Tunisia's hopes for truth to set it free

To reconcile a nation torn by a brutal past, victims of past oppression in Tunisia are allowed to air their experiences in hopes their repressors will repent. A ‘truth’ commission aims to prevent cycles of revenge, setting a model for the Middle East.

AP Photo
The president of the Truth and Dignity Commission, Sihem Bensedrine, holds a Nov. 14 press conference in Tunis, Tunisia. Tunisians who faced abuses under decades of authoritarian rule have publicly aired their grievances to a special commission seeking to reconcile lingering tensions after a democratic revolution.

As Iraqi troops move closer to retaking the city of Mosul from Islamic State, one concern is that the mainly Shiite forces might exact revenge on Sunni civilians suspected of having supported the militant group. Revenge remains a powerful precept in Middle East conflicts. Islamic State itself justifies its vicious acts as permissible retribution for historical grievances. Yet in a sharp break from this tradition, one Arab country has displayed a potentially peaceful alternative.

For two days last week, people in the North African nation of Tunisia were glued to their TVs and radios listening to the accounts of victims of torture and other violence committed by previous brutal dictatorships for nearly half a century. Since 2010, when Tunisians sparked the Arab Spring in a popular revolt against the last dictator, Tunisia has struggled to start a democracy while also setting up a Truth and Dignity Commission to bring justice to victims and reconcile the nation.

Many of those who spoke to the commission last week were grateful for a chance to reveal their experience. Some hoped their perpetrators might admit their violent deeds, which then could trigger forgiveness. “The truth, whatever we do, is revolutionary,” said one victim of torture, the author Gilbert Naccache.

The head of the commission, Sihem Bensedrine, made clear the purpose of the testimonies was “not revenge.” And a leading Islamic figure and head of the Ennahda party, Rashid Ghannouchi said the hearings were a sign “that Tunisia is on the right track to treating its sicknesses and wounds in civilized, and not vengeful, ways.” The message to the world, he added, is that Tunisia can deal with its crises peacefully, rejecting reciprocal retaliation out of anger.

Until last week, the commission had taken testimony in secret from about 11,000 people considered victims of the regimes of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba. Such an airing of past injustices is a unique experiment in the Arab world, especially as it aims for social healing and a renewal of faith in state institutions.

“If you ask me personally, I just want the truth and for this black period to be written down so this does not happen again. At least our sons and daughters would not have to live this way,” said one testifier, Sami Brahim.

The panel will hold two more public hearings, in December and January, on significant anniversaries of the democratic revolution five years ago. It will then make recommendations for reforms and pursue reparations for victims. From this process, hopes Ms. Bensedrine, “Tunisia will not accept human rights abuses after today.”

Countries coming out of conflict and repression too often take the path of vengeance. Yet, finds Brian Klaas at the London School of Economics, those that seek ways to include controversial groups and figures – after seeking the truth about past atrocities and repentance from oppressors – are better able to find peace and reconciliation.

This is a lesson sorely needed to help the Middle East avoid cycles of violence, such as in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Tunisia is again setting an example for Arab states with a new kind of "spring," only this time for healing.

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