As protests spread across Tunisia in late December and January earlier this year, symbols of repression and fear were among the first things targeted after the fall of Ben Ali. Opulent mansions were looted, posters and portraits of Ben Ali torn down and across the country, government offices, police stations and interior ministry buildings were gutted, burned and left abandoned. A big part of this process targeted the implicit corruption of the Ben Ali administration, the wealthy families surrounding his nebulous of power and breaking down the psychological barriers that had existed under the previous regime, which relied on a systematic framework of intimidation that dominated not only political and economic mechanisms, but an individuals daily interaction with the public and social sphere.
Massive posters of Ben Ali that hung from stadiums, on billboards and public offices were torn down. In many businesses, which had been forced to hang a portrait in a visible place, only a white space remained. This small, individual symbolic act of resistance became a strong collective force as it was incorporated throughout neighborhoods and communities across Tunisia, eager to remove icons associated with the former ruling party. Even in the ancient Medina at the heart of central Tunis, at one of the most touristic government stores that sits in the old 16th century palace of the Bey, the proprietor was excited to show a space now sitting vacant. Among the rows of pictures that line the walls showcasing the dozens of foreign dignitaries to visit the store, he gestured to the US ambassador, then to the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who had been there only a week earlier before pointing to the blank area: “Ben Ali degage!”
In a small souk in Bab Souika, another neighborhood of Tunis, down a wide alley, where dozens of people mill under broad overhangs draped in dried peppers and bundles of garlic, street vendors sell all varieties of spices, meats, vegetables, pastas and beans. In one of these stalls a fruit vendor who speaks little English pulls out a picture that he keeps in his stand, him from a year earlier working at the same stall with a large portrait of Ben Ali hung along his wall. The same space where a poster for his favorite football team now rests, mostly covering up the torn remnants of the old poster. Only a couple blocks away a restaurant owner states his opinion even more clearly. He said that the storefront had belonged to his father, and his father before him, and that under Ben Ali, every store had to have a picture of Ben Ali up, or the police would come and shut the store down, or demand money not too. “So, after the revolution, what did you do with the picture? Did you take it down, throw it away or burn it?” His face took on a serious look: “I ate it. I took it down, ripped it into strips, and ate it. Ten minutes later I was on the toilet. But I would do it again.”
This iconic image of Ben Ali was also targeted online on Facebook, Twitter and blogs, and throughout the duration of the Arab Spring gained greater symbolic power, as revolution spread to Egypt, Libya, the Middle East, Africa, and the world. One of the most popular pictures became a cartoon with a man standing in front of portraits of Ben Ali, Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarek, Abdullah Saleh and Bashar al-Assad, a can of red paint in his hand, having just smeared an X over Ben Ali, and later Mubarak and Gaddafi, evolving and reposted as each new dictator fell. In the final version, presidents Saleh and Assad, look down with expressions of fear as the man with the paint, labeled “ash-shab,” or the people, approaches.
National compatriots protesting abroad, in front of Tunisian embassies in France, the United States, Britain and elsewhere were able to express themselves more freely than those still in the country, and often chose the symbolic image of Ben Ali to burn as an act of resistance. This act also became identified as an international one of defiance and solidarity, and spread into neighboring countries and across North Africa, where burning pictures of the deposed Tunisian dictator could often be seen next to others from around the region, just as the french term “Degage”, first heard on the streets of French and Arab speaking Tunisia, were captured and adapted on the Arab and English-speaking streets of Cairo in Egypt.
Symbols of the corruption and perceived decadence of the former ruling family were also quickly targeted as Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi fled the country. Across Tunisia, long simmering frustration surfaced as the homes and mansions of the ruling families faced widely supported and systematic looting and destruction. These actions were not of desperation and greed, but actually resulted in a type of ‘tourism‘ as hundreds of Tunisians travelled from around the country to visit the houses that had been looted, often hundreds a day to see with their own eyes the lifestyle of the ruling elite, and the reclamation that had taken place.
Symbols of Corruption
In the wealthy suburb of La Marsa, located North-East of Tunis, angry mobs smashed and burned a seaside villa owned by the nephew of former president Ben Ali. Every day, more Tunisians arrived, going through the wreckage and taking pieces of the home, or simply walking through the charred remains and snapping pictures. While rampant looting continued across the country, creating chaos and fear, and was largely attributed Ben Ali loyalists, the destruction of the lavish mansions seemed to have widespread support. One man on the scene, Sami Soukah, when interviewed about the event replied “They stole the people’s money. We are not sorry that this happened.” Another angry Tunisian described the home as an “illegal building” built on “illegal land.”
As when the Berlin Wall fell, many onlookers took small odds and ends, pieces of broken windows or chunks of marble as a souvenir to remind them that “the dark days were over”. Two weeks after the flight of Ben Ali, the nephews Mansion remained gutted, described as “just a shell with an infinity pool filled with debris, wide-screen TV’s smashed, furniture charred, 30 Foot Floor to Ceiling Windows completely shattered” with a “smell of fire… strongly present”. Across the marble tiled walls, in a room with the remnants of a jacuzzi or others overlooking large, terraced tropical gardens and a swimming pool below, large amounts of graffiti read “The Rich got Richer. The Poor got Poorer” and “You killed the people, Ben Ali,”.
