Democracy Lab

The Long Shadow of Ben Ali

How a decades-old fake coup attempt is taking its toll on Tunisia.

Three years ago today, on Dec. 17, 2010, a young vegetable vendor lit himself on fire, committing suicide to protest life under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's dictatorship in Tunisia. This spark set Tunisia -- and then the Arab world -- ablaze with political change in the wave of revolutions that became known as the Arab Spring.

Tunisia seemed poised to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of its dictatorial past, bringing democracy to northern Africa for the first time. But success in the transition to democracy has proved elusive. This year, extremist Salafists gunned down two prominent opposition politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, in broad daylight and in front of their families. Dozens of soldiers and policemen have been killed in a string of attacks, with the numbers killed rising significantly at the end of this year. In October, a suicide bomber blew himself up on a beach full of tourists, though he botched the attack and killed only himself. In addition to such grave security risks, the elections that were already overdue at the start of this year are now unlikely to take place before October 2014 -- and then, only if everything goes according to plan.

In spite of these challenges, Tunisia remains the best hope for democracy among the countries involved in the Arab Spring. But Tunisia has stumbled slowly and awkwardly through its transition, which still has a long way to go.

Tunisia's new government -- a troika led by the Islamist Ennahda party -- was elected in October 2011.  They are largely inexperienced, with politicians learning on the job. This has deadlocked the transition government even as it struggles to contain the deteriorating security situation. Moreover, though the governing coalition is working to bolster military capacity, the army is still weak and does not have the necessary capacity to neutralize mounting terrorism threats.

These problems are a legacy of Tunisia's traumatic past. And now that victims are finally free of the dictator's iron first, they are speaking up and exposing the full extent of that trauma.  

The stories they've told show that Ben Ali's legacy continues to cast a long shadow over the transition. One particular story -- involving a fake coup d'état, brutal torture, and a twenty-year cover-up -- shines light on the tangible, chronic impact of a dictator's single-minded determination to hold onto power, no matter the cost. The story has only been told in local Tunisian media (almost exclusively written in French or Arabic), though a few Western NGOs (Human Rights Watch and the Organisation Mondiale Contre la Torture) have also taken note.

The tale starts in 1987, after Ben Ali took power in a coup. Once in power, he was paranoid, worrying that he would share the same fate as his predecessor, who was toppled by internal opposition. Specifically, he feared two groups most: Islamists and the military.

In 1991, Ben Ali killed both birds with a single diabolical stone.

To eradicate his potential rivals, the regime needed an excuse to justify an unprecedented crackdown on Tunisian Islamists and a simultaneous purge of the military elite. On May 22, 1991, Ben Ali's Ministry of the Interior, Abdallah Kallel, announced that the regime had uncovered an alleged coup plot, and claimed that more than 200 military officers were conspiring with Islamists of the Ennahda movement.

The supposed plot, now largely forgotten, is known as the "Barraket Essahel Affair," after the town where the men were accused of scheming against Tunisia's strongman. For two decades, it was assumed to be a genuinely foiled coup attempt, a victory of the Tunisian state to protect itself from would-be military usurpers.

With the fog of history lifted, it has become clear that there was no military plot. There is no record of the alleged meeting in Barraket Essahel. Ben Ali's government never offered any proof that the implicated officers were involved in any way. The only thing these army officers were guilty of was being competent at a time when Ben Ali feared the threat of a strong military that could feasibly, one day, launch a coup.

In short, the plot was fabricated as a pretext to jail political opponents, force others into exile, and purge the military of effective leaders. The suffering it caused, however, was all too real, both for Ennahda members, and for more than 200 soldiers.

One such soldier was Lieutenant Colonel Mohamed Ahmed, a humble, soft-spoken man still sporting a military-style haircut when I met him in Tunis in November.

Ahmed and up to 200 other officers were transported to the Ministry of the Interior, a building that is reputed to be "as deep as it is tall." During interrogation, he was accused of being affiliated with Ennahda and plotting to overthrow Ben Ali. Neither accusation was true.

Ahmed was isolated and tortured. He was suspended on a metal rod in the so-called "roasted chicken" position for hours. He was beaten, hung by his feet with his hands tied behind his back, and brought to the brink of drowning in a basin of urine and feces. After three weeks of torture, Ahmed could not stand. His feet were swollen, his lips burst and bloodied. In this state -- and with the assistance of two security officers -- he was brought to his feet to be interrogated by Ben Ali's right hand man himself, Minister of the Interior Abdallah Kallel.

