.”
Narration: The confrontation gradually transferred over to the media.The independent newspapers disappeared one by one.Then the activities of the Human Rights League, the oldest in the Arab world, were forbidden.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Slaheddine Jourchi, Former Member of the Islamist Group: “Because the media and human rights groups play the role of witnesses,they discover what it taking place in politics.Ben Ali wanted to pursue his policies behind the scenes, without any accountability.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Saadadine Zmerli , Human Rights: “For the first time in the country, There was torture, deaths, and so on. Naturally, that didn’t please him.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Racheed Khachana , Journalist: “After the bread revolt, All the opposition and independent papers…Errai, le Phare, le Maghreb, and even Realités, and the party newspapers, El Mauquaf, Takeek el Jadid, Moustakbal and Wahida, were all banned or closed,using direct or indirect pressure.”
Narration: At the same time, the politics of the stick and the carrot were employed against the main opposition figures…in particular against Rached Ghanouchi, the emir of the strong Islamist movement. He was invited by Ben Ali to share a cup of coffee in Ben Ali’s office in the Interior Ministry.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Rachid Ghanouchi, Islamist Leader: “The background to the invitation was: Why did you go to the university? It was a kind of protest or warning that I wasn’t permitted to go to the university, and mix with the students and address them. That wasn’t permitted .So I explained that the university was part of Tunisian territory, part of the Tunisian nation I said there was no law against me visiting any institution in the country .Furthermore, I was a registered student myself in the Sharia Faculty.”
Narration: Ben Ali was preparing for a big battle against the Islamist movement. Their influence had grown in the student body of the universities, and in many mosques, and in poor quarters, and also in towns in the interior. This strong and growing organization was known since its congress in 1981…as the Islamist Tendency Movement. In the spring 1987, Ghanouchi was again Ben Ali’s guest, this time in the humid prison of the Interior Ministry.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Rachid Ghanouchi , Islamist Leader: “I was arrested because I insisted on teaching in the mosque, and the state insisted on forbidding me to do that.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Salahedin El Jourchi, Journalsit And Former Member Of The Islamist Group: “The movement was faced with two choices: either to shut their eyes to the arrest of this important symbol, or to support him .The line that prevailed was to support the emir of the movement and to stand by him in this battle.”
Narration: The Islamists reacted strongly. On April 23rd. thousands demonstrated in the heart of Tunis. They carried placards hostile to Bourguiba. The regime seized the chance, and started a big campaign of arrests.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Salahedin El Jourchi, Journalist And Former Member Of The Islamist Group: “The decision to take to the streets was a major turning point...both in relations between the regime and the movement, and also in the history of the movement itself. Now it played the card of the street to put pressure on the regime and to threaten it…and further weaken an already weak regime.”
Narration: Both Bourguiba and Saidi Sassi relied on this iron general in their war against the Islamist opposition. This dependence increased with the dangerous developments that occurred in the summer of 1987. Four locally made bombs exploded in tourist hotels in Monastir, where Bourguiba was born and spent his summer holidays. This conspiracy was a flagrant challenge to him. The angry old leader responded in two ways. On 26th September 1987, thirty-five of ninety accused men appeared before the State Security Court. A sentence of capital punishment was pronounced on Ghanouchi, and on Saleh Karkeh, who was on the run. Other heavy sentences were pronounced on the other accused men.
TIME CODE: 30:00_35:00
Narration: Then on the 2nd October 1987, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. the strong general at the Ministry of the Interior…was appointed Prime Minister.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Safi Saeed, Author of the Banned Biography Of Habib Bourguiba: “Ben Ali represented one wing and Mzali and his team another. Ben Ali’s wing included Hedi Baccouche, Abdallah Farhat…it was the wing of the strong state, the police state, Bourguiba’s state, what we call the authoritarian state.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Hedi Bacouche, Leader in The Ruling Party: “Bourguiba believed that those who adopted religion for political ends…were dangerous, and did not appreciate the value of the nation-state. He said – and I was present – ‘you can’t stop them, but if it’s the last thing I do in my life: I am going to stop them!’ This was Bourguiba’s plan, and the people around him explained to him…that the man he needed for it was Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.”
