Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission has already held ten of its 20 planned public hearings. The last one, on July 21, examined the issue of electoral fraud under former presidents Bourguiba and Beni Ali.
Mohamed Bennour, an activist of the centre-left Democratic Socialist Movement (MDS) – founded in 1978 by Ahmed Mestiri, former minister and dissident from Bourguiba’s regime -- was victim of several violations linked to electoral fraud. In 1981 he announced his candidacy for legislative elections that the authorities announced as “pluralist” and which raised much hope among Tunisians. Benefitting from the aura of its secretary general Ahmed Mestiri and from the decline of Bourguiba’s PSD party, the new MDS candidates met with real success. But Mohamed Bennour was to experience what he called political terrorism “comparable to the troubling atmosphere of the Costa-Gavras film `Z`”, he told the Truth and Dignity Commission at its July 21 hearing.
Lost chances for democracy
There were more and more problems: meeting rooms made off-limits at the last moment, party activists beaten up, voters pressured, electoral campaign tampered with. The authorities had sensed a threat to their power and did not hold back. Mohamed Bennour was beaten almost to death by militia of Bourguiba’s party as he was preparing to hold a rally in a southern suburb of Tunis.
“It all happened under the eyes of foreign journalists, who even saw government representatives stuffing ballot boxes,” recalls Mohamed Bennour. “PSD supporters now admit that they were called to upset the process, but they don’t say where the order came from. The President? The Interior Minister? Wassila, the former First Lady ? The governor ? Nobody believes that Mestiri, who was filling the meeting halls, only got 1,200 votes and that his party only got 3% of the ballot.”
Mohamed Bennour says that these fraudulent elections in which “the voice of the voters was stolen” opened the way for the triumphant arrival of president Ben Ali, who used the same tactics in 1989 when the Islamist party was gaining ground and in subsequent elections.
“What a lot of lost opportunities for democracy!” exclaimed this former left-wing activist at the end of his testimony.
Like Mohamed Bennour, about a dozen witnesses, both from the opposition and from the regime of former presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali, took part in the public hearing on July 21 to tell of how voters’ voices were silenced from 1956 to 2010.
The President’s revenge
Tunisia’s December 2013 Organic Law on transitional justice has specific provisions on violations linked to electoral fraud.
However, unlike torture or misuse of public resources, it is not sanctioned by Tunisian laws. The initial Bill on transitional justice, drawn up by civil society in 2012 and then submitted to parliament by the government, does not mention it. The addition was made by parliament, in such a way as to “target political personalities of the former regime”, Human Rights Watch warned in 2014.
Reading between the lines, this refers to current president Beji Caied Essebsi, 90, who was Interior Minister for many years under Bourguiba. As if to take revenge for the transitional justice law, Essebsi’s first legislative proposal was the draft law on so-called “economic and financial reconciliation”, which he submitted to parliament less than a year after taking office. This Bill, which goes against revealing truth on corruption, has been dubbed by many NGOs an attempt to undermine the Truth and Dignity Commission.
And so the Commission’s first public hearings in November 2016 took place in a climate of tension. Ten hearings have now been held out 20 promised by controversial Commission President and former dissident journalist Sihem Ben Sedrine.