The political discourse in Tunis took an increasingly bitter turn this week with the release on Thursday of a videotape allegedly depicting the current Interior Minister, Ali Larayedh, engaging in intimate relations with a fellow male inmate while in state prison in the 1990s. A former Secretary-General of Ennahda, Larayedh was imprisoned for over 15 years for his anti-regime views — 10 of which were spent in solitary confinement.
While the source of the video is unknown, and its low quality makes its authenticity dubious, it seems clear that this is an attempt by detractors of the current regime — likely ex-RCD members (Ben Ali’s party), to discredit and humiliate Larayedh. But instead of having the intended impact, the video has largely been greeted with disgust, as it is a potent reminder of the brutal methods of repression prevalent under the former regime. Despite the taboo nature of the film’s content, many Tunisians are rallying around Larayedh and condemning the release of the tape in the first place. (That said, there were rumors of a satirical gay pride rally in honor of Ennahda being held on Saturday — I don’t think it actually transpired).
Apparently, it was a common tactic for the old regime to try and induce homosexual behavior in political prisoners — whether by bringing young men into the jails, or by the influence of drugs — and videotape it in order to create blackmail that could be used at a future date. In addition, according to a mid-2000s report by the French NGO Ban Public, many political prisoners were purposely cut off from the outside world, deprived of the right to read newspapers, watch television, exercise, and communicate with other prisoners or their families, except on an exceedingly infrequent basis. Larayedh underwent even more extreme psychological abuse, including death threats by injection of toxic substances and/or the HIV virus, and the abduction, sexual abuse and filming by security forces of his wife, the viewing of which caused him a nervous breakdown. Tunisia Live reports that in an AFP interview, Larayedh testified that, “I almost died several times within the cells of the Ministry of the Interior.”
That this man is now Minister of the very organization that subjected him to such egregious, extended harassment underscores some of the difficulties underlying transition in Tunisia. While RCD leaders have been removed from leadership positions in all government ministries, the rank and file of the bureaucracy and security forces remains largely the same. The latter population is especially key to the national reconciliation process, as they served as the enforcement mechanism of the authoritarian system.
Some cosmetic attempts appear to have been made to rehabilitate the security forces, . Starting this year, police officers will now wear a new uniform, so as to remove mental association with the old regime. There have also been calls for improved training and recruitment, to include human rights education for all security forces. Last March, the interim government announced the disbanding of Ben Ali’s political police, but it remains unclear to what extent this has actually occurred, primarily because the structure and organization of the security sector has always been, and remains, opaque to the broader population. According to a 20-year old student who participated in the demonstrations last year, this means that many Tunisians remain fearful of the police, because for all they know, the traffic operator on the corner could have formerly been one of Ben Ali’s thugs. Given this context, it is not too hard to imagine the culture war that must be going on inside the Ministry of Interior right now — in fact, some suspect the video was released specifically by an internal rival to Laarayedh from within the Ministry itself.
Since the topic of security sector reform is a large component of my research here, I’ve been trying to contextualize these events by reading about lustration and reconciliation processes in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. Lustration — literally meaning, “to purify through ritual sacrifice”, refers to the process of weeding out members of the old regime, and their collaborators during a post-revolutionary transfer of power. Countries in transition undertake lustration in order to fulfill the public desire for justice, to ensure the dismantling of authoritarian systems of repression, and to recognize, apologize for, and punish wrongdoings committed under the old system in order to smooth the transition process. This is often accomplished by banning members of the old regime from participating in the new government, asset seizure and redistribution from the old elite, and truth and reconciliation commissions like those seen in South Africa following the end of apartheid.
While the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe may have been equally repressive to that of Ben Ali, it seems that in the former scenario, there existed an innate desire among individual citizens to come clean about their role in the former regime, both in order to understand the system and move forward to the new. In Tunisia, I have seen very little of that sentiment. Going back to the notion of hard-line versus liberal secularism I spoke about in the previous post, most secular elites — many of whom participated to some extent in the old regime — seem to have nothing but scorn for the new government. There is little optimism here, and there does not seem to be any desire to come to terms with prior wrongdoings, except among those who outside the prior ruling class.
This does not bode well for transition. Perhaps this difference can be partially attributed to the role of Russia, an external player, in perpetuating the Communist system, versus the fully indigenous nature of Ben Ali’s authoritarianism (some Tunisians may argue that the broader support of the old regime by Western powers contributed to his stay in power, but the association is nowhere near as direct). It is easier to admit individual wrongdoings when they were committed in the name of a broader external ideology, practicedat the societal level, which eventually became bankrupt. But there was no equivalent ideology driving the old system in Tunisia; like many autocracies, the old system was designed above all to support the preservation of power by the status quo.
On this topic, a Tunisian friend frankly stated, “there has been no transitional justice in Tunisia since the Revolution.” While the government has taken pains to provide monetary compensation to families who lost lives in the uprising, there seems to have been shockingly little done in the way of actively punishing members of the old regime. An initial 23-year ban on ex-RCD members running for political office was shortened to 10 years last April, but many of the secular parties here, even if their elected officials are not ex-RCD, are known to represent RCD interests. In terms of asset seizure and redistribution, I am not aware of anything significant having occurred, outside of the immediate real estate owned by the party, the fate of which still hangs in the balance. And there has been no institution created to facilitate a national reconciliation process.
Opponents of lustration processes often argue that, especially in developing countries, removing all members of the old regime can create devastating consequences, because it creates a huge gap in technocratic capacity. From a security perspective, the experience of de-Baathification in Iraq also demonstrated that overly-zealous lustration policies can create massive roadblocks to national consensus. But if lustration is avoided, old grievances will persist, the perception that justice has not been served will be reinforced, and the transition to democracy will become increasingly unlikely. Transitional justice is a process and different countries require different policies to successfully make peace with the past and embrace the new. That said, it seems clear that Tunisia has a long way to go in this regard.
Readers, can anyone share insights from the Eastern European context?