Narration: Ben Ali concentrated his efforts on neutralising his main rivals, those close to Sayah.He formed a government of technocrats to tackle the serious economic situation.He wanted to show he was capable of political victories, to hide his past role in Security.Bourguiba agreed to his proposed list of ministers, but on the day they were to be appointed,he came under Sayah’s influence, and changed his mind.This kind of action, which was now typical of the aging President, humiliated the new Prime Minister.And when Ben Ali tried to make him change his mind again,Bourguiba got angry and cursed him, and maybe even struck him.Ben Ali left the palace with his list of ministers, head down, and deeply humiliated. It was now clear that the premiership would not suit the ambitious general any longer.The choice was clear, and frightening at the same time.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Hedi Bacouche, Leader in the Ruling Party: “Bourguiba began to doubt if Ben Ali was as strong as he claimed, and was ready to dismiss him.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Safi Saeed, Author of the Banned Biography of Habib Bourguiba: “Bourguiba took the decision to dismiss him, and notified TAP, the Tunisian African Press. Abdulwahab Abdallah was at that time the Minister of Information under Bourgbuiba. He was in charge at TAP and informed Ben Ali: ‘You will be sacked on Monday.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Habib Bourguiba, First president of Tunisia: “My succession is not for tomorrow.”
Narration: This wasn’t Kamel Letaif’s opinion, nor was it Hedi Baccouche’s opinion. Both pushed Ben Ali to seize his historic chance before it was too late.
Narration: On the night of the 6th. November, the Interior Ministry was transformed into an operations room by Ben Ali. Hedi Baccouche left a party at the Russian Embassy. Ben Ali called him to the Interior Ministry. In one of the offices, he told him to write the Declaration of the Change, to be read to the Tunisian people. The Attorney General, El Hechmi Zammal, was also called to the Ministry in the middle of the night. He had seven doctors with him and they certified that the old President was incapable of carrying out his duties… At the same time General Habib Ammar. The blue tanks of the guard surrounded the TV building, government buildings, and the ruling party building. The Algerian President, Chedli Ben Jadid, was the first to know…and after him, the French prime minister, Jacques Chirac. But the last one to know was the former president, Habib Bourguiba, surrounded in his palace. And it was the voice of the new president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who told him – on the radio.
TIME CODE: 35:00_40:00
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Safi Saeed, Author of the Banned Biography Of Habib Bourguiba: “87 was the beginning of the real changes that occurred in the world. Either in the Soviet Union in ’85 with ‘perestroika’, leading to the collapse of the state. It started in Romania, then in East Germany. Ben Ali came in that period when the country was nearly bankrupt and the president powerless. His physical capacities were gone. President Bourbuiba was saved from senility. Saved from the farce of life, and from the burden of old age We saved him.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Second President of Tunisia: “We have achieved a level of awareness and maturity, which permits everyone of us, all categories, to participate in a constructive way, in running our affairs under a republican regime which respects institutions…”
Narration: In the minutes that passed during the Declaration of the Change, there was a deathly silence in the country. Ben Ali began the declaration with God’s blessing, and he ended it with a verse from the Koran. He praised the wisdom of the Tunisian people, and declared his readiness to move to democracy and multi-party politics. The declaration was full of everything and anything. It had been written very cautiously, and embraced religious, civil, and political values.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Unknown Man: “His Excellency, the President of the Republic.”
Narration: The General distanced himself from suspicions of a coup d’etat, by focusing on the legitimacy of his action, and on all the groups inside and outside the country.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Second President of Tunisia: “It’s a new era that we are entering together, with the blessing of God, and with seriousness and determination.”
Narration: The whole country rose up. Activists and citizens went into the street, weeping and celebrating. The Change was in a country that enjoyed the highest level of education in the Arab world, and an exemplary middle class. This word, Change, had a magical impact. None of the major political parties considered that it had been a coup. There was a mood of expectancy. A small party on the extreme left declared its opposition to the General, and accused him of introducing an era of coups d’etat.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Judeidi Abdulwahab , Left Wing Leader: “We didn’t condemn the coup. We said there were positive things and achievements that we couldn’t deny, and that we had to support and preserve. And we said there were negative things which we had to do away with forever, such as one-man government.”
