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'We Cut The Head,' But 'The Animal Is Still Alive,' Tunisian Activist Says

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'We Cut The Head,' But 'The Animal Is Still Alive,' Tunisian Activist Says


'We Cut The Head,' But 'The Animal Is Still Alive,' Tunisian Activist Says

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Our co-host Robert Siegel is in Tunisia this week. Three months after events there triggered popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, Robert is in Tunis to try to learn what follows a revolution as a country tries to find its way. Does it move toward democracy? And if so, how easily?

In his report today, he finds that for former dissidents, the path to full freedom takes many small steps.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT SIEGEL: Sihem Bensedrine was a longtime opponent of the Ben Ali regime. She runs an independent radio station called Kalima - the word. It used to broadcast from Europe by satellite and over the Internet.

(Soundbite of radio show, "Kalima")

Unidentified Woman #1: (Speaking foreign language)

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: For the past few years, Kalima has been broadcasting from Tunis by Internet. Bensedrine wants a license to be on FM. She says that with its independent programming, radio Kalima faced repression from Ben Ali's secret police, which she compares to the Stasi, the vast security apparatus of communist East Germany.

Ms. SIHEM BENSEDRINE (Activist, Kalima Radio Station): They raided our studio. They confiscated all our equipment. They beat and arrested our journalists. And they started proceedings - judicial proceedings against me for using frequencies without license and it was not true because we didn't use frequencies. We just started streaming on satellite from Italy. It's not from Tunis.

SIEGEL: In January, Kalima reporters covered the protests that toppled the dictator the station had long opposed.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking foreign language)

SIEGEL: Sihem Bensedrine is also the spokesperson of Tunisia's National Council for Liberties, which is agitating for reform of the police and the courts. Their office is a sparse apartment in an old building in the center of Tunis on Liberty Avenue. She is an elfin woman of 61 and she knows the abuses of liberty firsthand.

Ms. BENSEDRINE: I was jailed in 2001, but for a short period, Ben Ali's regime close to the Stasi model, not the other brutal models in other dictatorship. They never put you in jail, but they make your life like you are in jail, but you cannot say I am in jail. They surround you by policemen every day, every day. My life with police started in 1991 and it finished in 14th of January, 2011.

And I have always, always at least five or 15 policemen in plainclothes always with me, preventing me to do things I need to do or preventing people to visit me.

SIEGEL: From 1991?

Ms. BENSEDRINE: Yes. Always, always, always.

SIEGEL: So, since January 14th of 2011, the world has been watching Egypt and Libya and Yemen and Bahrain. And the question is, back here in Tunisia where it began, are you on the road to a democracy and to liberties now?

Ms. BENSEDRINE: Yes, we are. But it's very, very difficult. It's a big challenge and the party is not one. We cut the head, but the body of the animal is still alive.

SIEGEL: That animal meaning the old regime.

Ms. BENSEDRINE: Yes. Yes. And they are still powerful in lot, lot of administration, economy, police, judiciary. They are everywhere, you know. It's a dictatorship and they run the county by police first and by judiciary second because they punish you by the judiciary, but they also punish you by the police.

And this apparatus, mainly in the police is still there. Even if some of them, some symbol of the regime, not now inside this minister of interior, but their children are there, people they train to do the job are still there.

SIEGEL: Bensedrine says her movement wants to see the police archives made public. She says some records are being burned to prevent that. I asked her where in Tunisia they'll find lawyers and judges who are capable and who are unsoiled by a dictatorship that was in power for so long. She was philosophical.

Ms. BENSEDRINE: You know, we are not in a hurry. We understand that we can't change everything in one day. It's normal. But what we want is to put the machine on the right way. If we start doing some things on the right way, we are happy. We are not asking for changing everything on one day.

SIEGEL: Tunisian human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine. I'm Robert Siegel in Tunis.

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