x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Free at last, Tunisians tell their stories of life under Ben Ali

With the ousting of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, a world of banned books, tapped phones, secret police and thousands of dissidents either jailed or driven into exile has started to recede into the past.

Wissem Sghaier, centre, participates in a meeting at the offices of the Progressive Democratic Party in the centre of Tunis last week.
Wissem Sghaier, centre, participates in a meeting at the offices of the Progressive Democratic Party in the centre of Tunis last week.

TUNIS // On the wall of the prime minister's office in Tunis, not far from where soldiers stand guard, someone has spray-painted the phrase "Enfin Libres".

Tunisians indeed seem free at last. With the ousting of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who spent 23 years in power, a world of banned books, tapped phones, secret police and thousands of dissidents either jailed or driven into exile has started to recede into the past. In their place are graffiti celebrating liberation, impromptu sidewalk debates and daily street demonstrations.

Distrust of the new government lingers, however. For one thing, it is led for the moment by former political allies of Mr Ben Ali; for another, changing a system that has been entrenched for more than two decades will not occur overnight. That truth is most evident in the stories of those who suffered under it. Here are three:

The dissident

Twenty days ago, Wissem Sghaier was hurrying along the Rue de Paris in central Tunis to meet a foreign reporter when strong hands gripped his arms. He found himself being frogmarched down the avenue by two plainclothes policemen.

Within minutes he was handcuffed, speeding away in a car, a bag over his head. The next day he found himself standing before an intelligence officer seated behind a desk at the interior ministry.

"I've been watching you for years," the officer said. "I've been listening to you. What do you want? Who gives you your orders?"

Mr Sghaier, 28, is an activist from Tunisia's student union and a senior member of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party. In Mr Ben Ali's Tunisia, that made him an enemy of the state.

"I'll ask you again," said the officer. "Who gives you your orders?"

Mr Sghaier refused to answer. The officer's voice took on a calm, reasonable tone as he offered Mr Sghaier a civil service job if he would agree to become an informant. Again, Mr Sghaier refused.

Police led him to another room and forced him to strip, he said. They beat him and threatened to harm his mother and sister. One man photographed the ordeal.

"They wounded me more with words than with blows," Mr Sghaier said. "They called me a dog, a nothing. I told myself I must be stronger than them."

When the interrogation was over they let him dress and brought him to a detention centre in the capital. He was held for six days, handcuffed to a bed.

On January 13, he was taken to the hive of cells beneath the interior ministry, where he was again beaten and then tied up.

"They showed me the file they had on me - it was tall like this!" said Mr Sghaier, holding his hands a foot apart.

They gave him blankets that night, but he was too thirsty to sleep. In the morning he heard the screams of other detainees.

Then he found himself again facing the intelligence officer.

"Who gives you your orders?" the officer again asked. And again, Mr Sghaier refused to answer.

The officer showed him pictures of older dissidents jailed during the three-decade rule of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's first president.

"Do you know these people?" said the officer. Mr Sghaier said nothing.

At last the officer repeated his offer of a state job in return for information. Mr Sghaier refused again and was released.

The next day was Friday, January 14. Mr Sghaier was in the offices of the Progressive Democratic Party, sipping coffee from a plastic cup and balancing a cigarette between his fingers.

"I have hope - I live in hope," he said. "I wouldn't be in an opposition party if I didn't have hope."

Then chaos filled the office and voices were talking about hundreds, maybe thousands, gathering in front of the interior ministry to protest.

By the end of the day Mr Ben Ali was gone.

The Islamist

Abdel Karim Harouni attended the funeral of his mother in 2006 accompanied by policemen. When the service was over he was ushered back to his cell.

"It's not simply because I'm a devout Muslim that I was jailed," said Mr Harouni. "It was because I'm an Islamist."

Since the 1970s Mr Harouni has been active in Islamist movements, and since 1988 a member of An Nahda, a Tunisian Islamist movement that Mr Ben Ali accused of plotting violence - an allegation Mr Harouni denies.

"The regime was afraid that if there was freedom, people would choose Islamists," said Mr Harouni. "For that we paid a heavy price."

Under Ben Ali rule, thousands of Islamists were imprisoned, while others - including An Nahda's leader, Rachid Ghannouchi - were driven into exile.

Mr Harouni was arrested in November 1987, the month Mr Ben Ali replaced and ailing Habib Bourguiba.

