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Tunisia – The Imprisonment of Fahem Boukadous (Part Three of a series)

August 17, 2010

(updated, August 18, 2010)

Part One of the Series

Part Two of the Series

Part Four of the Series

On the 2005 Death of Zouhaier Yahyaoui, Tunisian Human Rights Activist, Blogger

Tunisia Watch (in french – Tunisian Human Rights watchdog site)

Fahem Boukadous… Last in a long line of Tunisian political prisoners…

Fahem Boukadous on Oxygen, Just Before Entering Prison In Gafsa

The picture here is of Fahem Boukadous, hospitalized with acute asthma, probably in Sousse, Tunisia, last month, just before being sent to prison for four years. He somehow manages to to flash the peace sign with the fingers of one hand, and hold up his press card with the other, this despite being attached to an oxgyen machine.

Boukadous’ `crime’ was that he covered a six month protest in the Gafsa mining region for a Tunisian owned, Paris based, satellite television station for which he has been sentenced to four years in prison. Originally the sentence was for six years, but, according to one source, the leaders of the Redeyef mining district social movement were able to negotiate the sentence down abit to four years. The government’s hard line against the journalist is a result both of his reporting and the fact that he and his wife, Afef Bennacour, have been active in the country’s democratic and human rights movement for some time.

The government of Zine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s president, was trying to suppress live coverage of the events which went on over a period of six months starting in January 2008 in Tunisia’s phosphate mining district in Gafsa Province; the center of the protest movement was Redeyef, a town of 38,000 that have virtually no other economic lifeline than the mines. Over the past twenty years, as a result of modernization of the mines combined with a substantial level of government corruption and neglect, the mining workforce shriveled from as many as 20,000 (according to one source) to a mere 5000 employed throwing tens of thousands of miners throughout the district out of work, and triggering regional unemployment rates estimated at 40% for the area’s youth.

These untenable conditions sparked a social revolt against unemployment, despair and government corruption which embraced the overwhelming majority of the region’s population regardless of age, social class. Boukadous was (apparently) the only journalist to cover the events live and as such, provide a link between the movement and the rest of the world.

The Limits of Tunisian `Glasnost’…

Although he was only doing his journalistic duty, in the best tradition of investigative journalism from what I can

Zouhaier Yahyaoui, Tunisian blogger and human rights activist, died of a heart attack in 2005 after having been tortured and imprisoned in Tunisia. In 2000 he invited internet readers to vote on whether Tunisia was a republic, a kingdom, a zoo or a prison.

tell, after the Tunisian government had repressed the movement itself, it turned on those who had reported the 2008 events to the outside world, with Boukadous being the prime target. He was indicted on charges of “reporting information deemed threatening to the public order”. It is a formulation vague enough to be interpreted in any manner that the Tunisian government wishes and bares a striking similarity to similar vague and repressive legislation here in the United States under the Patriot Act.

Hoping to stifle what has been two decades of negative publicity much of which has appeared in the French Press and in the publications of human rights organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, – and specifically with the case of Fahem Boukadous in mind – on June 15 of this year, Ben Ali pushed legislation through the Tunisian Parliament that `loudly’ condemned the human rights groups and their reporting.

The legislation, similar to legislation being written in Israel at around the same time to counter foreign human rights activists in the Occupied Territories, makes it a criminal offense to engage in “actions deemed harmful to the country’s interests and economic security.’ Again, it is vague enough to cover any criticism of Tunisia the government government might deem `inappropriate’. Besides tightening the screws on formal internal dissent,  – not particularly developed as both the state and private press are government run – such legislation is also meant to target foreign journalists who have repeatedly exposed and embarrassed Ben Ali and his 23 year repressive rule.

International Criticism of Ben Ali Over the Boukadous Imprisonment…

Tauofik Ben Brik - Tunisian journalist and human rights activist, recently imprisoned for six months for an article published in the French press critical of the 2009 Tunisian presidential elections

The harassment, arrest, torture, imprisonment of human rights activists in Tunisia is nothing new. Although human rights organizations and occasionally the French press, follows it, for the most part the international media has ignored this pattern of abuse and repression, if anything only occasionally giving Tunisia a mild slap on the wrist, if that. With the Boukadous case, in part because it is such a blatant case of open repression, added to the fact of Boukadous’ health condition, the pattern has been broken.

