In his usual exaggerated and infectious style, Tunisia’s Taoufik Ben Brik delivers a scoop: Tunisia’s new Islamist regime has enthusiastically taken over the Ben Ali regime’s most characteristic method of political control: spying and blackmail of political enemies and allies via the infamous DCRG. An agency now completely loyal to Rached Ghannouchi, the president of the ruling party; the man with no official title who after years of torture, imprisonment and exile, now pulls the strings in Tunis.
Ghannouchi partisan Mehrez Zouari has laid his hands on Ben Ali Baba’s treasure, his Pandora’s box: the Direction Centrale des Renseignements Generaux [the General Intelligence Agency], the jewel of Ben Ali’s intelligence regime. No other department of the former has had such a smooth ride into Rached Ghannouchi’s new Tunisia.
“It is simple: the Nahdaouis have salvaged the black box of Ben Ali’s regime”, says a senior official recently sidelined from the Interior Ministry. “It has already been formatted and programmed to serve Ghannouchi. It contains all the previous plots, the surveillance schemes, the telephone tapping records, the denunciations, the names of the snitches. It has files about public officials, doctors, lawyers, artists, homosexuals, prostitutes. They’re keeping everything warmed up, ready to be spilled at the right moment (the next elections?) to stain the reputation of would-be candidates. It is going to be hot! Ghannouchi has a real talent for blackmailing and conspiracy.”
Another, even more anonymous source, a Special Services agent, faceless and nameless, really cuts loose:
“A month ago, they gave me a file on B.C.S., a bigwig from the Nida Tounes party who is an ally of Ennahda: 120 archives boxes, 3,224 books, 5,240 hours of telephone recordings, 77 video tapes and a mountain of reports written by neighbors, cousins, the grocer, the coffee shop waiter, the newspaper vendor, the shoe-shiner, the house maid, the guard from the neighboring building, the gardener, a taxi driver, and a prostitute who remembered having infected him, a long time ago, with an STD. I know everything about this man: his toothbrush brand, the day he got circumcised, his favorite meals, the days he partied, how many shoes he owns, his circle of friends, his medical records and the cavities in his teeth, his school records, his gas and water bills, the carbon copies from his checkbooks, his travel itineraries and his genealogical tree which goes all the way back to an Albanian corsair who liked to fuck and loved beautiful fabrics. I have 700 pictures of his concubines, his ten siblings, his eighty cousins and even the Dalmatians he raised.”
The DCRG sits on the high floors of the Dakhiliya, the sinister Ministry of the Interior. The Ministry takes up more than 7 acres along Habib Bourgiba Avenue, containing seventeen kilometers of corridors, thousands of offices and cells. The offices where the real intelligence work is done – cross checking facts, treatment of information, editing – are spread out in three buildings, one on Houcine Bouzaiene Street, another on Eighteenth of January Street and the last one near Tunis’s El Jallaz cemetery.
And it is there, on the fifth floor of a nameless building, where the Mukhabarat [secret police]are based. This is the most feared department, the keystone of Zaba’s [Ben Ali’s nickname] intelligence power, which is now squatted in by Zabala [Ghannouchi’s nickname, literally “Garbage” in Arabic].
No one escapes its gaze, not even the bosses of the Interior Ministry, or our omnipotent viziers. Its power is immense. Its sphere of influence has no boundaries: surveillance of opinion-makers, of the communists, of the cowardly and the craven, and of course–back in the day at least–surveillance of the bearded guys.
This department is accountable to nothing and no one but the presidential palace. Today it sells its garbage to Ghannouchi. Every day the Mukhabarat assembles a press digest, a glimpse at what is happening around the country, on what is cooking out there. The Caliph gets the real stories behind riots and strikes, what is being said in the universities and in meetings, gossip from cafes, bars, clubs, and all the hangouts of the malcontents and misbelievers.
One rather significant piece of information has Ghannouchi transfixed: “Tunisians hate Ennahda more than Ben Ali. There is an absolute rejection of the Nahdawi regime!”
