In 1988, when Hamida Ajengui was a teen-ager, she decided to stop getting her hair blown out and to cover it with a head scarf instead. Her parents, observant Muslims, were as accepting of her head scarf as they had been of her uncovered head. To be religious in Tunisia, after all, was as mainstream as speaking French—and it was often during their teens that girls decided it was time to put on the hijab. But when Ajengui showed up at school, the principal said that she couldn’t attend while covered. Surely, she thought, the country’s new President, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had taken power in 1987, must have been unaware of this injustice: even though the government had historically suppressed religion, Ben Ali had promised more freedoms. Ajengui gathered a group of girlfriends and boarded a tram to visit the Presidential palace, in Carthage, to tell him. They were stopped by the police and turned back. When they tried to make the journey again, they were arrested.
The experience sealed Ajengui’s resolve to wear her veil. She dropped out of school, focussing instead on religious classes and charity work. She often brought grocery money to the wives of political prisoners jailed for their Islamist beliefs. This led to more arrests, and then to torture and years of intermittent imprisonment. In detention, police would hang Ajengui upside down, naked, for hours. During interrogations, they threatened to sodomize her with a baton and once stripped her of her clothing in front of twenty men. Another time, she was locked in a room with a drunk man, who threw her against the wall and groped her. On her wedding day, security agents swarmed the reception hall, filling the space with officers instead of guests. They confiscated the musicians’ instruments, blocked her mother from attending, and ripped the head scarves off her female relatives’ heads. “My wedding was like a funeral,” Ajengui said.
For nearly sixty years, until the 2011 uprising that unseated President Ben Ali, the Tunisian government made torture and intimidation a systematic part of its rule. A police state that was also stridently secular, modelled after the French aversion to religiosity in public life, the dictatorship largely targeted Islamists or religious activists. Ajengui, who is now forty-seven, was one of eleven women and men who two weekends ago described the abuse that they had suffered, during the second hearing of the state’s Truth and Dignity Commission, which is the centerpiece of a transitional-justice law passed by the democratic government that emerged after the revolution. Broadcast live on prime-time television and widely watched, the hearings have been timed to coincide with the anniversary of the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller whose self-immolation sparked the Jasmine Revolution, which spread to become the Arab Spring. The proceedings, unprecedented in the Arab world for their scope, are tasked with examining a wide variety of crimes, from extrajudicial killings to torture to corruption, and intended as a public reckoning that will help both state institutions and society recover.
They are also a refutation of Tunisia’s reputation as an Arab success story, which owes less to any significant progress than to the country having avoided civil war or a descent into even nastier autocracy and chaos. This bright view, garlanded with a Nobel Peace Prize that went to a coalition of Tunisian civil-society groups, in 2015, has mostly fallen away. As George Packer reported in March, a spate of terror attacks that took place months before the Nobel Prize was announced virtually ended European tourism and weakened the country’s long-ailing economy. Acts of violence by Tunisians abroad have changed the country’s image further. Earlier this December, a twenty-four-year-old Tunisian man named Anis Amri allegedly drove a truck through an outdoor Christmas market in Berlin, killing twelve people. Tunisia has also sent the highest numbers of recruits, both men and women, to fight with the Islamic State, and the prospect of fighters returning home from Syria has left Tunisians vulnerable to the notion that the old regime was better at providing security than the new. Following two political assassinations in 2013, a political party that includes former regime officials won parliamentary elections, putting a number of politicians associated with past abuses back in power.
Outside the conference center where the hearings were being held, an ambulance waited on standby in case any of the participants fainted from the stress of testifying. Inside, young women dressed in soft linen and fluorescent lace hijabs sat with men wearing velvet pinstriped blazers and fake leather jackets. When Ajengui described being threatened with the baton de violeur, or steel baton, a woman broke down and rushed out of the room, the clacking of her heels breaking the room’s silence. Sodomy as a form of torture has featured in other victims’ testimony, as well. Tunisia is unique today for being governed by a sizable number of new politicians who are torture survivors, now members of the Islamist Ennahdha Party, and who find themselves serving alongside colleagues who, by virtue of having served under the old regime, were complicit in their abuse. When secular politicians nod together at an Ennahdha lawmaker across the room and whisper “Fanta bottle,” they are making a joke about sodomy. Last year, artists organised an installation in downtown Tunis called “The National Museum of the State Security System.” The exhibit included a row of glass soda bottles, symbolic of those upon which detainees had been forced to sit.
Sihem Bensedrine, the president of the Truth and Dignity Commission, is a former opposition journalist and human-rights activist who spent time in prison, in 2001. Bensedrine, who is sixty-six, is small-boned and wears demure suits and pearls, but her character is direct and sometimes fiery (in political circles her nickname is the Lioness). She has faced intense criticism, much of it personal, for her leadership, and she has been accused of everything from being overly fond of limousines to being a prostitute. A replica of one of Picasso’s paintings from his surrealist period—a woman with a splintered face—hangs on a wall in her office near a framed verse from the Koran. On the morning of the second day of hearings, she was scrambling to prepare an additional person to give testimony. One of the women who had been scheduled to speak, a mother of two teen-agers, had just dropped out. “I’m sorry I can’t come tonight,” she told Bensedrine over the phone. “I am destroying my children.”
