An Old Spy in the New Tunisia

President Ben Ali fled the country in January of 2011. But what happened to the thousands of secret police he left behind?.

A side street in Tunis's UNESCO-listed Medina. (Armin Rosen)

I was reporting on a conference at a hotel near Tunis when I recognized his face among the security men by the door. Years before, he had trailed me through the streets. Tunisia's dictator, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had been rigging another election then, and in any case they always used to spy on reporters.

The security man was walking away, and I trotted up behind him.

As-salaamu aleikum, samahni," I said. "Peace be upon you, excuse me."

He turned and gave me a blank look. That surprised me, because we had come to know each other a little.

I can't recall exactly where I'd first seen him, back in Ben Ali's time. Most likely his had been among the faces on a crowded sidewalk. But once you identified the face of a Tunisian agent, you remembered it.

There were times when you loathed them. They were the reason that no one would talk to you. Once, for example, I buttonholed a man in the privacy of a café washroom. "There is full employment," he said, and hurried out. Although you knew it made no difference, you tried to spot the agents.

You learned to note who was loitering outside your hotel, to memorize faces in a train carriage, to scan a street while pretending to tie a shoe. Sometimes the agents stood out. During my first trip to Tunis in January 2009, I visited the ruins of Carthage. Three men I recognized from the train sat on a bench, hunched in their coats, watching me explore the stumps of columns.

I returned nine months later to cover presidential elections. Campaign posters of Ben Ali -- hand on heart, a serene smile under black brilliantined hair -- were multiplying on the walls.

One afternoon I realized that only a single agent was following me.

"I can ditch this bastard," I thought, and darted into the old city. The alleys were thick with shoppers browsing among the scarves, carpets, lacquered serving dishes, embroidered gowns, and other flashy bric-a-brac.

I zigged, I zagged, I doubled back, and he zigged, zagged and doubled back with me. We were moving uphill and I could see him breathing heavily. I stepped around a corner. After a moment he trudged into view.

"Peace be upon you!"

He froze. For a moment he looked at me mutely. Then the words slipped out: "And upon you be peace."

"Look, you and I are going to be together all day, so I'd like to introduce myself," I said. I was excited and speaking quickly. "My name's John."

He eyed me warily.

"And you?" I said.

Another pause. Then he told me his name. He didn't know who I was or what I was doing, he said. Only that he must follow me.

"You understand why sometimes I try to run away?" I said.

No answer.

"Anyway I'm having a coffee," I said. We were beside a café. "Can I get you one?"

No, he said, but thanked me. He waited while I drank my coffee, and later waited outside a mosque while I tried to interview worshippers. When I came out he waved me over. He had his cell phone in hand and clicked through photos to a baby gathered in blankets.

Presented by

John Thorne, an American journalist based in Tunis, has covered North Africa since 2006.

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