Ahmed attempted to explain that the "plot" was fictional and that any confessions of guilt were desperate attempts to stop the suffering. His insistence on the truth earned Lt. Col. Ahmed even more severe torture that evening. A week later, inexplicably, the ministry released the officers and them wished a happy Eid al-Kabir. This was ironic timing; the Muslim holiday marks Abraham's willingness to make a sacrifice in submission to a higher command.

The nightmare was not over. In addition to lifelong psychological scarring, the government confiscated their victims' passports, eliminated their eligibility for pensions, and intervened to ensure they would not find work. They were stripped of their uniforms, the ultimate humiliation for these decorated officers.

For Ennahda members, the suffering lasted longer. Many were imprisoned for years and continually tortured. Others fled Tunisia and began decades in exile.

For Ben Ali, this was a clear victory. The Islamists and the military were neutralized jointly, even though they had never been linked. The Islamists were imprisoned, or forced into hiding or exile. The military was severely weakened, creating what torture victim and ex-army Captain Mohsen Kaabi calls an "inverse pyramid of competence," where incompetence wins career advancement. This guaranteed a weakened military incapable of launching a coup d'état -- and equally incapable of keeping Tunisians safe during today's tumultuous transition. As Kaabi put it, "Ben Ali felt he could rest comfortably in his throne after the purge."

Such methods kept Ben Ali in power for another two decades, until he was toppled by the first of the Arab Spring uprisings. He fled Tunisia on Jan. 14, 2011.

Nearly three years have now passed. Many of the members of Ennahda who were tortured, imprisoned, or forced into exile are now running the transitional government, finding justice by taking Ben Ali's reins of power. But they are hobbled by a lack of experience; many are more familiar with European capitals or jail cells than with the workings of parliament or bureaucracy.

This inexperience has furthered unrest. The long period of deadlock has entrenched political and economic woes, prompting repeated downgrades by external creditors. Inflation is high. Youth unemployment is out of control. As these problems worsen, there have been attacks on Ennahda offices, as the lofty expectations of the revolution are replaced by the harsh reality of stagnation. And of course, the military remains weak even as unrest builds and terrorism threats continue to emerge.

Meanwhile, there has been no justice for the victims of the Barraket Essahel Affair, who have not yet received compensation, or even pensions. Lt. Col. Ahmed and other victims formed an NGO, l'Association INSAF, in order to put pressure on the government. (The photo above shows Ahmed (right) standing with fellow victims and l'Association INSAF members, Col. Ahmed Ghiloufi and Col. Moncef Zoghlami.) While the victims have received official recognition by the President, the government has only offered empty verbal overtures -- further evidence that Ben Ali's accusations of collusion were unfounded, as Ennahda is doing little to help its fellow victims. Some of the military victims -- who are still struggling to make ends meet -- have been approached by terrorist groups that hope to take advantage of their anger and their military-level munitions skills. L'Association INSAF is actively working with the government to ensure that does not happen. Meanwhile, the military has done nothing to bring their falsely accused comrades back into the fold, depriving itself of 200 military experts who would doubtless be determined to aid the transition.

This long shadow of Ben Ali continues to obscure Tunisia's path to democracy. Three years after the start of the Arab Spring, Tunisia is the last, best hope for success in the region. The government has done many things well, avoiding the traps that derailed transitions in Libya, Syria, and Egypt. But Tunisia's transition is nonetheless darkened by the decades-long shadow of a paranoid dictator. Until the government grapples with Tunisia's dark past, inexperienced leadership, a weak military, and injustice will continue to block democracy from taking root. 

Augustin Le Gall ("Beneath the Jasmine"


Ukraine's False Choice

Yanukovych can pick Russia or the European Union. Either way, the economic reforms are coming.

Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych just unceremoniously rejected his country's E.U. Association Agreement, a 1,000-plus page document, painstakingly negotiated over six years and intended to cement Ukraine's political, economic, and trade ties with Europe. Now he's slated to fly to Moscow on Tuesday, where the Kremlin is finalizing the terms of its counter-offer of financial support in return for political allegiance. With opposition to the Russian option gaining strength, Yanukovych faces a seemingly stark choice. He can bow to Moscow and its offer of cheap gas and easy money, or to the apparent will of Ukraine's people by resurrecting its agreement with the European Union and re-engaging with the International Monetary Fund, which has suffered through two failed programs. Muddling through -- as Yanukovych has done for so long -- is no longer an option. 

While this geo-economic choice seems stark, actually, it is not what it seems. Ukraine will almost certainly have to accept the need to reform its economy regardless of which political direction it chooses to pursue. Recent experience and economic reality mean that countries that offer the prospect of financial support in return for political fealty often end up pushing for IMF-style reforms in any case. The real choice then is not between painful economic reforms from the West and cheap gas and easy money from Russia. It is a choice between who imposes and enforces the necessary reforms and a balancing of political and economic costs and benefits.