“We told them from the beginning they have the right to change their mind,” Bensedrine said, shrugging. “They’ve pushed the trauma down somewhere so deep, and we can’t force them to pull it out if they are not ready.”
Anyone can submit charges of torture or corruption to the commission. Of the 62,326 charges received so far, the commission has studied around eleven thousand. The commissioners investigate each case fully before inviting a witness to testify, taking accounts from the victims and comparing them to files requested from the judiciary branch, which has “mostly” supplied them, according to Bensedrine. (Last fall, Bensedrine accompanied a convoy of trucks to the Presidential archive, near the Roman ruins of Carthage overlooking the sea, to obtain sixty years worth of files. Armed police officers turned her away.) The night that Ajengui testified, three sets of parents spoke about children who had been killed by security forces during the revolution. The other seven spoke of the abuse that they had suffered. Many came from Tunisia’s most impoverished rural regions, in the northwest and south, and their missing teeth and creased faces made them look older than they were.
After one person’s testimony, the audience clapped so long that Bensedrine intervened, asking for quiet. The hearings had been modelled after commissions convened in South Africa, Poland, Morocco, and other countries that had placed an emphasis on peacefulness following years of violence. The commission offers financial compensation for the abused and includes a mechanism to incorporate the views of civil-society groups in the process. But unlike other commissions, which have put perpetrators in direct contact with victims and questioned them during hearings, the Tunisians who are accused of committing crimes have remained invisible. According to Bensedrine, accumulated wisdom in the field of transitional justice now holds that bringing survivors and perpetrators face-to-face tends to force victims to relive trauma rather than imparting any sense of hope or recovery. And, while those who testify are free to name their abusers, the commission also aims to insure that senior commanders who gave orders cannot exact revenge on lower-level perpetrators who have come forward. “Until we can protect them, we can’t expose them,” Bensedrine said. A separate session, to be held before 2018, will focus exclusively on perpetrators.
In early summer, when the commission first began searching for a venue, every booking mysteriously fell through. One place cancelled, another claimed last-minute construction work, and yet another discovered faulty electrical wiring that demanded sudden attention. Bensedrine finally secured space in a spa called Club Elysee—a place of marble and strewn rose petals that was once owned by the former First Lady and is now popular for society weddings. It served as a powerful backdrop, a reminder of the endemic corruption of the regime, which not only enriched the President’s family but a powerful strata of the Tunisian establishment that is reluctant to see its privilege eroded by the transitional-justice law. At noon on the day of the first hearing, a staffer from the spa presented Bensedrine with an invoice that was six times the venue’s standard fee. “If you don’t want to go ahead, we quite understand,” he told her.
Some worry that the government’s obvious ambivalence is imperilling the entire reconciliation process. The current President, Beji Caid Essebsi, a nonagenarian who in earlier decades ran both the Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Defense, and who helped establish the dictatorship, has not attended the hearings. His government has proposed an amendment to the original law that would grant amnesty to corrupt former officials who return embezzled money. In a televised interview about the hearings, recorded shortly before they began, Essebsi said, sourly, “We can’t consider everything as a historic day.”
The President’s refusal to attend the testimonies highlights the fractures within Tunisian politics that endure between the old state’s inheritors and its many victims. On a chilly evening at a café not far from Avenue Bourguiba, a ficus-lined thoroughfare named for the first Tunisian President after independence, a young woman told me about her recent experiences with the authorities. Three years ago, when she was seventeen, her then-husband went to join the Islamic State. Like many of the wives, mothers, and sisters left behind by young men who become jihadists, she has been harassed incessantly by the police. They have knocked her door down in the night, roughed up her parents, barred her from speaking to a lawyer, and interrogated her for days at time, often slapping her in the face. They have brought other detainees into the room and assaulted them in front of her. One time, four officers brought in a girl, stripped her, and hit her naked body. “She was so pale each slap made her skin explode into a bruise,” the woman told me.
After the woman was released, she decided that neither she nor her family could take it any longer. She stopped praying on Fridays at the mosque, dropped her religious friends, and changed her appearance. When I first met her, six months ago, she wore a navy hijab so severe it hid a third of her face; this time, she had an ombre pixie cut and ripped jeans. I asked her how it felt to look so different on the outside from how she felt in her heart. She looked down at her French manicure. “It is misery,” she said, wiping her eyes with a knuckle. “It is like telling lie after lie after lie.” A friend of hers who was sitting with us had given testimony that morning at the commission, and we talked about the reconciliation process and its prospects. “Nothing will change with this,” the woman said dismissively. Despite that, she said that she had watched the hearings. And would keep watching.