Narration: But Ben Ali insisted on doing the exact opposite. During the few weeks that followed the Change of the 7th. November, as it was called, many amazing reforms followed and touched all aspects of life. The embargo on trade unions and the Human Rights league and press censorship were gradually lifted. On the night of Aid El Fitr, Achour, the leader of the National Union, was released, as well as Rached Ghanouchi, the Islamist leader.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Rached Ghanouchi , Islamist Leader: “After a few months, on the 6th. November ’88, he received me in Carthage Palace,and he promised quite clearly that he would recognize our Movement.”
Narration: The number of prisoners released exceeded two thousand. Among them was the Islamist leader, Ali Laraiyed, who faced the death penalty. He recognized the Islamic Students’ Union at the university, under the name, the Tunisian General Union of Students. It was the rival to the long-established students’ union, led by the left. On his first trip abroad, the new president visited the Holy Places to perform the Omra pilgrimage. An independent Ministry of Religious Affairs was created, and the High Islamic Council was revived. It even included leaders from the Islamist Movement, like its founder, Abdulfetah Mourou. On state TV, programs were interrupted for the calls to prayer, and the sighting of the new moon replaced the calendar for calculating lunar months, as if in a riposte to Bourguibean modernity.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Abdelfattah Mourou, Islamist Leader: “He wanted to pull the carpet from under the Islamists’ feet .He thought small changes would make the people trust him more than the Islamists. Because the previous regime had been openly hostile to Islam. So he decided to move in the opposite direction to prove that he was a reformer.”
Narration: On the first anniversary of the Change of the 7th. November, an Islamist lawyer, Nouredin Bhiri, signed up, in the name of the Nahdah movement, to a document of political principles, called the National Charter. This charter was written by Mohammed Charfi, the President of the Human Rights League. It declared that Tunisia was a democratic country for all its citizens, no matter what their differences were, and that the state would guard the tolerant and sacrosanct values of Islam. On that day, most of the political parties were in Carthage to sign this charter.
TIME CODE: 40:00_45:00
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Khamais Chammari , Social Democrat Movement: “A few voices were raised openly in warning, in particular in a famous article by Mr Hichem Djait.”
Narration: Because of this article, the review was closed down for many months,and the writer was put on trial, while the world clapped the Saviour.
Scene 6: The Palace
Narration: As for the democracy the President had announced, it seemed strange. Ben Ali called on the left, the Islamists and the trade unions, to draw up unified lists with his party, the RCD, the legal successor to Bourguiba’s party. This attracted many opposition figures and academics who believed in the ‘Change’ under Ben Ali’s leadership.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Khamais Chammari , Social Democrat Movement: “For the first so-called democratic elections, there were two ballot boxes: One for red ballots , for Ben Ai, the other for the ballot for the Front. So where was the multi-party democracy?”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Rached Ghanouchi , Islamist Leader:” Taking part in elections with only one list, and fixing quotes before the elections, made it all just a political theatre. Ahmed Mestiri was right to refuse to take part, because it was completely undemocratic, democracy means a real competition.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Slaheddin Jourchi, journalist and Human Rights Activist: “Afterwards, Each party had its own strategy. We should note that the leaders of the Islamist Movement were ready to participate with a limited number of lists. But then their activists mobilized, and each group drew up a list. The movement becomes the only rival to the party in power in nearly all the constituencies. Suddenly they appeared in force.”
Narration: This careless imitative offered the ministry of interiors a list of thousands of party members in sympathies, Mean while the RCD the party in power collected states of services on brought them. They gave money to the voters outside the polling stations.
