The Ben Ali Trial in Tunisia: A Hollow Justice

Background: Tunisia at the Beginning of the Arab Spring Revolution

Had it not been for Tunisia, many argue that the Arab Spring that swept throughout the Middle East would not have occurred. Discontent over unemployment and oppression had reached a boiling point sparking protests throughout Tunisia over the despotic rule of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali had ruled Tunisia since 1987 when he staged a bloodless coup and declared the former President Habib Bourguiba mentally unfit. When elections were held in 1989, Ben Ali won and continued to be “re-elected” during each presidential election. In the most recent one that took place in 2009 he claimed he received 90% of the vote despite the fact that there was significant opposition.

Although the seeds of hostility towards Ben Ali’s rule were planted long ago with his repressive tendencies, it was only within the past few years that the seeds became choking weeds that would eventually prove fatal to Ben Ali’s regime. The murmurs of discontent began to rise with the re-election of Ben Ali in 2009. Tunisians were unhappy not only with the lack of civil liberties and freedoms but mostly with the rising unemployment due to Ben Ali’s poor economic policies. These policies, while generating growth and promoting stability, also increased the income gap amongst Tunisians. Economic development was heavily concentrated in the north and along the eastern coastline creating a disproportionate distribution of wealth in the south, center, and western regions. 

The government did manage to improve living conditions in those regions by providing potable water, education, and access to health services but they never managed to provide the people with jobs. Universities were unable to train students in a way that could meet the needs of the Tunisian economy which heavily relies on low-skilled jobs such as tourism and clothing manufacturing. In fact the rates of unemployment for college graduates were double that of the national unemployment rate (13%-16% nationally, while in Sidi Bouzid alone unemployment of college graduates was between 25% to 30%). Ben Ali’s promises to create jobs were empty as were his pledges to increase political and civil liberties.  Protests were mild in the beginning but as the income gap grew and unemployment rose sharply, discontent became more pronounced.

Tunisia Upright: The Sound Defeat of an Authoritarian Regime 

The repressive atmosphere established in Tunisia by the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes had continued to suffocate Tunisians as people became desperate to provide for families in the midst of such high unemployment rates. Attempts by journalists and human rights activists to denounce Ben Ali’s regime, which was known to be extremely corrupt, were met with even harsher measures. People were arbitrarily jailed, detained, and even beaten in an effort by Ben Ali to silence dissenting voices. Such extreme repressive methods were met with even more extreme expressions of protest including in multiple suicides of youths such as a young street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi and a young union worker named Hussein Nagi Felhi. Both deaths were violent and horrific as Bouazizi set himself aflame and Felhi climbed a high voltage electric pole and electrocuted himself. These extreme demonstrations revealed are what prompted the mass protests that would eventually sweep across Tunisia and the Arab world.

At first, Ben Ali denounced the protests of what he called “extremists” who he viewed as inciting violence. He urged his police to quell the riots and restore peace to Tunisia by any means necessary including violence. However, protestors would not be silenced prompting Ben Ali to reverse his earlier stance and promise to deliver economic, political and social reforms. He dissolved the government, called for early elections, and said he would not run for re-election hoping to satisfy his people. Tunisians refused to accept his concessions and as the tension reached a breaking point, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia with his wife and family on January 14, 2011.The dethroning of Ben Ali and the persistent protests of an oppressed citizenry has inspired Arab countries throughout the Middle East to rise up against their despotic rulers.

The Challenges of a New Regime: Slow Changes

In the aftermath of Ben Ali’s flight, the Tunisian government has scrambled to maintain stability and order. The former Speaker of the Parliament Fouad Mebazaa was sworn in as interim President a few days after Ben Ali fled the country. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, who served as Prime Minister under Ben Ali for 11 years, formed a new “national unity” government including opposition members. However, Tunisians denounced Ghannouchi and demanded him, and other key officials under Ben Ali, step down because they were reminders of the dreaded regime. Continued protests over Ghannouchi’s presence in the government forced him to step down from his post. Other key officials such as the minister for international cooperation and industry ministers also resigned. On March 7 a new government, free of any of Ben Ali’s old members, was announced and Beji Caid Essebesi was chosen as the new interim Prime Minister. Since then, the government has struggled to prove its legitimacy to the people who believe the changes they fought for are coming to slow. This issue of legitimacy is a serious factor in the trial of Ben Ali because many Tunisians believe it is a ploy to distract the people and bolster support for the struggling government.

