By Soumaya Ghannoushi, for Middle East Monitor
After long months of political and legal differences, the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) in Tunisia has managed to establish itself as one of the most important transitional justice institutions stipulated by the constitution approved in January 2014. In addition to the fact that the birth of this commission and the selection of its honourable members was not easy, there were also the reactions to the public hearings; those who were killed and tortured were spared neither welcome and praise nor opposition and criticism.
These live testimonies by the victims of oppression since independence have been a jolt to the public conscience. They were also witnessed by a large number of politicians, human rights activists and members of civil society, and were broadcast on a number of local, Arab and international television channels.
Consecutive generations of victims of oppression from various intellectual and political walks of life have been crushed by state oppression. This started with the “Youssefist” trend of Salah Ben Youssef, Secretary-General of the New Constitutional Liberal Party, whose followers suffered persecution and torture at the hands of the Bourguiba wing that was in power after the departure of the French colonisers in the mid-1950s. The details of this were detailed in the testimony of Youssefi fighter Hamadi Ghars, who is in his eighties. Independent Tunisia began with a wave of repression that hit the founders of the New Constitutional Liberal Party with torture, murder and displacement in order to liquidate Ben Youssef’s wing, which rejected the internal independence document and insisted on fighting to liberate the extended Arab Maghreb. This occurred in the context of putting an end to what was known at the time as the Youssefi sedition.
The testimony of Gilbert Naccache, a strong left-wing intellectual who was arrested and tortured, revealed details of the second wave of oppression against left-wing activists and unionists. Perhaps one of the most prominent revelations from these testimonies regarding the early days of the Bourguiba era is independent Tunisia’s inheritance of the same means of repression used by the French colonisers against Tunisians, which was then used against political opponents.
The era harshest on the bodies and souls of political opponents was that of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, which lasted for 23 years. During his rule, arrests and torture became a systematic method not only to oppress political opponents, but also to spread terror and intimidation across the population and impose discipline by means of force and violence. This was revealed by a number of testimonies, either by former prisoners; the families of victims suffering many years of torture and forced disappearance; or the mothers and relatives of the martyrs of the revolution after the latter were killed by live ammunition.
Sami Brahem, an Islamist writer and intellectual, highlighted eloquently some of the characteristics of the arrest and systematic humiliation that he underwent. It embodied just one example of the systematic intimidation and violence meted out to thousands of Islamist prisoners and their families by the regime.
These live testimonies exposed the other, hidden side of pre-revolution Tunisia. This face was masked by views of breathtaking beaches and stylish hotels shown in tourist brochures, as well as the misleading and deceptive discourse of Ben Ali’s regime which used democratic and human rights language expertly. It is clear that political tyranny, torture and violence against opponents was not merely a catalogue of individual violations, but also systematic behaviour by the regime to break the will of their opponents as well as break them physically and mentally. This reveals the violent and authoritative nature of the regime that inherited the evil of the Bourguiba era and the legacy of French colonialism. Under these regimes the state was not an expression of the people’s will and care for their public well-being; it was a machine geared to violence and repression at the whim of the ruling party.
As such, the documentation of the atrocities by the Truth and Dignity Commission continues to contribute greatly towards shedding light on the authoritarianism that oppressed ordinary Tunisians and humiliated them for decades. These written and verbal testimonies provide important and rich material for researchers, experts and historians looking into the oppression and political domination in Tunisia since independence. They provide a snapshot of the workings of a tyrannical Arab regime.
Perhaps the only difference is that the Tunisian revolution has liberated the people from their fear and allowed them to reveal the hidden horrifying facts. Many citizens of other Arab countries were not given the chance to have such an opportunity; concealment and cover-up is still predominant for them.
The Truth and Dignity Commission provided the context for the principle of transitional justice that was included in the new Tunisian Constitution and also provided the opportunity to hear the voices of the victims and their families after being repressed for decades. They wept the bitterness of oppression and torture, but they also made millions of observers from within and beyond Tunisia weep with them. They exposed their harsh experiences and they have become part of the collective memory, not simply individual suffering and pain that damages and haunts the victims. We have heard their voices as they delve deep into their souls and reveal the crimes and atrocities committed against them behind closed doors in dark basements by torturers and executioners with their cruel, brutal tools.
It is true that the politics of Tunisia and its regional milieu have not done these victims justice by allowing them all of their rights from a fair and independent judiciary. The remnants of the old regime continue to work hard to distort their struggle and deny their oppression; they refuse even to acknowledge them as victims of eras they continue to glorify. However, it is also true that the Tunisian revolution has given the victims a voice to reveal at least some of the truth that was hidden for many decades and to use public opinion to put pressure on their persecutors and their collaborators. Hence, the victims are no longer helpless individuals; their plight has taken on a wider collective and national character.
The purpose of transitional justice is not to avenge the victims, but rather to liberate the victims and torturers through the former revealing their suffering and the latter admitting their behaviour. The people now look forward to the next step and listening to the testimonies and admissions of the torturers. The purpose is to heal the wounds and have some closure for the dark periods in Tunisia’s modern history before moving forward into the future. The revolution came to liberate victim and persecutor alike.
One of the most important fruits of the Tunisian revolution is its success in creating a constitutional committee for transitional justice to deal with the results of the state’s oppression. What is happening in Tunisia today is the clearest evidence that the revolution is doing well, despite the numerous obstacles placed in its way.
Generations of fighters tasted the bitterness of prisons and displacement and they died without seeing Tunisia free from injustice, oppression, arbitrary detention and the abuse of human dignity. The imprisonment and persecution of the oppressed Youssefists, Arabists, unionists, left-wingers and Islamists over the past six decades are not being repeated today in the testimonies of the bereaved victims. Perhaps this offers a glimmer of hope for the Arab world, which still suffers from tyranny, oppression and fear; immoral behaviour always comes to an end in due course, no matter how long it lasts.