Narration: The opposition less got the 80 percent of the vote of which led to the movements of the Islamist but Ben Ali got 99 percent in the presidential election A magical number of whole the Tunisia.The honeymoon between the President and the Islamists was nearly over. One month after the election, Ghanouchi decided to leave the country. He asked for permission to go on the Hajj in May 1989. But he never returned, and chose exile in London. The show of force in the elections revealed agreed to get into government by force.
TIME CODE: 45:00_50:00
Narration: Ben Ali started to change his political compass. The first sign of this was his appointment of Mohammed Charfi, the brain behind the National Charter, as Minister of Education and Science. This former leftist was a sworn enemy of Islamism. Despite the fact that Charfi got help from some old Islamists for his educational reforms, the changes in the teaching of religious studies in schools excited An Nahdha’s anger. They attacked him in a violent declaration and accused him of degrading Islam.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Abdulfetah Mourou , Islamist leader: “I don’t consider that what Charfi – God bless his soul – did was a reform. This man found an established Islamic system, and he launched resistance to the Islamic wave…through a policy he defined himself as ‘the drying up of the springs’. He cut the links between Islam and The young In the School Textbook. He cut out everything related to belief and rituals, and he made the issue of Islam a matter of belonging to a civilization, to human values.”
Narration: The moment of truth came in 1990. In Algeria, a huge popular protest produced in months a jump of decades towards a democratic opening. The world watched with great concern the first multi-party elections in Algeria, and the exciting emergence of the FIS, the Islamic Salvation Front. The front grouped together many Islamic tendencies, from the most extremist to the most moderate. This strong alliance of political Islam won more than 50 per cent of the vote in municipal elections. This happened next door to the new Tunisian President, and in front of his political rivals among the Islamists, who had shouted the slogans of the ‘Change’ in the streets. And the second Gulf War gave them a suitable opportunity. Amid the roar of the American raids on Iraq people.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Abdulfetah Mourou , Islamist leader: “I was never convinced by Ghanouchi’s stance, and I considered that attacking Iraq was a true invasion .It was an assault on the concept of the state and on what we have achieved in civilization. This demands respect for all existing states. And international law is based on that.”
Narration: Ben Ali also chose to go along with popular sentiment, which strongly supported Saddam Hussein. The crisis presented a historical opportunity to approach the leftist and nationalist opposition, who were still complaining about the results of the last election. Although En Nahdha allowed its supporters to take part in the big demonstrations against the war, this led to violence and conflict, which provided a golden opportunity to the regime. The arrests came thick and fast. The paper, Al Fajr, which spoke for the movement, was closed down, and the visa for the Islamist Students’ Union was revoked in 1991.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Abdulfetah Mourou , Islamist leader: “This disturbed me in that period. I was the head of the executive bureau…and of the political bureau of the movement, and I was confronted with real facts. I saw young men arrested because of it. I contacted them to find out if they belonged to the movement and they said they did .I wasn’t aware of the plan to give members freedom to act as they wished. This was a big mistake that the movement made, and we must evaluate it.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Rached Ghanouchi, Islamist Leader: “This strategy caused a little disturbance. The state assaulted and suppressed the leaders who should have controlled it.”
Narration: In the same period, the office of the RCD, the ruling party, was set on fire in Bab Souika. This resulted in the death of one of the watchmen and in severe injuries to the other.That was the sign of a new phase in the confrontation.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Rached Ghanouchi, Islamist Leader: “The regime wanted to convert it from an event, an excess, into a basis and cause for total war against En Nahdha.”
Narration: At the heart of the promises made by the ‘Artisan of the Change’, many people seemed to forget the general himself, who was the craftsman of Black Thursday. All those who received the amnesty of the 7th. November was now imprisoned by the craftsman of the 7th. November But the movement survived, for all to remember.
TIME CODE: 50:00_55:00
Narration: The Security Forces arrived in huge numbers. Roads were blocked. houses searched, and whole areas besieged. A big campaign of arrests of the Islamist activists started and peaked in 1991.According to international organizations, the numbers arrested totalled eight thousand. Thousands fled over the land borders to Libya and Algeria. The regime even pursued some of them outside the country and forced them back.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Ameur Larayed, Islamist Leader: “In fact, the Tunisian regime didn’t just pursue opponents inside the country.It tried to pursue, kidnap and arrest them in neighboring countries. That’s one thing. The other is that they tried to put pressure on distant countries where opponents had gone. And they used all kinds of strong lobbies to try to have them extradited.”
