This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 25/01/2011
It's natural that we are now experiencing a phase of open allegations and revelations, regarding the affairs of ousted Tunisian President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali. Even his son-of-law has claimed it was his intention to divorce the President's daughter last summer, but the President would not allow him to do so!
This is the nature of life [after such an upheaval], and I do not think that the ousted President is ignorant of this. Ben Ali initiated his own presidency by snatching power from President Bourguiba in a similar manner, eliminating the history of a great man whilst promising a new era. If most of what is being said about the former regime is true, regarding tales of corruption and mismanagement, then there are also numerous allegations that can easily be refuted, not only by contemporary historians or politicians who remain in office, but also by ordinary people who have lived in Tunisia over the past two decades. For instance, Arab media claims that the former regime prohibited prayers, banned women from wearing the veil, and abolished religious lessons are all incorrect, as anyone who lives in Tunisia today can testify.
In truth, Ben Ali besieged the Islamic movements, and prevented them from being involved in any political activity. Can anyone claim that in doing so, Tunisia was acting out of the ordinary in the Arab world? Most Arab countries today prevent Islamic movements from political involvement, and as for states that allow such activity, this permission comes with restrictions and a low ceiling to operate within. On the other hand, we can by no means attribute certain accomplishments to Ben Ali, in areas such as women’s issues or individual rights, which many Tunisians today consider their major achievements. These were indeed the legacy of the late President Bourguiba.
In this open campaign denouncing the Ben Ali era, the sins and merits of his rule have been mixed up, and numerous unfounded accusations have surfaced. The irony is that some of those responsible for this campaign are those who worked alongside Ben Ali, or who worked with him, but ultimately disagreed with him. Yet such individuals are exaggerating the shortcomings of Ben Ali’s regime not as a means of educating the Arab people, but rather in an attempt to ward off suspicion [surrounding themselves]. We are in an era where the advocates of the former regime are being held to account; they have proven to be flawed, and do not need further disgrace.
The Tunisian people have actually been somewhat civilized in terms of their patience, anger, and even their disruptions, when compared to incidents in other countries in the region. This revolution will go down in history terms of the manner in which it was carried out, and its relatively low death toll (66 people killed), as one that reflects a civilized population.
Ever since Bin Ali was deposed, the Tunisian streets continue to be turbulent, but the situation remains very disciplined. This is despite the congested anger that has built up over the past two decades, not only in protest against Ben Ali but also against the state's institutions and officials. In my opinion, Tunisia is capable of negotiating this complex transition, and moving from one era to another, in its own manner, without destroying the institutions which the Tunisian people have built over more than half a century. Ben Ali was no more than a part of Tunisia’s history. Not all that happened in Tunisia during his era was negative, and the Tunisian people are the true product of all this. Tunisia's socio-economic record remains the best of all neighbouring North African states, despite the fact that the country’s income is limited to agriculture, tourism, and a little industrial production. Nevertheless, it has surpassed other states without possessing oil or significant hard currency.
This is a Tunisian legacy that can by no means be marginalized by the denunciation of Ben Ali, his officials, and the regime.