The Ben Ali Trial: A Farce to Justice

The trial of Ben Ali has been viewed by many, including Ben Ali himself, as a farce of justice and an insult to the “Jasmine Revolution” of Tunisians everywhere. The trial is taking place without Ben Ali or his wife because Saudi Arabia has refused to extradite them. Many believe all avenues to bring Ben Ali to justice were not exhausted and that any punishment meted out by the courts will be empty since Ben Ali will never actually serve any sentence. Furthermore, the charges brought against Ben Ali are not exactly what the people want to see. Ben Ali and his wife have been charged with embezzlement, misuse of state funds, illegal possession of drugs and weapons, and the death of almost 300 protestors during the Revolution. But many want to see him charged with the numerous counts of human rights violations that occurred under Ben Ali’s watch. Officially, Ben Ali faces 93 civil cases and 182 cases that fall under military jurisdiction. 

The first part of the trial to take place was held on June 20. Ben Ali and his wife were each sentenced to thirty five years in prison and were fined over $65 million dollars for embezzlement. The second part of the trial took place on July 4 in which Ben Ali’s court appointed lawyers walked out after their request for postponement was denied. The defense lawyers claimed that the trial was nothing but a sham and that no attempts at justice are even being met. These protests are not entirely hollow as the first trial that led to Ben Ali and Leila’s first conviction took place in six hours, hardly enough time to thoroughly investigate and deliberate on all the charges.

Ben Ali: The Victim of His Own Weak and Corrupt Institution of Justice

Officials have defended the proceedings stating that they have complied with Tunisian law and taken every step and recourse to try Ben Ali fairly. But how could justice over 23 years of repression be handled in just six hours? It seems like the new government is using the trial as a way to win over the people and quickly close the chapter on Ben Ali and his regime without thoroughly investigating the extent of governmental corruption. However, until the government is willing to prosecute fully and completely all those who took part in the corruption of the former regime they leave themselves open to possible corruption. It should be noted that those now in charge of the interim government are not able to run as candidates in future elections so it does seem like they are making somewhat of a stride in maintaining fair practices.

Also to be taken into consideration is that the government has postponed elections for another 3 months stating that they need time to prepare for their first free and fair elections since Ben Ali first came to power. The wait for elections and the trial have caused the rumblings of discontent to rise once again as citizens demand to see the change for which they fought. Furthermore, elections for the Constituent Assembly which is supposed to draw up the new constitution of Tunisia has been postponed yet again until October 2011. The interim government cited technical difficulties for the postponement and although some were hesitant, the idea was that something so serious and important to governance should not be rushed. However, the move has been met with some objections by the people who feel they have waited too long for a new government.

The trial of Ben-Ali must be admired even if its effectiveness has been debated. Although the future of Tunisia remains in question, the trial of Ben Ali is a step in the right direction. While we understand that trying a former head of state is a difficult and complex matter, a greater effort should be made in trying Ben Ali and investigating the full extent of his corruption, the persecution, and the killings Tunisians were subjected to during his tenure. Six hours is simply not enough time to effectively mete out justice and such a matter should not be rushed. Although we understand and acknowledge that the laws and the procedures currently being applied to Ben Ali are products of his own institutional legacy we recommend that greater measures be taken in the investigation and his prosecution.

Although the interim President does appear to be guiding Tunisia through the process of transition fairly well, we recommend that the constitution be drawn up before elections are held. While a constitution is not necessary, it is important to have a guiding document that government can use to effectively rule. The old constitution is viewed by Tunisians as outdated and does not properly reflect the will of the people. However, if elections take place before the constitution is drawn up then Tunisia could fall in to the trap of having an illegitimate document that will probably reflect the view and will of the winners of elections and those who control the Parliament. It will certainly be another document carefully drafted to provide the government with the legality and the power to serve a specific group of interests. If the elections are held first, then the government will reflect the constitution and not vice versa which is a dangerous thing since it might not aptly reflect the will of the people. The IIJD strongly suggests that the new interim government should first draw up a constitution that reflects the wishes of its citizens and then hold elections based on the new constitution. It should draft and enact all the laws to establish the institutions necessary to guarantee free and fair elections.

Tunisians should be proud of what they have accomplished in forcing the removal of a leader who did little but oppress his people. The strength and will it takes to demand more from ones government in the face of police brutality, violence, and death should be noted and lauded. Rebuilding the institutions upon which effective governance is founded will take time and the government will need to address critical issues such as an ailing economy and high unemployment. It will need to remain strong and effective in the face of such a daunting task. Furthermore, it must take into consideration the will of the people who will no longer remain silent and who have made it known that they will not accept another dictator.