Narration: They re-imposed the ban on the Hijab in state schools and faculties, and the security control of mosques reached unbearable levels. The authorities had declared war, a merciless war, against those it called ‘extremists’ .Heavy prison sentences were handed down. Some died under torture. Among them was this Islamist student, Faisal Barakat, who spoke out openly on TV and paid a high price for it.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Jamal Barakat , Brother Of Faisal Barakat, God Rest His Soul: “He was under so much torture that one of his torturers told his officer: ‘He can’t take any more.’ The officer said: ‘Go on – till he dies.’”
Narration: Jamal Barakat was sent to prison three times because he insisted in inquiring into his brother’s death. For many years, thousands of families endured disturbance, imprisonment, or assaults…because of an imprisoned son, brother, or husband. In 1992, while thousands fled the country to escape the horror of the regime, Leila Trabelsi officially entered the Tunisian political theatre four years after the President’s separation from his wife, Naima, the daughter of General Kefi, and the one who was the cause of his rapid rise. Leila Trabelsi, was born in Bab Jedid quarter in the old medina of Tunis. She was a daughter of a poor family of thirteen, just like Ben Ali’s. She lived an exciting life and didn’t finish more than the first years of secondary education. She learned a few simple skills in her youth and worked as a secretary. Then she began to smuggle small products between Tunisia and Europe. Her role in smuggling led her to her divorce from her first husband… and to her establishing relations with powerful men in the Ministry of the Interior. They introduced her in 1984 to the new Director of Security, who had just returned from Poland. It is supposed that this girl joined the Women’s Intelligence Service, and was used by Ben Ali to infiltrate political and military circles. But she was more intelligent than that…
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Safi Saeed, Author of The Banned Biography Of Habib Bourguiba: “She was forceful and she was jealous. She loved him and did everything to be with him. And he did the same.”
SOUNDBITE [French], News Reader: “The most important absentee from this trial was Moncef Ben Ali, the brother of the Tunisian President…”
Narration: The scandals in the President’s family started to increase. In May 1992, the French issued an arrest warrant for Moncef Ben Ali for involvement in a big drug smuggling ring. The case was known in France as ‘the couscous net’. As for Leila, she tried hard to put men who supported her into key positions of authority. This led to the birth of a complex mafia network, which began working, like all mafias, in dubious projects and illegal import/export contracts. They also demanded contributions from businessmen, whether they liked it or not, in exchange for protection and advantages.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Sleem Bagga, Journalist Specialized In Corruption Cases: “At the beginning she was in properties of foreigners, or of Tunisians, especially in Carthage, La Marsa, and Gammarth.She went out every afternoon, sometimes with Abdulwahab Abdallah, and she would choose this house or that villa.Then they went to the owner and told him: ‘We’ll give you some cash, and you leave the house.’If he didn’t agree, he would be pushed out and they would take it.As for the foreign-owned properties, they just confiscated them.That’s what Leila did at first. That’s all. There was nothing else.But after Moncef’s death, she started to gain confidence,and it was the Blue Salon Circle in Carthage every morning,where they agreed on their daily or weekly activities.”
TIME CODE: 55:28_01:00:00
Narration: The Republic was on the road to decadence, to be replaced by the big image of the smiling President…with shining black hair, which never turned grey.This inspired President practiced his religious devotions, and was fascinated by computers.He visited the poor quarters without forewarning, and planted a tree every year.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Slaheddin Jourchi, journalist and Human Rights Activist: “The second half of the nineties was considered the darkest period…in the political history of contemporary Tunisia. Dictatorship dominated. Security was paramount. Fear dominated. Tyranny and social hypocrisy dominated.There are fundamental forces in our society. They are the National General Union, the student movement, and the Islamist movement .He targeted the Union by weakening them, and the student movement by surrounding and attacking it, and the Islamist movement by uprooting it.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Racheed Khachana , Journalist: “Security activities became political activities.There was no more political activity from parties who were in competition or in conflict. Security bodies managed the media, the NGO’s – which is a strange paradox – and the political parties.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Taufik Ben Brik , Journalist: “In view of the fact that they banned me from writing about the wind and about the rain,I wrote about the people who were stopping me from writing.”