Reporting on this case has been international in nature. Boukadous’ case has been reported in detail in the Arab press, including in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt. The Ethiopians have written about it as have other sub-Saharan African countries. Although it was a brief piece, Boukadous’ sentencing was covered by The Economist. The French Foreign Ministry issued a statement critical of the Tunisian government, as did the U.S. State Department which was quoted as being “deeply concerned” – (well about as deeply concerned as the U.S. State Department is about human rights violations among U.S. allies, which isn’t usually very deeply concerned) about the `decline of political freedom in Tunisia’…as if it the repression just started recently. Still..

The international coverage has forced the Tunisian government to respond, to defend Boukadous’ sentence. Thus, the Tunisian judiciary issued a statement on June 15 defending the prosecution of Fahem Boukadous, claiming that he was `a part of a criminal gang’ `that damaged both public and private property.’ The Tunisian government also alleged that Boukadous really isn’t a journalist and that is just a cover for his radical political activities. Pretty shabby stuff, if you ask me. Boukadous is indeed a journalist, and despite his youth, has also long been concerned about Tunisian human rights violations. In 1998, ten years prior to Redeyef, he was sentenced in abstentia for his human rights activity.

Hints of Tunisian Repression in the 1960s…

There were `hints’ of how repression worked in Tunisia the years that I was there with the Peace Corps, which were, the proverbial `tip of the iceberg’…Two examples remain, even after all these years, one from 1967, one from the next year, 1968.

  • The repression of the Tunisian Ba’ath Party in the aftermath of the June 1967 Middle East War
  • The severe repression of the student movement after a downtown rally protesting the U.S. war in Vietnam, coinciding with a visit of then U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey

In some ways both are indicative of deeper patterns of Tunisian repression still functioning today.

Although generally speaking, U.S. Peace Corps volunteers were generally insulated from the political

Afef Ben Naceur with her husband and companero Fahem Boukadous

developments taking place in the country, every now and then a little confused insight would burst through. So it was when the rumor circulated that the husband of the director of L’Institut Bourguiba des Langues Vivantes – `Bourguiba School’ as we called it, was arrested and imprisoned for his activities in Tunisia’s Ba’ath Party. That was my first awareness that there even was a Tunisian branch of the Ba’ath. I did ask if the Ba’ath Party was legal, if our director’s husband had broken any laws – usual simplistic questions from an American I suppose. The answers only added to my confusion.

One of the early challenges to Habib Bourguiba’s rule in the early 1960s was the rise in influence of Tunisia’s Ba’ath Party. Modeled after and in close contact with Ba’ath parties in Syria and Iraq, the Tunisian Ba’ath took root in the country and began to exert a modest influence in the mid 1960s. Arab nationalist in orientation, and based in mostly in the professional classes, with some influence in the middle ranks of the military, in Tunisia, as elsewhere in the Arab world, it tended to critique Bourguiba’s `drift rightward’, already apparent by the mid 1960s. In specific, it criticized what were already Bourguiba’s anti-democratic tendencies and his flirtation with Western (French and US) corporate interests.

Bourguiba Crushes Tunisia’s Ba’ath Party

It is difficult for me to assess just how strong was the Tunisian Ba’ath at the outbreak of the June 1967 War. I was not particularly politically observant in those days. (One could argue I’m still not).  I’m sure there are some analyses of the situation that would shed light on the extent of its role, base. But my impression was that it wasn’t very strong and did not represent a serious potent threat to Bourguiba’s power base, which was still 11 years after independence, more or less secure. Bourguiba’s reputation had hardly eroded; he was still considered the `father’ – rightly or wrongly of Tunisian independence and was quite popular.

What followed the 1967 War, was an intense Tunisian media campaign and wave of repression against the party’s Tunisian supporters. Tunisian Ba’ath members were described as `outside agitators’, they were accused of planning a coup, the party itself was characterized as `pro-Nazi’ , undemocratic,  – the usual stuff. It was hit hard and, to my knowledge, never recovered.

The Pattern of Repression

What needs to be emphasized here is the pattern of repression which in many ways remains the same 43 years on and, as I will argue, in a bit, is based in large measure on the pattern of French repression during the colonial period.

