By Kamel Labidi

Tunisian President Zein al-Abedin Ben Ali has on official occasions often referred to the legacy of the great Arab writer Ibn Khaldoun, born in Tunis in 1332. The last time he did so was nearly two months ago on the 19th anniversary of his coup against President Habib Bourguiba.

This frequent mention of Ibn Khaldoun is somehow designed to show that Ben Ali is committed to the writer’s legacy. This led Amnesty International to remind the Tunisian president in 2003 of one of Ibn Khaldoun’s most important sayings: “Since injustice calls for the eradication of the species leading to the ruin of civilization, it contains in itself a good reason for being prohibited.”

The deadly clashes in the suburbs of the Tunisian capital between security forces and Islamist gunmen at the end of December and in early January took by surprise those who were under the illusion that an Arab autocrat of Ben Ali’s ilk could learn anything from Ibn Khaldoun. According to official sources, the clashes left 12 gunmen dead and 15 under arrest, as well as two security officers killed and two others wounded. The episode dealt an unprecedented blow to the reputation of a state often publicized as one of the most effective in fighting Islamists and maintaining stability.

The blow to the credibility of Ben Ali’s police state seemed more severe than that caused by the terrorist attack on an ancient synagogue in Djerba in 2002, which the government falsely claimed was the result of a traffic accident. At the time, Tunisians and the international community would not have known the truth had it not been for the German authorities. They sought out and publicly announced what had happened, mainly because most of the 21 people who died in the attack were Germans.

That kind of terrorist attack might occur in any country. However, the December-January clashes that shook the southern suburbs of Tunis for more than 10 days were more serious. According to Interior Minister Rafik Haj Qassem, they involved a group of 27 individuals armed with weapons and explosives. Speaking recently at a meeting in Tunis of members of the ruling party, Haj Qassem failed to explain how such a huge quantity of arms could have been smuggled into one of the most tightly controlled states in the world. Nor did he reveal how the weapons could have made their way from the Algerian border to the outskirts of Tunis. Most Tunisians doubt, with good reason, that the government will ever reveal the whole truth about the members of the armed group, or respect the right of the surviving militants to a fair trial. Many people are convinced that the policy of anti-Islamist repression conducted since the early 1990s by Ben Ali has, in fact, radicalized youths.

Such a policy went hand in hand with an unprecedented crackdown against free expression and political dissent. Many Tunisians acknowledge that dissidents have never been so mistreated, even under the French Protectorate. In this climate, most youths have lost interest in public life and in the values of equality and tolerance. At the same time, many of them have been attracted by radical Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda, with some Tunisians having traveled to Iraq to take part in the resistance against the US-led occupation. Others have been arrested while trying to leave Tunisia to receive training in neighboring Algeria, or trying to lend a helping hand to armed Islamist groups elsewhere.

Similarly, the Tunisian regime’s iron-fist policy has not prevented an increasing number of young women from defying the ban on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf, or former Islamists from returning to public life determined more than ever before to exercise their right to freedom of association and expression. The injustice inflicted on them led many political activists traditionally opposed to any dialogue with Islamists to cooperate with them against what both sides agree is the dire national threat of Ben Ali. The regime, by pursuing arbitrary arrests, torture, and unfair trials will only further empower Islamic radicals.

After the recent deadly clashes, Ben Ali’s top aides once again called for his “reelection” in 2009 (if that word can be used in what has been no better than a rigged selection process). The problem is that this might only further encourage those who believe that the only way to oust an Arab ruler like Ben Ali is through the resort to violent means.

Source: The Daily Star, Friday, January 26, 2007.

Kamel Labidi is a freelance journalist currently living in Arlington, Virginia. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.