The core of the Mukhabarat is the “Information Sciences Bureau”. The Bureau is a creative department: its staff specializes in inventing jokes that mock Ghannouchi’s adversaries, in fabricating pornographic photo albums and videos that build or ruin reputations, in ghostwriting the editorials that we read in our gutter-dailies, and in forging all kinds of documents.
Here, storytellers and fabulists invent imaginary and entertaining stories. Rising prices, tax increases, massive layoffs? A little diversion to distract attention. Anger on the street? Raise false hopes of something new: whispers of a new coalition or of changes in the cabinet. Rising street protests? Do something to make it seem hopeless. The Bureau carries out dirty tricks, encourages betrayals, orders and arranges the political scene, spreads dissent and feeds factional strife.
“When there is a feeling inside Ennahda that they can’t take the street pressure anymore and that they’re up to their necks in shit”, says Meriem Azouz, president of the Tunisie Solidaire pressure group, “they wave the black banner and send out the Salafis, under the pretext that Islam is in danger.”
Behind the secretive facade, there is one enormous fact: the Tunisian regime remains an Intelligence Regime. It bans speech: articulating certain words is, henceforth, against the law, the law of Zabala.
“What is an intelligence-based regime?” asks Ridha Raddaoui, a lawyer who specializes in police violence. “The police and the army are solid masses, they advance like hurricanes. They break up riots, put towns under siege, assassinate men, annihilate and destroy en masse. They are blind machines that march in lockstep, without worrying about the lands they burn. Their monopoly of violence destroys like a natural catastrophe.
“On the other hand, an intelligence regime is sly. It tricks, it dribbles, it insinuates. It clings onto minds and bodies. It governs through self-surveillance and self-denunciation, through spinelessness, dirty tricks and shams.”
Every day, the Mukhabarat improves its efficiency, distilling its venom in small doses: the poisoning is such a slow process that even the few eccentrics who think they can stand up to it are taken off guard. The moukhabarat is the board of directors of conspiracy, the information it disseminates apparently authentic, deceptively true.
“All those who are against Ennahda are against God!”, Ghannouchi proclaims. At this game, he wins every round. This is the lordly caste speaking, those who monopolize and distribute privileges and honors.
Their gurus are taught on the job; how to tail, to recruit an informant, to spread false rumors, draft summary reports, watch and warn about protests, collect flyers, obtain and verify information, divert the mail, bug apartments, break into houses, and speak the language of the opposition.
They study this little terrarium like scientists observing flies.
To keep snitch-omania operating, to prevent it from becoming an obsolete tool in the intelligence agency’s bag, the Moukhabarat recruits as many informants as possibly imaginable. This is not so much for the sake of collecting information but for the pleasure of the activity: to see men who thought they were armored in their moral rectitude fall with no real difficulty into the mire of snitching.
The wait, the interrogation in the offices of the DCRG, the sidelong looks, explain the ease with which they obtain their results. Compromise them in order to add them to the cast of the El Haoula, the nameless, the shadow less. Dirty them a little, unburden them of their dignity: now they can’t look you in the eyes anymore.
Now they’ll sell their own shadow for a penny, for nothing, for just the promise that nothing will happen to them if they pull their pants down. They’ve been transmuted into benevolent traitors. Shame overwhelms them and transform them into zombies, into mice. They can’t look themselves up in the mirror anymore, they can’t stand upright. Their wives cuckold them and their children humiliate them.
This is what El Haoula thinks to himself when he runs into a friend, a neighbor, a relative: “Shut up when you talk. When you talk to me, you push me down into indignity. Don’t force me to betray you, sell you and dirty myself.”
It seems like they have everybody on the radar, that nobody is safe. The Agency has taken over the city. Every morning, it puts the world in order and stays the course. This is the Pax Zaballana [Pax Garbageanna].
Taoufik Ben Brik
26 Feb 2013