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.

"My son," he said, and smiled. "My first."

He followed me the next day, and after that I didn't see him again. That week Ben Ali was elected to his fifth term, claiming yet another incredible landslide. In January of last year I returned to Tunis as protests against him accelerated. I arranged to interview an opposition activist but couldn't find his party's office, so I called him for directions.

"I'll come outside and meet you," he said.

"No, just tell me how to get there." The police were known to tap phones; the street wasn't safe.

"Don't worry, I'll meet you outside the national conservatory."

I should have insisted. I reached the conservatory and waited. A moment later, I saw the activist shouting as he was dragged off between two large men.

A week later, as he balanced a cigarette between his fine fingers, he told me that the police had handcuffed him to his bed and twice brought him to the interior ministry. Twice he refused the ministry's offer to turn paid informant. The first time, ministry agents stripped, slapped and photographed him; the second time, they tied him up and beat him. He spent a night there, listening to screams. After a week he was released.

By then Ben Ali's power was crumbling. The activist and I heard chanting outside his party's office, where protesters were gathering in the streets.

"What's that?" I said.

"The revolution."

He went out, and after a moment so did I. A few minutes' walk away, thousands of people were massing outside the interior ministry, demanding Ben Ali's departure. That evening, the man who had ruled Tunisia since 1987 fled to Saudi Arabia.

Tunisia is another country now. People no longer fear to talk, clean elections have been held, and a new constitution is being written. Last year, interim authorities announced that Ben Ali's secret police apparatus had been disbanded.

It's unclear what has become of the agents. Some have probably moved on to new jobs within the security services. I discovered "my" agent, now in a sleek suit, helping watch the doors at a gathering of foreign ministers.

"Excuse me, isn't it --," I began, and as he stopped to face me I said his name.

He froze, expressionless, as before. "No," he said quickly.

"Do you remember me? My name's John. I'm a journalist. I was here about two years ago. Didn't you work for security then?"


"Oh," I said. Then I didn't know what else to say, so I mumbled, "Excuse me, excuse me," and went away feeling sad and foolish and a bit guilty.

I couldn't tell whether he had recognized me. It was enough that I had recognized him. To have served Ben Ali is a great dishonor in Tunisia. It makes people despise you. It may even make some of them think about revenge.

I can only imagine that he was ashamed of something from his past, and maybe scared of it. He had spied on me. That much I knew. What else had he done?

Tunisia is free now, but I don't know if he feels it.