TUNIS—In late March, an old man dressed in traditional Tunisian clothes for the occasion shuffled up to a microphone in a conference hall on the outskirts of Tunis. He had come to speak about events in his country that took place over half a century ago. His testimony, and the testimony of others, re-ignited a virulent debate over whether the country’s national history needs to be re-written, how, and by whom.
The elderly man was testifying at one of the sessions of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, which was established in the aftermath of the country’s revolution and the ouster of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. The commission, known in French as Instance Vérité et Dignité (IVD), is part of a transitional justice process to investigate and document human rights abuses since 1955.
The commission has processed over 60,000 testimonies of human rights abuses. Witnesses at the commission’s sessions have told harrowing and heart-breaking stories of torture, abuse and discrimination. One of the most controversial topics so far has been the role and legacy of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s venerated founding father.
“We need to re-write, or rather write for the first time, the history of violations, of victims, of the marginalized, a history that was hidden,” Adel Maizi, the head of the IVD’s national memory preservation committee, said in an interview. “We need to write this history and then teach this history to the next generation.”
But the call by Maizi and the commission’s president, Sihem Bensedrine, for Tunisian historians to re-write the country’s history on the basis of the data and testimonies the commission has collected has incensed historians, who feel their professionalism and their prerogative as experts is being called into question. They say that despite government pressure, they did their best to maintain an honest account of the recent annals of Tunisian history.
Bensedrine “attacked the honor of historians,” said Mustapha Tlili, director of the history department at the College of Social Sciences and Humanities of Tunis. Tlili drafted a petition, signed by over a hundred of his colleagues, that describes the president’s remark as “an attempt to insult Tunisian historians and blame them for their inadequacy and lack of zeal, or even for negligence and intellectual cowardice.”
Omar Essid, 84, the witness at the session in March, had fought for Tunisian independence against the French. But he had been a supporter of Bourguiba’s comrade Salah Ben Youssef. In 1955, Ben Youssef and Bourguiba fell out over their willingness to accept an autonomy agreement offered by the French (Ben Youssef called for continuing armed resistance until complete independence was achieved). Ben Youssef’s followers were defeated and persecuted, and he was condemned to death and assassinated in Germany in 1961.
Essid told the audience that he had suffered all his life from being treated as a “traitor” rather than a freedom fighter.
Bourguiba was the country’s president from 1957 until 1987, when Ben Ali, then his prime minister, forced him into retirement and seized power. A staunch proponent of secularism and women’s rights, Bourguiba had an outsized role in shaping the modern Tunisian state and political landscape. But he did not believe that Tunisians were ready for democracy, and in 1975 made himself president for life, saying that this was a “homage…to a man whose name is identified with Tunisia. My term at the head of this country will leave an indelible mark for centuries.”
Bourguiba encouraged a cult of personality and saw any dissent or criticism of his leadership as a threat to the nation itself. Other sessions of the commission have heard testimony from trade unionists, leftist student activists and Islamists who were tortured and jailed during his thirty years in power.
These facts about Bourguiba’s reign are widely acknowledged, as is the veracity of the testimonies presented to the commission. What seems to incense historians like Tlili is the suggestion that he and others shied away from the truth.
His petition says that “in the last sixty years, no orders or instructions were issued to write history or teach it at Tunisia’s universities in a particular manner, or focusing on a particular personality or period.”
At Tunisian universities, “there was pressure on the regime’s part, a desire for control,” admits Tlili. “But there was also resistance. There was institutional independence. There were historians engaged in the struggle for democracy.”
Tlili argues that historians at institutions such as Manouba University’s Institute of the History of the National Movement (recently re-named the Institute of Tunisia’s Contemporary History) and the Tamimi Foundation had already begun, years ago, to collect similar testimonies.
Yet, writing in 2010, political scientist Larbi Chouika noted how difficult and controversial it still was to open a public debate on abuses under Bourguiba. Ben Ali didn’t mind criticism of his predecessor, but he employed the same repressive police apparatus, and was just as unwilling to allow freedom of expression.
Chouika wrote that “authoritarian political power insists on monopolizing all past political experiences and on controlling their effects…imposing its vision of reconciliation with the past.” In Ben Ali’s Tunisia, “all public activity becomes a ‘power game,’ including obviously the debate over national memory and past experiences.”
That debate continues today. Critics of the IVD often accuse it of being biased and politicized, of “digging up bodies” and “settling scores.” Those accusations seem to assume that previous accounts of Tunisia’s modern history were written outside of particular political contexts.
The debate over the IVD’s mission and the country’s national history is being shaped by current political struggles, between Islamists and secularists, and between those who believe the revolution has stalled without ushering in real change and those who wish to turn the page on the uprising and focus on a return to security and the status quo. The commission was established by the first post-revolution government, led by the Islamist party Ennahda. It does not seem to have the support of President Beji Caid Essebsi, an elder statesman who served in the governments of Bourguiba and Ben Ali and who was elected in 2014 in a backlash against the Islamists and revolutionary “chaos.”
It is unfortunate that the commission is engulfed in such acrimony, because it is a unique experiment in the Arab world, and one that seems needed in so many other countries where there has been zero accountability for civil wars and authoritarian repression.
The only other country that has attempted something similar is Morocco, which established a Justice and Reconciliation Commission in 2004 and 2005. That commission gathered testimony and assigned reparations to the victims of the “years of lead,” the period of ruthless repression under former king Hassan II. But it did not go as far as the Tunisian commission: it avoided naming perpetrators or pursuing any legal action against them.
The commission’s public hearings have been broadcast on national television. Some of them are available on YouTube, and they are widely viewed and commented upon. Yet critics argue that the country is too “fragile” to engage in a critical reckoning with its past, that it needs strong leaders and models like Bourguiba, and that it is dangerous and disturbing to undermine them.
Others argue that sweeping the truth under the rug is more apt to lead to festering divisions. Maizi said he realized after the session on Bourguiba “that the wound hasn’t healed, because it was never treated properly. But it’s necessary for the sake of legal, political and cultural reform to make this history part of our collective consciousness, to make sure it won’t happen again.”
Another commissioner, Hayat Ouertani, emphasized that there is a difference between memory and history, and that the roles of the transitional justice process and of historians could be complementary rather than adversarial.
“The IVD does not claim to write history,’ said Ouertani. “We want to have victims speak. To discover the truth.” But that truth “has a thousand faces.” It is up to historians and researchers to make use of the materials gathered by the commission, she said.
The commission’s archives—which include government documents, records of the commission’s own operation, and tens of thousands of audio and video recordings of victims’ testimonies—should be a valuable resource. When the commission’s mandate ends in 2018, all these materials will most likely be incorporated into Tunisia’s National Archives.
The commission had hoped to be granted a site in the city—their first choice was a historic, shuttered prison—in which to create a permanent library and institution open to the public. But the current government has not been supportive of the idea and has not set aside funds for such a project.
Nonetheless, said Maizi, he remains optimistic about the ultimate impact of the commission. “We know our work is historic. Quite some time in the future, people may make use of the IVD’s work.”