  • a political party, media outlet, social movement (students, labor, human rights, whatever) are given legal status. Getting legal status in Tunisia, is in itself a rather tedious affair in which from the outset a great deal of censorship is involved, – commitments to be `good boys’ – ie, uphold the constitution, to keep criticisms within certain bonds.
  • accepting `the rules’, the party begins to function, operate, organize and agitate for whatever is its program. Initially it enjoys a certain amount of freedom of movement and expression. Those parties/movements that fail to gain substantial inroads in the Tunisian body politic, are generally permitted to function without much state interference. Since they are marginal, it doesn’t matter much as they represent no threat to state power. Furthermore, they feed the illusion, necessary for international respectability and all that goes with it (business deals, economic and military aid) that the country is `a democracy’, or `democratizing’ or `moderate’ or anyone of those meaningless and politically loaded terms that essentially translates into that `they’ (in this case Tunisia) are in `our’ (in this case, the USA, France) camp and therefore `kosher’.
  • But some political parties and movements in Tunisia do gain traction, a genuine base within some sector of society and their influence begins to grow. At different times, organizations/movements as different as the Tunisian trade unions, university students, professional organizations (journalists, doctors, lawyers), political parties such as the Ba’ath, Tunisian Islamic parties, or in some instances the Tunisian Communist Party, have begun to grow with their influence finding resonance among different sectors of the population.
  • The growth of grass roots public opinion is usually permitted up to a point.  Even Ben Ali, in the first year of his coming to power, promised `openness’ – if only to gauge the level of opposition he’d soon move to repress. This permits the government to gauge how serious, how mature is the movement, with whom it resonates. Think of it like a `social pressure valve’…the authorities open it a bit, both to determine the extent of the movement and to release the pressures that have been created. And then it is, simply and systematically crushed.
  • The `threat’ to the established order that each and every one of these movements represented is then exaggerated. Exaggerating the threat is a vital ingredient in the state’s repressive tool kit as it needs to convince public opinion, even and one might say especially when it is not true, that the public order is threatened. The notion of `an imminent threat’ is key – as it then justifies the inevitable overkill that follows in the state’s repressive measure. As the Ben Ali government specializes in repressive overkill, it constantly needs to exaggerate the threats to its legitimacy.
  • It is a pattern of `reform’ followed by `repression’ , one that is in no way limited to Tunisia and has been internationalized to a certain extent. Think of the pattern of reform and repression in the former Soviet Union… periods of `openness’ (early 1920s, 1950s under Khrushchev, post 1985 glasnost under Gorbachev) followed by – in the case of the USSR, the most severe and thorough-going repression.
  • One finds this pattern in a number of other Arab countries as well – Jordan, Morocco, Egypt  and Algeria immediately come to mind. Let those little liberal squirrels come out of their holes, permit them to write a few investigative reports, make a few documentary films, write a book or two. Let them push the limits of openness. But before their ideas, theories – be they on human rights, politics or economics – can take root, flush them out now that they have – so to speak – exposed themselves and crush them.
  • The key here is that the repression in Tunisia, usually happened one movement at a time. It is after all, important to maintain the democratic facade and to be able to argue, as the Ben Ali government tries unsuccessfully to do – that the government is adhering to `the rule of law.’  It is not all movements that are repressed, just some (the most potent, active and democratic ones usually).
  • Such a system also becomes one of `divide and rule’….pitting one social movement against another as they scramble for `legitimacy’ and to somehow cleverly follow and yet break the rules.

The Velvet Glove and the Iron Fist

The pattern  described above, is, despite its rougher edges, essentially the softer face of Tunisian repression. It has a harder, even more merciless edge, a kind of exposing its fangs to the world, its uglier face, at times of crisis. There are even some limits to its soft face. Yes, some Tunisian human rights activists have been killed or died in prison, but for the most part, Tunisian repression consists of extreme monitoring – it is a society `watched’ by its secret police as thorough as was East Germany – harassment, imprisonment and torture in which freedom of speech and action are repeatedly suffocated.

I am not sure that one can `take solace’ from the fact that – at least to my knowledge and until now – human rights activists are not `disappeared’ as they were in Argentina at the time of the colonels, or rounded up in stadiums and then executed by the thousands as they were in Chile after the 1973 coup that brought the fascist dictator – a term I do not use lightly – Augusto Pinochet to power (with a little help from Henry Kissinger). Still, the repression is pervasive, unrelenting, psychologically and medically damaging, often not limited to a targeted individual but to his/her extended family and network of friends, whether they are politcally active or not, a kind of collective punishment.

