The re-election on October 24 of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, with the Ceausescu-like score of 94.49%, was scarcely noticed in the Stateside news media. Even the New York Times only posted a brief dispatch from AP on its website. In most U.S. media, a Nexis search reveals, the event rated only a few lines, if anything. And in none of all this was there mention of the huge numbers of political prisoners — 500, according to a report in July by Human Rights Watch, 600 according to a report this week in Le Monde — langushing in horrific conditions in Ben Ali’s prisons.
A penetrating report in the English-language Lebanon Daily Star explained that the trick elections were a form of theater designed primarily for Western consumption :
“As Moncef Marzouqi, one of Tunisia’s most prominent democracy advocates who heads a genuine (and unrecognized) opposition party, the Congress for the Republic (CPR), put it : ’It’s a well-staged play and a kidnapping of the democratic process aimed at giving a certain aspect of legality to the dictatorship. The president appoints those whom he wants to see play the role of opposition to his government. And it’s the same president who changes the Constitution to have all the power.’”
Recent amendments to that Constitution are designed to make Ben Ali president for life.
The real opposition parties all boycotted the sham elections — and the three Ben Ali puppet candidates allowed on the ballot against him, as the Star pointed out,
“are merely expected to give him the opportunity to improve his image, particularly among his allies in Europe and the United States. (Ironically, Washington D.C. chose Tunis to host one of its two regional Middle East Partnership Initiative offices, focused on promoting political and economic reform in the Arab world.)”
Asked about the fraudulent elections, the U.S. State Department’s spokesman merely mumbled a few anodyne phrases noting that “the opportunities for political participation in this process were not everything we’d hoped for.” President Ben Ali, of course, is a critical U.S. and Western European ally in the war on terrorism who has fiercely cracked down on agitation by Islamist fundamentalists (who might also tap popular disgust with Ben Ali and threaten his regime). Not only Washington, but France and Italy (Tunisia has been a colony of both in the past, and is a market for their exports) are prepared to turn a blind eye to Ben Ali’s repressions of basic democratic rights as long as he keeps the radical Islamists under control. Colin Powell embraced the dictator, and announced new U.S. aid in a visit last December, and President Bush welcomed Ben Ali with open arms to the White House in February.
The sparkling sands of Tunisia’s heavily policed beach resorts make it a tourist paradise — over 5 million visitors a year, mostly Europeans, account for a healthy share of the country’s economy. And as of last year, the European Union has shown its gratitude for Ben Ali’s help in the war on terrorism by making it the largest recipient of EU aid in the southern Mediterranean.
But, while the tourists play and aid flows in from the West, a new book published in Paris provides a detailed portrait of Ben Ali’s repression, corruption and personal enrichment. “L’Europe et ses despotes modernes – Quand le soutien au modèle tunisien fait le jeu du terrorisme islamique,” published by Les Editions de la Decouverte — and hailed by Le Monde as beiing of “unequaled precision” in its portrait of the Ben Ali dictatorship, is authored by Sihem Bensedrine (with Omar Mestira). Bensedrine has been in an out of Ben Ali’s jails, and she has been a forceful voice for the democratic opposition as editor of the online magazine Kalima. But her books are forbidden in Tunisia.
Meanwhile, many of Ben Ali’s prisoners are held in long-term solitary confinement, conditions amounting to mental torture, according to the Human Rights Watch report :
“Today between thirty and forty prisoners, most of them leaders of Tunisia’s Islamist Nahdha movement, are confined in small solitary cells at least twenty-three hours daily. Some of these prisoners have spent most of the past thirteen years in isolation. The rest have been in isolation for months and in many cases for more than a year. With rare exceptions, even their brief daily “outside” period and visits to the shower take place away from other inmates. Other than prison authorities, their only direct human contact occurs during brief family visits. Even then, they do not see other prisoners or the relatives of other prisoners, but only the guards who are stationed nearby, often taking notes as they speak.”
Who, in the United States, cares about these victims of torture ? Hardly anyone, of course. After all, they’re only wogs….But America’s ally Ben Ali is fabricating martyrs whose persecution will only help the recruiters for the Islamist terrorist gangs find fertile ground for their arguments, as Bensedrine’s and Mestira’s book argues. And Tunisia remains the forgotten dictatorship.
Doug Ireland, a longtime radical journalist and media critic, runs the blog DIRELAND, where this article appeared Oct. 26, 2004.