Reinforcing these sentiments was the ransacking of another wealthy villa owned by Moaz Trabelsi, one of the ten brothers of Leila Trabelsi near the coastal city of Hammamet. Even after days of looting, when nothing of value remained, hundreds of people came to visit the wrecked shell. Pointing to a burned Porsche Cayenne, English professor Mounir Khelifa at the University of Tunis called the mansion a “thief’s” or “robber’s house” as dozens of people milled around, walking through the rubble strewn property “as if it were a real estate open house.”
While long mythologized, many ordinary Tunisians were shocked to learn how decadent the lifestyle of the previous ruling family was, unaware until the moment the moderate facades of the houses were stripped away, revealing the lavish interiors. “All this was bought with our money, with the money and the blood of the Tunisian people,” said Samira, a health worker. “Whoever comes next, for sure, will not steal as much as they did.”
A Wikileaks cable made public in early November of 2010 documented this wealth, highlighting details for what many Tunisians already knew:
“El-Materi’s house is spacious, and directly above and along the Hammamet public beach… The compound is large and well guarded by government security…The house was recently renovated and includes an infinity pool and a terrace of perhaps 50 meters. While the house is done in a modern style (and largely white), there are ancient artifacts everywhere: Roman columns, frescoes and even a lion’s head from which water pours into the pool.” The Ambassador also talks about the villa compound that was looted in Al Marsa “He hopes to move into his new (and palatial) house in Sidi Bou Said in eight to ten months…” and talked about the opulence of the nephews lifestyle “The dinner included perhaps a dozen dishes, including fish, steak, turkey, octopus, fish couscous and much more. The quantity was sufficient for a very large number of guests. Before dinner a wide array of small dishes were served, along with three different juices (including Kiwi juice, not normally available here). After dinner, he served ice cream and frozen yoghurt he brought in by plane from Saint Tropez, along with blueberries and raspberries and fresh fruit and chocolate cake” In addition “There were at least a dozen people, including a butler from Bangladesh and a nanny from South Africa.” Which the Ambassador noted was “…extraordinarily rare in Tunisia, and very expensive” He also mentioned that “El Materi has a large tiger (“Pasha”) on his compound, living in a cage. He acquired it when it was a few weeks old. The tiger consumes four chickens a day.” US envoys also reported that “seemingly half” of the Tunisian business community could claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage and businessmen have complained that “unless connected to the family of the president, their ability to grow always hit a ceiling”.
A big part of this process was breaking down the psychological barriers that had existed under the previous regime, which relied on a complex framework of control dominating not only political and economic mechanisms, but also an individuals daily interactions with the public and social sphere. One person on the scene of the ruined houses when asked to describe life under Ben Ali, Amel Jertila, said that “It was terrible. And you are scared all the time. What if I cross them one day in my life, what will happen to me? After years of work, we are scared of phantoms that are called Trabelsi and Ben Ali”.
Children with Paintbrushes
Targeting feared symbols, gathering documents from within to document transparently the extent of government atrocities became a key part in a revolution that sought not only to establish a new political system, but also reclaim the public sphere and redefine their own cultural narrative. One of the most powerful examples of this happened on October 7th, 2011 in downtown Tunis as 13 of the interior ministries ‘torture chambers’ were opened to children with paint brushes, general members of the public and western journalists for the first time in living memory. As Tunisian journalist Rabii Kalboussi noted, the “Interior Ministry is an unseen symbol of fear for political opponents and human rights activists… Formerly called ‘behind the sun’ in Tunisian dialect, the prisons have been spoken of but never witnessed”. Within the prisons, suspects “suffered the pain of torture under the former regime’s investigation and state security policies”.
The event was held as part of the Committee to Investigate Human Rights Abuses attempt to raise awareness of past atrocities, and hold investigations in a transparent manner. As part of the project, officials including Lazhar Akermi, Delegate of the Ministry of the Interior joined with schoolchildren to paint on the walls of the jails as an action “symbolizing the bringing of light to dark walls. Wall painting can stand for freedom, hope, and now the Tunisian revolution”. Officials used the opportunity to talk with members of the press to reaffirm their commitment to hold those who committed human rights abuses responsible their actions. A senior figure from the Tajdid opposition party said: “There has to be profound democratic change but that will be extremely difficult. “If it works, it could be the first true democracy in the Arab world. But we must be vigilant and avoid all naivety. Totalitarianism and despotism aren’t dead. The state is still polluted by that political system, the ancien regime and its symbols which have been in place for 55 years.”
For many Tunisians, the symbolic power of Ben Ali and the specters of this ancient regime are still very real. This was demonstrated by an experimental media campaign designed by Engagement Citoyen to encourage people to vote in the 23rd of October elections. For the project, members crept into the Tunis suburb of La Goulette (the port) and posted a massive portrait of the deposed dictator during the night where his picture had hung seven months earlier, eager to film the reactions of ordinary citizens as they woke up in the morning. Startlement soon turned to confusion and anger as larger and larger groups of people gathered. Before long, a non-verbal consensus was reached and the poster jointly torn down, revealing a new message underneath:
“Beware, dictatorship can return. Vote”