It was a cold autumn morning during Ramadan. Mr Harouni was emerging from pre-dawn prayers at the main mosque in La Marsa, a seaside suburb of Tunis, when two agents stopped him.

"Come with us," they ordered.

Mr Harouni followed them to a nearby police station, where he was ushered into a car.

"The arrest was a surprise," he said later. "There was a campaign on against Islamists, but I was unknown at that point."

The car brought him to another police station, near the presidential palace in Carthage, above the ruins of the ancient port. There, his interrogation began.

He was later moved to another police station, and then to the interior ministry. He says he was tortured at both locations.

"I was stripped in both cases, hung roast-chicken style from a bar between two tables and beaten very hard with lengths of cable," he said.

He spent nearly all of the next 16 years in prison.

During that time he was released twice, and twice re-arrested. Those arrests were harsher than the first, and he said police stormed the houses in which he was staying.

Mr Harouni's sister, Hend Harouni, took up his cause - writing articles, talking to human rights groups and appearing on Al Jazeera.

While not a member of An Nahda, she defends the movement's principles. "Tunisia is a Muslim country," she said. "We must have a Muslim government. Our religion has structures that cannot be divided between politics and religion - justice and economics, for example."

In 2007 Mr Harouni was released. He is now secretary general of Equité et Liberté, a human rights organisation based in Tunis.

Hend Harouni, however, has been out of work since 2002, and she and two other siblings remain unmarried - problems she blames on Mr Ben Ali's efforts to vilify Islamists.

She was sitting at home watching Al Jazeera when the news broke that the former president had fled the country.

"I just knew that something would happen to Ben Ali in the end," she said.

"We [will] make sure that change in Tunisia is not based on fear," added Mr Harouni.

The paper merchant

Naoufel Meddeb's troubles, involving a photocopier, began in 2001.

At that time, Mr Meddeb owned a paper and office-supply company in Tunis, and his top customer was the justice ministry.

One day he went to see the justice minister's counsellor to oversee delivery of a photocopier. On the invoice, the counsellor wrote "free of charge" in French.

Mr Meddeb protested, but the counsellor would not be swayed.

"We give you a lot of business, and it's normal for merchants to throw in a few things for free," the counsellor said.

The conversation was short and dry, and there was no handshake at the end.

"I didn't care about the money involved," Mr Meddeb said later. "But I didn't want to be involved in the racket."

The encounter began an odyssey through the corruption and abuse of power that characterised Mr Ben Ali's regime.

The justice ministry immediately broke its contact with Mr Meddeb and refused to pay him the 800,000 Tunisian dinars (Dh2,070) he says it owed him. Rebuffed by state mediators, he sued the ministry in 2002.

Later that year he was audited and charged 1,600,000 dinars in allegedly unpaid taxes. He says he had always paid his taxes.

"It was pure theatre," he said. "Auditing was a tactic to bully people who weren't sufficiently docile."

One morning in 2002 Mr Meddeb arrived at work to find his office ransacked, the first of four burglaries that he blames on the justice ministry. His business records were entrusted to his lawyer, but thieves stole his passport.

Mr Meddeb was not intimidated into silence. He wrote letters to ministries, judges, foreign embassies, prominent Tunisians and even the office of the president.

Those letters, plus his lawsuit, are what Mr Meddeb thinks prompted the justice ministry to set a trap.

In March 2003 he arranged a meeting with a judge to seek a truce. Suddenly, three policemen entered the judge's chambers, handcuffed Mr Meddeb and took him to prison.

He spent the next three years behind bars, mainly in solitary confinement. He sewed letters into clothing and passed them to his lawyer. He embarked on a hunger strike, but his family persuaded him to end it.

In 2005 he was tried for illegally acquiring public goods - a charge he denies - fined 800,000 dinars (Dh2,070) and returned to prison. In December 2007 he was released.

Mr Meddeb has a new passport but cannot get a loan. He has tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a new office-supply company and a call centre.

However, his troubles have left him politically energised as never before.

"I had lived so long outside of Tunisia that I wasn't aware of things," he said. "Prison woke me up. Prison taught me how ignorant I was, despite my diplomas."

On Friday, January 14, he joined thousands of demonstrators in Tunis to demand Mr Ben Ali's departure.

"It's not enough to topple Ben Ali," he said. "The system must change, the mentality must change. Bad habits must change. Laws must be applied. Otherwise, what happened to me could happen to anyone."

jthorne@thenational.ae