Sadri Khiari, The Decolonial Translation Group
Sadri Khiari, Tunisian activist exiled in France since early 2003, is one of the founding members of the PIR of which he is currently one of its key leaders. He has published, among others, Pour une politique de la racaille: Immigré-e-s, indigènes et jeunes de banlieue, éditions Textuel, Paris, 2006 and La contre-révolution coloniale en France de de Gaulle à Sarkozy, éditions La Fabrique, Paris, 2009.
Today, like every day since Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, I was asked the same question twenty times: how do you explain the profound shake-up in the country known for its “stability,” and the sudden fall of the man who had ruled it with an iron fist?
A thousand explanations are possible. But I will stick to just one. The most important, in my view: the power of the mafia-like clique that surrounded the deposed president was not based on any measure of consensus or consent. In other words, it had no moral authority over the population. And no political system can survive such an absolute absence of moral authority. Even among the privileged, including those who benefitted directly from Ben Ali’s regime, the president, his wife and those close to them elicited not only fear but utter and complete contempt.
Since he took power in November 1987, Ben Ali focused on building a massive machine of repression, containment, control and clientalization of the population. French newspapers have sometimes reported on the arrest of political activists or union leaders, on the torture of opponents, on the brutal intimidation of the defenders of human rights; but the main focus of police activities was elsewhere. It was on the general population, which was the subject of constant police pressure at the hands of the Ministry of the Interior, of course, but also those of the multiple officious militias and those of the Constitutional Democratic Party, the Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique (RCD), that is not a party like any other but an annex of the state in charge of cornering, watching, punishing, buying, corrupting, extorting any person in whatever sphere of their social life. In addition to these institutions, there was the bureaucracy one might expect to be in the service of citizens but instead used all of its might to relay orders from the top echelons of the state. In other words, it was an agent of repression, containment, surveillance and clientalization. The Ministry of Justice is exemplary in this sense.
I don’t want to blame all public servants, the majority of whom are brave and underpaid citizens working in disastrous conditions and subject themselves to the ultimate power of their superiors. I am pointing out the police system’s ability to turn each and every person into an accomplice and intermediary of those in power.
Make no mistake: the police and bureaucratic system that Ben Ali put in place was not only intended to incite fear and obedience. Its goal was much more pernicious and effective than fear: to stamp outin each person that which makes them human. Ben Ali built an immense apparatus designed to break Tunisians’ dignity; he developed a formidable technology of indignity. Compromise, indeed complicity, corruption, the thousand shameful schemes that were often necessary to survive or simply to have some peace, were among the tools of a systematic construction of indignity. The entire society and each individual were made to feel, in themselves and in their peers, the total contempt of those in power for the people.
Allow me to repeat that repression and fear would never have been enough to maintain a regime that had no moral authority. In the absence of such legitimacy, Ben Ali and his gang of delinquents chose another way: destroy morale, break solidarity, abolish respect, spread contempt, humiliate, humiliate and humiliate again. You are nothing, you will always be nothing, subhuman – that was the social and moral message of the Benalist regime. Bourguiba, who was quite elitist, considered that Tunisians were nothing but a “dust of individuals” out of which he would create a nation. Ben Ali placed the opposite bet in transforming the nation into a dust of individuals. His gamble failed because the nation refused to become dust. The mud of the Carthage Palace never managed to sink the whole of Tunisia.
In my view, to speak of misery, social problems, the abstract need for democratic freedoms, or even repression as a simple tool of fear and submission produces a limited understanding of the events that developed over the past month in Tunisia. Mohamed Bouazizi did not kill himself in such a horrible way simply because he didn’t have a job and a municipal employee prevented him from earning a few cents selling vegetables. He set himself on fire because when the municipal official spit on him, he was repeating what Ben Ali’s regime told us every day: you are nothing but dog shit and I can do whatever I want to you! Bouazizi was certainly sick of being poor, very poor. But what he couldn’t put up with was no longer being a human being. Rest his soul, we are all thinking of him; we all identified with him, even some of those among us who have a job and live comfortably. The driving force of the Tunisian revolution was to chase away the tyrant and to restore the dignity that had been denied to Bouazizi. Did Tunisians demand salary increases? Freedom of the press? Some kind of new right? No, they expressed their dignity; they affirmed that their dignity required Ben Ali’s departure. And they got it. He should have understood that he needn’t waste his time making concessions that were only concessions in his own eyes: price reductions, free access to the Internet, elections and his promise of departure in three years! It was Ubuesque. The only thing people wanted was his head, right there and right then.
Is it all over? Certainly not. The revolutionary effervescence has not gone away. All over, dignity continues to fight indignity. The Tunisian nation is no longer made up of individuals who resist, for better or for worse, in order to maintain their humanity; it is a collective body that is horrified by the possibility that the men of the Benalist regime and a few politicians, eager for their piece of the pie, could take away their victory. The Tunisian people believe only in themselves and they are right to do so. The second act of the revolution is intended to bring down the institutions put in place by the former president – first and foremost the RCD – and to see the democratic election of a constituent assembly, giving the people the political sovereignty they have been denied for decades. After that, we’ll see.
Sadri Khiari, January 17, 2011.
Translated by Karen Wirsig.