During the era of former Tunisian President Ben Ali, book-shoppers were banned from buying books that have anything to do with politics. Being exposed to such books would allow both intellectuals and common people to better understand the nature of political life in Tunisia and ultimately realize that Tunisians are indeed living under the shadows of dictatorship.
Likewise, Tunisians were restricted from accessing websites where anti- government articles or videos were published, such as Youtube or any opposition blogs and online newspapers. Every time a Tunisian resident tried to access them, the homepage read the following: “Error 404″. During the revolution, Tunisians labelled this error page “Ammar quatre-cent-quatre” in an attempt to ridicule it. This “Ammar” is actually the name given to a branch of the ministry of interior that spied on citizens through social networks.
Religious books and websites were also censored. Tunisians were prevented from practicing their religion properly and were forced to become distant from it. As a matter of fact, the scenario that Ben Ali feared the most was the revival of his bitter enemy and threatening opposing power, the Islamist pole.
Back when Ben Ali took over the rule from late president Habib Bourguiba after a coup d’état in 1987, his top opposer was the Islamist pole. The ZABA vs. Islamist conflict reminds me of that between the United States of America and the Soviet Union back in the 50′s. The latter were superpowers; but, only one can dominate the world and the other must be taken down by the former. A Cold War occurred and the USA ultimately won. In a similar manner, Ben Ali and antagonistic Islamist leaders were two superpowers in Tunisia and only one could dominate the political arena. Being one step ahead, Ben Ali managed to eradicate Islamists. Some of them were assassinated, some were tortured and sentenced to life time in prison, and others faced exile in more democratic countries. Now the case is different between Ennahdha Islamist ruling party and the opposition as the former represents the majority of the people.
After Islamist leaders were banished by the corrupt regime of Ben Ali, Tunisians had a distant, fearful relationship with the government. They were always afraid of sharing their political views or attending religious book fairs. One of the tasks of the “parallel police” was to spy on random people who would purchase too many religious books or attend the mosque regularly. They also kept an eye on the way people were dressed. If a woman was wearing a veil or a man had a beard, they might have been arrested and faced serious charges. Overly religious Muslims were depicted as terrorists threatening the safety of the state.
On top of that, students who wore the veil or had a beard were prevented from entering their institutions or taking their exams. Employees who were seen by “parallel police” wearing a veil, growing a beard or carrying out suspicious Islam related behavior had to take off their veils, shave their beards and sign an agreement at the police station that they will never behave like that again. If they refused, they would be forced to resign from their jobs and possibly face serious charges.
Aymen Hammemi shared his experience with The Tunis Times saying “ I remember once I was taken to the police station because I had a beard. I was not a Salafi or anything. I did not shave it because I did not have time to do that. Truth to be told, none of the police officers abused me. They just asked me some typical questions about why I did not shave and whether I attend a particular mosque. I believe it was my sense of humor when talking with them that saved me.”
Mariem Fersi told The Tunis Times “I had plenty of experiences with the former regime. But, they were not related to wearing the veil or practicing my religion. Since my senior year of high school I have discovered many horrible things about the government and I saw how they treat anyone who opposes their rule. By the time I got to college, I discovered two sides of the students’ ideology: the majority were in favor of Ben Ali’s dictator regime and the rest (a minority) who made up the opposition. Automatically, I found myself drawn to the opposition pole. I frequently attended their speeches and assemblies. To be honest, at first I was afraid. But in my second year I got deeper into the opposition which led to my eventual arrest. Luckily, the police officer was a friend of my brother. When some of my ” friends” knew that I was with the UGET (the opposition students union), most of them stopped speaking to me and some of them informed the police about me. I received a lot of threatening calls and messages on Facebook and directly. I guess I was very lucky I was not put in jail.”
Tunisians are feeling as if they have reached a dead end. They simply want the closest exit to salvation. They are mentally and physically exhausted by the ongoing clashes and skirmishes that have been taking place ever since the toppling of Ben Ali. ”By the collapse of the former regime of ousted Ben Ali, a psychological and political barrier has been breached. Tunisians, at that time, were totally disoriented. Most, if not all, of them were living in fear,” said Chokri Omri to The Tunis Times. “As a student, I can affirm that I studied within a failed and discriminatory school system. I once sat for the CAPES exam during the regime of ousted Ben Ali and I did not make it despite the huge efforts and preparation. Then, at the threshold of our revolution, I sat for it for the second time and finished among the top students,” he added. Indeed, ZABA supporters intervened even in the national tests which are supposed to be fair and legitimate. If one gave a bribe or was a relative to one of the employees who work at the CAPES committee, then it is likely one would pass the exam with flying colors.
Some desperate Tunisians dare to wish that the holy revolution never occurred. They say that Ben Ali’s regime is much better than the post- revolution one. In this regard, Mr. Omri said “The people who wish Ben Ali back are the ones who profited from his regime and their interests are now threatened.” Mr. Hammemi, however, said “I think that no one wants Ben Ali back. It’s rather these people’s way of saying that the ruling government are actually worse than Ben Ali.” Ms. Fersi agreed with the latter saying “I don’t think the return of Ben Ali is going to do us any good. We have revolted and now the people feel free to do whatever they want and they are not prepared to live under that kind of dictatorship again.”
On that subject, Ms. Sabrine Nheri added “To wish Ben Ali back is like being in jail for thousands of years and once you are free you refuse to leave! Many Tunisians sacrificed their lives for the sake of freedom and to get rid of dictatorship. Tunisians must be grateful by continuing until freedom and equality is reached.”
Those who claim that Ben Ali’s regime is better than the current regime in Tunisia must remember their friends who could not take their exams because they were wearing the veil. They must remember their friends who were kept in custody because they had a beard; the fathers who were put in prison without a fair trial; the mothers who were left with no breadwinners to look after their children; the children who had to grow up without knowing how it feels to have fathers to look after them; the brothers, cousins or neighbors who were tortured simply because they believed in a different political system.
One shall never forget that Ben Ali and company used to steal the money of the people so that they could live luxurious lives. One shall never forget that while some were living these luxurious lives, around 25% of the population were below the poverty line. One shall never forget that the hand of corruption, injustice and tyranny once reached all systems, departments and divisions under the republic of Tunisia.
The fact that Tunisia is going through a strenuous and challenging transition period is true. However, it is temporary. Ever since the revolution began, analysts interviewed on different TV and radio stations have been saying that it will take a long period of time before the country stabilizes itself. Tunisians of all walk of life must keep calm and be patient.
“Now, after ousting Ben Ali, Tunisians are called upon to be vigilant and make sure that lucidity, determination and hope must continue to be the most reliable weapons in their hands to build the future of their country. The revolution in Tunisia may be co-opted, confiscated or manipulated by individuals or groups with obscure and anti-democratic aims. This is indeed what is happening right now. We must attempt to display determination, moderation and patience so as to save our country from their aims. Ben Ali and his corrupt regime will never see again the light they cherished before leaving the vast majority of Tunisians in utter darkness and poverty.” concluded Mr. Omri.
by Nada Mrabet
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