The Librairie al Kitab is a crowded bookstore on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the main boulevard of Tunis, the once-drowsy capital of the previously lethargic North African republic of Tunisia. Today, of course, Tunisia is known as the cockpit of the Great Arab Revolt of 2011. During the reign of the now-deposed president, the debauched kleptocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali—whose capitulation in January in the face of furious street protests triggered uprisings across the Arab world—the employees of the Librairie al Kitab kept a weather eye on the secret police. As luck would have it, the secret police kept their headquarters just across the street, in a whitewashed building housing the Interior Ministry. If the Librairie al Kitab had dared to carry a book containing even an insinuation of Ben Ali’s perfidy, it would have been “goodbye to the bookstore,” Kamel Hmaïdi, one of the employees, told me when I visited in late March. “We would go to jail,” he said, pointing out the window toward the looming ministry building. “Just there.”
Today, though, the display window of Librairie al Kitab is a shrine to the glories of free speech, given over in large part to works excoriating Ben Ali’s regime and his family. The titles include Le silence tunisien; La Tunisie de Ben Ali: La société contre le régime; and Ben Ali: Le ripou, which translates to “Ben Ali: The Rotten One.” Also: a number of books illuminating the transgressions of various other Arab dictators, and two books on the pitiable life and ghastly death of the Tunisian fruit-and-vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation, provoked by unending privation and the intolerable humiliation of a policewoman’s face-slapping assault, set off the revolution. The store had sold several hundred copies of Le ripou since January, Hmaïdi said.
Some time earlier, in Damascus, I had visited a bookstore in search of a reasonably non-hagiographic biography of Syria’s hereditary dictator, Bashar al-Assad. I could not find a single one, only book-length condemnations of Western treachery, and copies, in three languages, of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was a suffocating little shop. The Librairie al Kitab, by contrast, is a joyous place: little else in the world could give a visitor from a free nation as much happiness as the sight of a bookstore in a once-totalitarian state selling, finally, the books it wants to sell, without fear of imprisonment and ruin.
It is true that Ben Ali, for all his now well-cataloged sins, was not a top-tier Middle Eastern tyrant. His secret police operated with a degree of refinement, at least in comparison with the thuggish practices of Hosni Mubarak’s secret agents; and his cult of personality was underdeveloped, certainly when compared with that of his neighbor to the east, Muammar Qaddafi. But Ben Ali was a virtuoso thief, a ravenous looter of the state treasury. The new head of the Central Bank of Tunisia, Mustapha Kamel Nabli, brought back from self-imposed exile to help right his country’s broken economy, described his work so far as an adventure in forensic accounting. “Anything they could steal, they stole,” he told me. “I think it will take years for us to understand the extent of the corruption. The family of Ben Ali treated Tunisia as their personal property.”
Ben Ali’s wife, Leïla Trabelsi, an arriviste hairdresser who would dispatch government airplanes to Saint-Tropez for shopping trips, carried herself as if she were the uncrowned queen of Carthage. Her daughter and son-in-law maintained a mansion of extraordinary size and tackiness on the Mediterranean, whose grounds included a very Uday Hussein–esque enclosure for a pet tiger named Pasha. On at least one occasion they sent a government aircraft to Europe to fetch their favorite frozen yogurt. Before they fled to Saudi Arabia, Ben Ali and his wife reportedly looted the Central Bank, taking as much as a ton and a half of gold bullion. All told, the family may have stolen billions of dollars from the treasury. Thirty percent of young people in Tunisia are unemployed.
A former American ambassador to Tunisia, Robert Godec, told me recently that the family’s brazenness infuriated ordinary Tunisians. (His acerbic observations about Ben Ali’s family, made in cables later exposed by Wikileaks, are believed by many Tunisians to have provided a crucial spark to the anti–Ben Ali movement.) “My sense was that there was profound anger at Ben Ali, his wife, and many of their family members,” Godec said. “When the family wanted a piece of land, the local municipality would tell the owner there was a problem with the title. Then the title would be suddenly transferred to an entity controlled by someone in the family. You can understand how people could become quite angered by this.”