Virtually all credible economic and trade analyses predict significant benefits, including long term GDP growth of up to 11.8 percent, if Ukraine goes ahead with the E.U. pact. And with dwindling reserves, a faltering currency, and a need to access the capital markets to pay its bills, the economic rationale for Yanukovych to sign onto deals with both the European Union and the IMF is compelling. He has hesitated in large part due to fears of political consequences that might hurt his chances for reelection in 2015. But with hundreds of thousands of protesters clamoring for the E.U./IMF option, Yanukovych is being presented with exactly the kind of political cover he so desperately seeks to pursue difficult, but necessary, reforms. These include devaluation of the Hryvnia, the Ukrainian currency, public sector spending cuts, and gas tariff increases -- all of which are necessary to put Ukraine on a sustainable economic and political path. 

Besides, Yanukovych's hand in playing Russia off against Europe and the IMF may not be as strong as he had hoped. Increasingly, countries under economic stress are being presented with false choices as to options to determine the direction of their economic futures. In seeking to portray themselves as friendly alternatives to the so-called "Washington consensus," some cash-rich countries have sought to use their own financial resources to further their international political objectives. They offer the promise of financial support but without the sometimes-painful prescriptions required by the IMF, which seeks to impose reforms promoting prudent macroeconomic policies, open trade and investment, and free markets in pursuit of sustainable and balanced growth.

But promises of no strings attached financial support often end up requiring not just political sacrifices, but, ironically, pressure to adopt the same type of economic reforms generally proposed by the IMF.

For example, several times over the past three years, the IMF has come close to agreeing to a $4.8 billion program with Egypt that included tax, spending, monetary, and subsidy reforms. In each case, the short-term political costs were deemed to be too high by Egyptian political authorities and the deal was rejected. With reserves running dangerously low, Egypt has survived through the kindness of its neighbors. Initially, Qatar provided up to $8 billion in bilateral assistance to Egypt's Morsy-led government, furthering its influence in the process. When the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted and replaced by the current government, Qatar asked for its money back. Egypt rejected the IMF again and Qatari money was replaced by financial support from the GCC-3 -- a combination of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, which are potentially pledging up to $23 billion through the end of 2014.

The politically-motivated financial support provided no link to any real economic reforms. Egypt's economy, predictably, suffered. Since 2011, growth deteriorated, fiscal deficits widened, energy and food subsidy challenges were exacerbated, reserves declined dramatically, and overall and youth unemployment skyrocketed. And the economy remains largely unreformed and challenged by the same structural impediments as before.

But recently, reports have circulated that the same GCC-3 providing Egypt's financial lifeline are now pressuring Egypt to reengage with the IMF and implement IMF-style reforms, so as to prevent their short term financial support from leading to never-ending dependence.

Closer to home for Ukraine is the example of Belarus. In embracing a Russian-led alliance in 2011 as an alternative to the IMF, Belarus found that the terms of its three-year, $10-billion bailout from Russia contained familiar-sounding painful macroeconomic medicine, including cuts to subsidies, exchange rate liberalization, privatization, and structural reforms. In his own words, Sergei Shatalov, the Russian official who negotiated the deal at the time, said, "If you look at the financial terms of this loan to Belarus, more than anything this is like an International Monetary Fund program."

Reforms being proposed for Ukraine by the IMF and the European Union will undoubtedly involve short-term economic costs. The main areas pushed by the IMF include increased exchange rate flexibility, financial sector reform, fiscal consolidation, increases in domestic energy prices, and structural reforms. The proposed E.U. agreement exceeded 1,000 pages and included potentially sensitive reforms to trade, transparency, competition, and financial flows.

Russia's promise to Ukraine of bilateral assistance will almost certainly include not only its own self-serving trade-based reforms (as part of its proposed customs union) but also, ultimately, pressure for macroeconomic reforms similar to those sought by the IMF. So the choice for Ukraine will undoubtedly include tough economic reforms, regardless of which way it turns. Only in one case, it includes the prospect of the loss of independence, domestic political discontent, and longer-term lost opportunity costs from turning away from Europe -- the world's largest economic bloc.

With calls for early elections and even for his impeachment increasing, President Yanukovych may have miscalculated in choosing to look to Russia as his best ticket to remaining in power. He would be well served to look past the chimera of short-term financial offers from politically motivated neighbors and use current popular support for the European Union and IMF to embrace the path to a sustainable economic future for Ukraine.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images