Tunisian militants’ never-ending struggle against autocracy
Natalia Román Morte
Tunis, Apr 1 (EFE).- Tunisians Ezzedine Hezgui and Issa Ibrahim Ben Hoggui know the “high price” of political activism after being persecuted and imprisoned since they were young. Decades later, they are once again campaigning against the concentration of power of President Kais Said and for the release of their sons, two prominent opposition leaders.
Jaouhar Ben Mbarek and Chaima Issa, university professors and founding members of the National Salvation Front – which brings together different leaders and parties from across the political spectrum – have been in provisional detention for more than a month after a campaign of arrests against politicians, businessmen, judges, trade unionists and journalists for “plotting against the state”.
The seemingly antagonistic careers of these two septuagenarians are linked by their struggle against the autocratic regimes of Habib Bourguiba (1957-1987) and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2011), which were both defined by the government’s absolute control of political discourse and the suppression of any dissent.
Hezgui served six years in Borj Erroumi, a former bunker under French colonial rule for being a member of the far-left “Perspectives” movement.
“Bourguiba was a nationalist and quite progressive but he was a dictator. He was the father of the country and no one had the right to question him. Unfortunately for him, we refused and so he imprisoned us”, the retired teacher tells EFE.
Half a century later, the charges against them are the same as those his son Jaouhar and his colleagues are facing: conspiracy against the state and spreading fake news. The 20 or so detainees, who are being investigated under an anti-terrorism law and face prison and even death sentences, could remain in jail for up to 14 months while awaiting trial.
This is one of the “most hostile attacks” on “the opposition since the coup d’etat” of the current president, Kais Said, who in July 2021 gave himself full powers and, a year later, pushed through a new constitution limiting the influence of parliament, Amnesty International denounced in its latest report.
If history is repeating itself for the third time since Tunisia’s independence in 1958, Hezgui insists, it is due to the lack of a democratic culture and strong institutions to curb “the abuses of a penniless despot – whose public coffers are on the verge of bankruptcy – and without a political project”.
BEN ALI AND THE FALSE SENSE OF FREEDOM
In the 1980s, with the last throes of an isolated Burgiba despite being president for life, political debate emerged in the shadows and many began their foray into militancy under the cover of the mosques.
Ben Ali, the interior minister who ousted Burgiba in 1987 in a palace coup, won his first elections with 99.27% after running unopposed and rejecting candidates such as Hezgui.
During that “false freedom”, Ben Hoggui was sentenced to seven years as a leader of the Islamic movement – which remained underground until the 2011 revolution – serving time in several prisons, including Borj Erroumi.
“With Burguiba we were in hiding and at the agreed time we would hold a surprise demonstration: we would shout, receive blows from the police and go home”, he recounts.
“When Ben Ali appeared we were waiting for freedom but he swept everything away. Those who spoke of democracy were the ones who were dangerous for the system”.
Like his daughter Chaima – the only woman among the detainees in this campaign – Ibrahim was summoned on similar charges before the military justice system, despite military trials against civilians being illegal.
The episodes of mistreatment and torture are part of the hidden side of his story: “I can’t tell my family, there are inhuman things”, but he promises to share his experiences posthumously.
In Said’s “sultanate”, Ibrahim warns, the same discourse of hatred and division has returned. “He has destroyed a whole country with his discourse. He wants a civil war and we don’t, so he imprisons us. If there were a war, he would stay in power for another 30 years,” he says. EFE