Tunisian Prison System (with some from E. Algeria)

But on occasion, the state does show its fangs and the repression takes savage forms. So it was with the 2008 social protest movement in the Gafsa mining district that Fahem Boukadous had the courage to cover with so much insight, talent and accuracy. Reading the articles and watching the video footage of the repression at Redeyef, I was struck with how surprised, shocked the demonstrators were that the Tunisian government – for all its sorry record on human rights – would open fire on its own citizenry. At Redeyef, Tunisian repression was taken to new lows, even for a scoundrel like Ben Ali. Such dastardly actions are not without long-term and deep consequences, even if these consequences are not yet apparent. Domestic abuse had become outright murder. It could be a turning point in the country’s history, not unlike the tragic events of Setif were in May 1945 for the history of Algeria.

So it also was with the repression of the progressive student movement in Tunisia in the late 1960s.

Somewhere in his journals French philospher Michel Foucault write about the student demonstrations at the University of Tunis in early 1968. For supporting the student movement, Foucault, who was teaching in Tunis at the same time I was there, was arrested, tortured, savaged for his homosexuality and then expelled from the country. Foucault’s students had come to him, asking for support, something that philospher, following his heart and moral values, could not and did not deny them.

The focus of the student movement, was, for me, quite curious: the university students wanted to protest the U.S. war in Vietnam, which had entered a particularly murderous stage at that point. The focal point of their protest was the visit of Hubert Humphrey to Tunisia to garner support from Bourguiba for a U.S. escalation of the war (and as I later learned, support for possible use of U.S. nuclear weapons in the war).  To this end, to `welcome’ the U.S. vice president,  the university students organized an open protest specifically at the main intersection of downtown Tunis where Ave. de la Liberte intersects with Ave. Habib Bourguiba. A person could actually sit in the Cafe de Paris at that intersection and `watch the action’ as I did one day.

I’ve written about it elsewhere – the main points being, that the demonstration was short but sweet – lasting no

French philosopher Michel Foucault. He taught at the University of Tunis, was sympathetic to the student movement there and was expelled from the country for supporting it in 1968, after having been arrested and tortured by Tunisian authorities

more than ten minutes with leaflets and posters left all around. The student quickly scattered, leaving the Tunisian police, who arrived a few minutes later, with what we would inelegantly call in English a case of `political blue balls’. They very much wanted to beat up on students, and come to that crossroads for exactly that purpose, were `pumped’ and `primed’ for the task, only to find the place deserted, the students having made their hit and run demonstration and then blended back into general population.

To this day, 43 years later, I still see those angry policemen with their tear gas canisters, their batons that looked like 38 ounce baseball bats, their submachine guns ready to fire with no immediate outlet for their frustration. They had been tricked, beaten and they knew it as did everyone else who happened to be in downtown Tunis that day. But this is Tunisia; not Paris or New York or even Denver, where demonstrations are more likely to be like Sunday picnics – a nice march, a few boring speeches and unless you’re Black or Chicano, rather safe and tame affairs. It’s a bit different demonstrating in Tunis, then and now. The next day the police were `unleashed’ in the student districts in the area of the university (just west of the city’s `medina’). They beat up hundreds, students, passers-by. Several were killed and hundreds were arrested, convicted and given long prison sentences.

So there are Tunisian precedents to Redeyef in 2008. Outright challenges to the state’s authority are openly crushed, as much in Bourguiba’s time as in Ben Ali’s. Tunisia is not a country where movements for social change – economic reform movements like the one in Redeyef, student peace movements like the one in Tunis in the late 1960s – can function in the open. And when they do, the state bares its fangs and strikes.

Consequences of Bourguiba’s Policies: Strangling Tunisian Democracy

Habib Bourguiba was a master at exactly this kind of politics and the incident I stumbled across – the repression of Tunisia’s Ba’ath Party was simply one episode in a series of repressive measures Bourguiba took all along the course of his 31 years in power. One could say that Bourguiba succeeded in eliminating the different challenges to his power, but at the price of something close to strangling participatory democracy in the country. And if Zine Ben Ali has taken the country’s repressive measures further than Bourguiba, the fact remains that Ben Ali inherited a system that was already well-oiled and instinctively anti-democratic. One understands Stalin only by carefully studying Lenin. One understands Ben Ali, by studying Bourguiba… and one understands Bourguiba, by understanding patterns and methods emerging from Tunisia’s experience with French colonialism, which has left its mark not only on the country’s post-colonial economic structures, but also on its political system and the pattern of repression.

And to this heritage, we’ll turn in the next episode of this series.

To be continued in the next day or two


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