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Protests in the Arab World

Holiday paradise and police state

by Martina Sabra

Opinion

Young men demanding that all former RCD members  quit their country’s government in Tunis in late January

Young men demanding that all former RCD members quit their country’s government in Tunis in late January

For far too long, the EU closed its eyes to the crimes of the Ben-Ali regime. Europe must support those who demand a new beginning in Tunisia with no “ifs”, “ands” or “buts”. By Martina Sabra

The rage that erupted in Tunisia at the turn of this year has more than just social reasons. Yes, hundreds of thousands of young Tunisians are angry because they have no jobs or are paid so poorly that they cannot even consider to start a family. Much more was at stake, however. Most Tunisians are fed up with being bullied and kept in check by a mafia-like clique in government. Behind the scenes of this holiday paradise, a police state was hiding. Its oppression methods resembled those of the Stasi, the secret ­police in former East Germany.

The security apparatus of Dictator Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali and his state party RCD – which had 80 % of the seats in parliament – resorted to arrest and torture arbitrarily. Other less than subtle means of oppression were the surveillance of mail and tele­phones as well as the blocking of websites that criticised the government.

In addition, there were more subtle means of intimidation. They served to destroy the trust citizens normally have in one another. The regime’s spies were omni­present: at work, at school, in the café, maybe even at one’s own home. When I was invited to a party by a friend who is a women’s rights activist, agents suddenly arrived and made themselves comfortable inside her apartment. That was how they demonstrated their power, and the baffled hosts had to keep quite and tolerate their presence. Waiters in cafés where told not to serve those who were critical of the government or to insult them in public. Even children were led to bully other kids at their schools if parents dared to speak critically of the government.

In international affairs, Ben Ali’s regime was conciliatory towards Israel, but domestically it didn’t shy from mobilising antijewish resentment to harass opponents. Its stance on religion was hypocritical too. “It is a bad joke,” a friend wrote at the time, “Ben Ali pretends to be a champion against Islamism, but at the same time, he is setting up Radio Zitouna, an Islamic station, and building a mosque with a lot of pomp.”

It was impossible to articulate real opposition within the political system. Tunisia’s internet-savvy, well-educated youth didn’t expect anything from the RCD machine anymore. They found their own ways to express their frustration. Rappers, who clearly distanced themselves from the regime such as El General, were arrested time and again, but most were freed quickly – perhaps out of ignorance, or perhaps out of fear of the very kind of revolt that has now swept Ben Ali from power.

One reason for this resented regime being able to cling to power was foreign affairs. Thanks to his hard stance against Islamists, Ben Ali found support in the West. EU policy was shaped by an odd mix of economic and security interests on the one hand and blatant ignorance on the other. Some politicians thought that Arabs and Muslims are plainly not capable of demo­cracy. Others considered Tunisia a liberal country simply because there are Bavarian-style beer houses in tourist resorts and most women do not wear headscarves.

The EU has to make good on many mistakes, and it has already gambled away the first chance for doing so. The European Parliament refused to fully endorse the revolution in the week after Ben Ali fled.

Tunisia certainly has a long way to go before it becomes a full blown democracy. But its people are relatively well educated and urban. They have the potential to rise to the challenges. The EU – with France and Germany leading – must fix old mistakes immediately and support those who demand a new beginning without “ifs”, “ands” or “buts”.

Many Tunisians are deeply disappointed in the West. They feel offended because the rating agency Moody’s downgraded their country after the revolution. They chased out the dictator who had robbed their nation for years, embarking on the road to democracy – and the capital market is punishing them by raising the interest rates on the debt the dictator left behind.