Narration: In the late nineties, Taufik Ben Brik became one of the very few journalists… who defied the tyranny of the regime. His family paid dearly for this rebellion. This brave journalist wrote in the columns of a French paper: ‘If in Algeria, they killed journalists, in Tunisia, they killed journalism. At the end of the 20th Century, many people thought that Tunis was the Singapore of Africa. The country had achieved constant economic growth of around 6%. The vast majority of the middle class owned a car and a house. In fact, we can’t attribute this economic glory to the wisdom of the new President only. Ben Ali had inherited a state which enjoyed as low an illiteracy rate as some European states. It was also a country where its first president, Habib Bourguiba… managed to avoid the pitfalls of heavy industry, which attracted the majority of the nationalistic regimes in the region. Women were also integrated in the job market, and birth control was practiced early on, thus sparing Tunisia of the consequences of rapid demographic growth. The Tunisia that Ben Ali took over was a country which had advanced since the seventies with a liberal economic system, operated by a modern society. Women participated strongly in it, and people believed in the importance of education, and in the culture of work.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Safi Saeed, Author of The Banned Biography Of Habib Bourguiba: “With globalization, Tunisia opened up to money, and contracts, and loans, and capital flight, and money laundering. Lots of money came in from Iraq. Lots from Algeria during its civil war … the money of the generals and of the smugglers. Huge amounts of money came from Libya, either state money or thieves’ money.”
Narration: But the businessmen were uneasy. The decadence of the political opposition created a feeling of immunity… in the President and his family, as well as in the family of his wife, Leila Trabelsi. They started behaving like a true mafia, who could not be controlled.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Sleem Bagga , Journalist Specialising In Corruption: “The example in the nineties that I can remember now…it concerns maybe Auchan, the big French shopping company. They wanted to come to Tunisia and open up, which could have created six thousand jobs. The Trabelsi and Chiboub families fought over the bribes involved.Everyone tried to grab, grab, grab, until the boss of Auchan got bored…and said: I won’t invest in a banana republic.He left and opened his shopping centre in Morocco and created jobs there.”
TIME CODE: 01:00:00_01:05:00
Narration: Even high level academics like Dr. Mohammed Taalbi had had enough. This professor, who is considered one of the founders of the Tunisian university, was prevented from publishing the thesis of one of his students. So he concentrated all his anger on the President of the Republic. He wrote in an article which was published by Arabic magazines.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Mohammed Taalbi, Islamic Scholar: “It is he who imposes censorship on the university and on thinking.”
Narration: Dr. Thaalbi became one of the founders of the National Council for Liberties…and of the League of Free Writers, which gathered together some of the ‘resfusniks’. The National Council of Liberties published a violent report… which reached international organizations. The report brought out the dark face of the ‘free press’ and the unrelenting censorship of the regime. This courageous report was produced by people like Sihem ben Sadrine, Sabri el Khiari, and Taufik ben Brik. On the 3rd. April, 2000, Taufik Ben Brik decided to begin a hunger strike… to have restrictions lifted on his passport and private phone. This strike coincided with Bourguiba’s death at his assigned residence. Journalists from all over the world rushed to cover Bourguiba’s funeral, but the regime firmly refused to allow them and attacked some of them. So all the attention of hundreds of journalists was diverted to the only other event of any interest in the country, the one about the journalist who had already started his hunger strike to have his phone reconnected.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Rached Khachana , Journalist: “In that year, 1999, with Bourguiba’s death, Tunisian society started regaining consciousness. In this period, with the hunger strike of Taufik Ben Brik and the shooting of the journalist, Riadh Ben Fadhel… then the National Congress for Liberties in July 2000.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Slaheddin Jourchi, journalist and Human Rights Activist: “International bodies started to doubt the President’s narrative about the Islamists.We started talking about Ben Ali as a dictator”
Narration: The destiny of the General still had some happy surprises in store. On 9/11, 2001, the world was shaken with images of the biggest terrorist operation in modern history. One day later, the President’s newspapers talked with a triumphant tone. After a short period of cooling off between the West and Ben Ali, the special relationship was renewed with the ‘wise general’… who had overcome the danger of fundamentalism with calm and efficiency. In 2003, while human rights activist, Radhia Nasraoui, began a long hunger strike, Jacques Chirac declared on a visit to Tunisia .
