Not even her detractors can deny Sihem Bensedrine (La Marsa, 1950) her condition as a tireless fighter. A member of the Tunisian League for Human Rights since 1979, the main actor in opposition to the Ben Ali regime for a long time, Bensedrine practiced independent journalism until she was arrested in 2001. After several months in captivity, international pressure forced the regime to to free her, and ended up in provisional exile. In fact, she spent time in Barcelona with the support of the non-governmental organization PEN International.
Winner of several international awards for her denunciation of corruption and human rights violations, recognition by the Tunisian State did not come until 2014, with her appointment as president of the Truth and Dignity Instance (IVD). . This institution had the objective of revealing the crimes of the dictatorship, and preparing the prosecution of the most serious ones. After a turbulent tenure at the head of the IVD, Bensedrine has stepped aside to make way for the new generations. To them, she maintains, it is up to them to fight for the return to democracy after the self-coup of Kais Said, who assumed full powers in 2021. But this has not prevented Bensedrine from being a victim of repression and being prohibited from go abroad. There are four cases open against her that, in this interview at her home in Tunis, she describes as “empty.”
Ask. How do you assess the Kais Said phenomenon?
Answer. Kais Said is a catastrophe on all levels. But he is just a small example of the far-right wind blowing across the world, which started in Europe. This trend has even affected some who consider themselves to be on the left, but govern from the right. We are turning our backs on all universal values, such as human rights, which one day made us believe in a more human and united world.
Q. In fact, your racist speeches have surprised you (earlier this year, the president lashed out at sub-Saharan migrants, unleashing a wave of xenophobic violence).
R. If I had to make a hierarchy with the things that do not work in my country, the first would be the policy towards migrants because it destroys values and affects the depths of ourselves, our values as Tunisians, as Muslims. It marks a genuine moral failure. And Europe, is it going to come to help us? No, quite the opposite. In fact, Kais Said had adopted a timid policy on the matter. But when Italy came to support him, and with it, the EU behind, the current dehumanization of migrants began. I am ashamed of Tunisia.
The policy towards migrants destroys values, affects the depths of ourselves, our values as Tunisians, as Muslims (…) I am ashamed of Tunisia
Q. What have been the errors of the transition in Tunisia?
R. To begin with, the politicians who managed it were apprentices. They were inexperienced, arrogant and very ambitious. They placed their party interests above the country. Without forgetting personal egos. Arrogance makes you blind. After the revolution, the old regime was not dead, it was only wounded. And when you hurt a beast, you have to finish it off. They were afraid of him, they began to make concessions, each time more important. Until, once recovered, the beast ate them.
Q. And if we move the focus away a bit to talk about the Arab springs. Is the analysis the same?
A. The dynamic was the same as here, but the difference is that there (in countries like Egypt or Syria) Israel is a border, and that is why everything was faster and more violent. When Israel’s interests are at stake, international powers intervene more directly.
Q. What is the current situation of human rights in Tunisia?
R. Very bad, I would say even worse than with the dictator Ben Ali, because he knew how far he could go, what the limits were. Now that is no longer so. Before they did horrible things on the sly, now they don’t. They are unleashed, uninhibited, they are not ashamed of anything. The Kais Said regime is a caricatured version of the old regime. He is a kind of radicalized Ben Ali. All Said wants is to live in the presidential palace, make his speeches, put the people who bother him in jail… and feel that he has the power.
After the revolution in Tunisia, the old regime was not dead, it was only wounded
Q. But now there are no people who die in police stations due to torture, right?
R. Yes, there are, but they are common criminals and not opponents. Then, they say in a report that they died outside the police station and that’s it. These cases are not Said’s fault. It’s the police, who do what he wants. No one can rebuke them. The policy towards young people is even more repressive than with Ben Ali. Many young people only see two options: take drugs or throw themselves into the sea. If you look at the rap songs, they are anti-repressive, they go against the police. The young feel the anger, they are in rebellion.
Q. And how do you see the situation of women’s rights?
A. I used to be a classic feminist, but my way of seeing things changed from my experience in the IVD. The donors asked us to make a “gender commission”. And we did it, as they wanted, according to their canons. But then, when I listened to the testimonies of women who have lived through very hard situations, they talked above all about their family life. That’s when they burst into tears. The most painful thing, according to her own story, was not being attacked, but the beings they loved. So I began to reflect: Why do they force us to deal with women in isolation? The woman cannot be isolated from her context, as if she were a loose atom. We develop in society, when we share our emotions together with other human beings. If those threads that bind us are cut, they destroy us. For this reason, in the end I proposed to work from the couple, not only from the woman. And we did a report on the impact of state violence on couples’ lives.
Why does the West, when it comes to our region, only care about “liberating women”?
Q. So you don’t agree with the Western feminist model?
R. Today I wonder if the use of women in the Islamic world, or in Africa, is not a kind of Trojan horse to dominate us. Why does the West, when it comes to our region, only care about “liberating women”? Men, children, shouldn’t they be released? They have their canons and their criteria of how a woman should be. To begin with, you have to be secular (preferably anti-Islamist), dress like them (not like your ancestors) and speak their language. In Tunisia, in the laws, we have all rights recognized, but are we really capable of building fulfilling lives? A model is imposed on us in which social ties seem like a burden. It is a very individualistic vision of the human being, arising from a liberal-capitalist ideal, and that model destroys society.
Q. I see you with a very anti-Western discourse…
A. I’m not saying that everything in the West is negative, of course. There are many NGOs, civil society and some media that do a good job. But when I speak of the West, I mean the dominant system, which wants to exploit our resources, pillage. And to achieve this, they have to destroy our societies and turn us into simple consumers. The dominant West is imperialist. Look what happens with our doctors here in Tunisia: we have a shortage because they go to France, they have been taken from us. I am not only thinking of Tunisia, but of all of Africa. And I feel proud of the resistance movement that was born there against France.
Look what happens with our doctors here in Tunisia: we have a shortage because they go to France, they have been taken from us. I am proud of the resistance movement that was born in Africa against France
Q. How do you rate the IVD experience?
A. It was quite a miracle that we were able to finish our mission. They put so many obstacles for us… The first to oppose us were the Islamists from (the political party) Ennahda, who made a pact with the devil of the old regime. He asked for my head, but he didn’t get it. The international community did not help us. At one point, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) asked us not to name the perpetrators, and they even withdrew our aid funds. Germany was the only one that supported us. Currently, the special chambers of Transitional Justice (which are in charge of the cases investigated by the IVD) are blocked. The Minister of Justice tells the judges: “If you continue the processes, I will strike you down.” And the judges are afraid of him. Sessions continue to be held, but there is no closure of the trials with their corresponding sentences.
Q. Despite everything, was the experience worth it?
A. Yes, because we have left a legacy. It is as if we have made a hole in the wall of a fortress. Perhaps in the future things will change, and it will be possible to do justice. I compare it with what happened in Spain. Decades after the civil war, many people have not given up and still hope to bury their relatives who are lying in common graves. Repressive systems, which are only supported by violence, are unstable. The victims will continue to fight. And I by his side.
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