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In Tunisia, Ben Ali was 'big brother'

 
 
 
 
 
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Protesters gather in Tunis. Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali.

One Tunisian recounts his run-ins with the party of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, which asked him repeatedly to become a ‘citizen watcher’ and inform on friends, family and co-workers.

Reporting from Tunis, Tunisia — He remembers the form. You filled it out to become a “citizen watcher” for the party of Zine el Abidine ben Ali. It meant you would spy. Inform on your friends, your family, the people at work and get paid for it.

Again and again over the years, Ahmad Chebil says, they approached him. They offered him perks and advantageous jobs, home loans and car credit. But each time he refused entreaties to join the president’s Constitutional Democratic Rally, or RCD, its French initials.

He pushed them away because he had read a book in his early teens that explained everything he needed to know about the party and political life of his country: a French translation of “1984,” George Orwell’s dystopian vision of a totalitarian society.

“It made me realize how wrong they were,” said Chebil, 30, now the owner of a small software company. “I saw the RCD and the government and saw that it’s exactly like this book, with the big pictures of Ben Ali everywhere and people listening in to phone calls and informing on each other. Joining them is like selling your soul to the devil.”

Ben Ali, driven out of office and the country Friday in a popular uprising, left his imprint on all aspects of public life during his 23 years of rule. But his most lasting stamp on the country may be the RCD, which had 200,000 official members.

Over the years, the RCD opened offices in every neighborhood of every village and every city.

Some fear that the party could come back to power, that a decision announced Saturday to call for elections within 60 days will give it an advantage over an opposition that has been crushed, marginalized and exiled for decades.

“The old structure is in place, but for now it is keeping its silence,” said Samir Bettair, a professor of law and political science at the University of Tunis.

The party became a cult of personality around Ben Ali, who took power in 1987 as a reformer, but quickly proved himself more repressive than his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba.

“You only saw Ben Ali, every day on every newspaper,” Chebil said. “There’s only one head, the big brother who speaks to the people. There is only him.”

Chebil’s many brushes with the party illustrated its pervasive influence.

He says he was first approached by a party member when he was a 19-year-old computer consultant hired to provide some computers for an RCD event.

“He had a big smile,” Chebil recalled. “He told me I had to join because Ben Ali is the key to the future.”

He didn’t dare refuse him. But the ethical qualms stirred by Orwell’s book, in which loyalists to a political party are forced to betray one another and their own humanity, got the best him. He simply avoided the man, and never again accepted any consulting work for the party.

“He never saw my face again,” he said.

Once or twice a year someone else would approach him, perhaps at cafes or at his business.

“There is a person who comes and he sits down with you,” he said. “And he starts to engage you in conversation, to know what you think about politics. And if he feels that you are cooperative, he asks you to join.”

Chebil always played the same game, not outright refusing them but never joining.

For Chebil, an entrepreneur, being an RCD member would have meant getting more clients. He was tempted at first. But as he learned more about the party, it made him more disgusted.

“You have a president with the police and the party behind him,” he said. “These people influence more people. They rig elections. He wins.”

Chebil has never voted for Ben Ali, or for anyone else.

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