SOUNDBITE [French], Jacques Chirac, Former President of France: “The fundamental human rights areto be able to eat, receive medical treatment, and get an education .From this point of view; we must admit that Tunisia is very advanced.”
Narration: On the 18th. October, 2005, this former socialist began a hunger strike with seven other opposition figures, exploiting the start of the World IT Congress in Tunis, held at the same time. Among the hunger strikers were an Islamist leader, another extreme leftist, a rebellious judge, and the head of the Journalists’ Union, Lotfi Hajji.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], LOTFI HAJJI, JOURNALIST: “There were three clear demands which disturbed the regime:for free media – that was why I myself took part in the strike…I was the head of the Tunisian Journalists’ Union, the first independent journalists’ union ever, and freedom to demonstrate, because the regime refused permits to independent parties and associations, and the release of political prisoners… there was lots of them in prison at that time.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Samir Dilou, Islamist Leader Among The Hunger Strikers: “This coming together of all the opposition was the main event in the last years, because it showed that the regime was no longer able to maintain the fragmentation, the weakness…and the inability to agree among its opponents .In the last years of Ben Ali’s government, there were many signs of the approaching storm.”
TIME CODE: 01:05:00_01:09:00
Narration: In 2008, the mining town of Gafsa was shaken by demonstrations against economic neglect.In the following months, social protests led by courageous union officials spread…to Feriana, to Skhira, and to Ben Guerdane, in the south of the country.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Saleheddin Jourchi, Journalist And Human Rights Activist : “Ben Ali lived in a very narrow world. His main focus was his son. He had waited long years for him to arrive. He spent a great deal of his time in the palace, playing with him, while the important state files were left to the prime minister or other ministers. We started feeling that the state ship had no captain. At that time, we started to realize that President Ben Ali was nearing his end.”
Soundbite [Arabic], Said Safi, Biographer of Bourguiba: “He was so confident of Tunisia, to the degree that he didn’t expect anything to happen to him, because of all the hypocrisy, flattery, and lots of yes-men around him. And he had his agents and spies, so he felt there was no threat, from the left or the right. That’s power. But betrayal of power is also universal. It hovers round your shoulders and sleeps under your pillow. Everyone who trusts in power for an instant knows that power can dismiss him.”
Narration: The correspondence from the American Embassy in Tunis that was published by Wikileaks revealed… that for years the Americans also believed that the regime was unwilling to change. In that correspondence, Soah Arafat confirmed Ben Ali’s withdrawal…and the narrowing of his life to playing with his son, and also confirmed Leila Trabelsi’s dominance over him. The leaks revealed the dangerous level of corruption in the President’s family. Saker el Materi kept a pet tiger in a cage and called it ‘the Pacha’. It ate four chickens a day. This reminded me of the picture of the tiger kept by Oudey Saddam Hussein. And when the Zeitouna Islamic Bank, owned by Saker el Materi, offered a gold model car to the President’s son on his sixth birthday, things turned upside down.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Said Safi, Biographer of Bourguiba: “This was Ben Ali’s nature… his paranoia. He’s jealous and timid, and silent and egotistical. Life is only where he is at the centre. When he felt that the danger was close, he took his plane and fled. He wasn’t ready to negotiate or to manoeuvre, or to resist or fight. Nothing, He deserted, in order to enjoy what was left to him of wealth and old age .That’s the nature of men like him.”