Godec, like other American officials, warned Ben Ali about his sinking reputation, but the president, he said, had no patience for reproachful Americans. And of course, American diplomats understood that there was utility for the United States in maintaining close relations with Ben Ali. Like Mubarak (and even the late-stage Qaddafi, who enjoyed a several-year period of détente with the U.S.), Ben Ali was a foe of Islamic radicalism, and his intelligence services provided not-inconsequential help in the American campaign against al-Qaeda. “Whenever we raised issues of political freedom or corruption, the answers were always the stock answers: ‘We’re threatened by the Islamist party, we’re facing extremists, you Americans don’t understand that we’re your only true friends.’”
Of course, various American administrations, embracing the “realist” notion that stability in Middle East countries brought about through repression could be maintained in perpetuity, accepted Ben Ali’s self-interested analysis of his centrality to the struggle against terrorism, even though Tunisia has the most secular of North Africa’s populations, and one of the most highly educated.
It is this history of sometimes full-throated American support for Ben Ali’s leadership that accounts for the brisk sales of many anti-American books, some of them screedish, in the Librairie al Kitab. “Those books are popular,” Kamel Hmaïdi said. “The books about Ben Ali are more popular.”
I cut short my shopping when I heard a commotion outside the store. Demonstrators were marching in the direction of the Interior Ministry. The only thing more thrilling to an American heart than the sight of a once-censored bookstore selling what it wants to sell is the sight of young citizens of a formerly authoritarian country gathering to demand their rights.
The Interior Ministry building was surrounded by coils of concertina wire; armored personnel carriers and Humvees were parked inside the wire, and soldiers patrolled the perimeter, though it was unclear whether the soldiers were meant to protect the ministry from the protesters, or the protesters from the remnants of the secret police. The demonstrators, marching up from the Casbah, which was the scene of much of the violence of the January revolution, were mainly young people in their teens or 20s, and they were vociferous, even volatile. I joined the crowd. Hundreds of these demonstrators pressed right up to the concertina wire. One of the signs, interestingly, carried the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith. Another read in English, Our Freedom Can’t Wait—Malcolm X.
I asked the demonstrators around me, “What are we protesting today?” A university student named Latifa said, “The Interior Ministry refuses to let women be photographed for their identity cards wearing the hijab,” the traditional head covering religious Muslim women wear—and in some countries, are compelled by law to wear. “They force women to remove the hijab,” she continued. “This is an insult to Islam. We are demanding that the ministry allow us to wear the hijab at all times.”
Just then I noticed that a number of the young men in the crowd were bearded, and that many, though certainly not all, of the women kept their hair covered. These protesters did not conform to the stereotype of the typical secular Tunisian, yet here they were, in numbers. “Our leaders will understand that Tunisia is a Muslim country,” one of the demonstrators, an unemployed college graduate named Ezzedine Brahim, told me. Brahim described himself as a “youth supporter” of the main Tunisian Islamist party, Ennahda, which was recently made legal after a 20-year ban. He said he was convinced that Islamist-led parties would come to dominate Tunisian politics. My expression must have betrayed me, because he continued: “Yes, everyone says that Tunisia is a secular state, but what they don’t understand is that underneath everything, we are Muslims. The power of Islam has been released.” I asked him a bellwether question: Do you believe women should be made to wear the hijab in public? He answered, “We are striving for a society in which women understand that they are expected to be modest.”
Would you compel them to wear the hijab, if you gained power? “There is no compulsion necessary,” he said. “In a just society, men and women would understand the roles they are supposed to play.”
Suddenly there was another commotion; a group of protesters had split off and seemed to be harassing a middle-aged man in a dark suit. “You are an enemy of Islam!” one of the protesters yelled, as the man scurried away. I did not know it yet, but this man was my next appointment. He was Abdelhamid Largueche, a well-known academic and proponent of secularism, as well as a member of the recently created Committee for the Protection of the Revolution, a body of 71 Tunisians meant to advise the government. When we met later at a nearby hotel, he said, “If those people take over this country, I’m finished.”
“Will they take over?” I asked.
“This is hard to imagine. There is a silent majority of Tunisians who don’t want these Islamists near them. Religion is a private affair here, more than most any other Arab nation,” he said. “Our revolution is an exceptional revolution. It calls for modernity. But as we know from history, they do not need the support of the majority to get their way.”
I asked Largueche whether he thought the demonstrators would get their way on the hijab. “Let us hope that this is not representative of the future,” he said.