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Facts and Perceptions in Tunisia: Offering Legitimate Technical Assistance (But Not to Put Down a Revolution!)

France's Foreign Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, put her post-colonial foot in it when she proposed before the National Assembly on January 12 that France could offer its know-how to the Tunisian police in order to cope with the country's fraught security situation.

To be fair, the seasoned cabinet member, who was formerly France's Interior Minister, made her remarks before the "Jasmine Revolution" reached its paroxysm, on 14 January, when the dictator Ben Ali, more helpless and more hastily than the Shah, fled Tunisia in an airplane, which found a circuitous route to... Saudi Arabia.

What the French minister said, which caused one opposition figure to call for her resignation, was that, "The know-how of our security forces, which is recognized by the entire world, makes possible the handling of security situations of this type. This is the reason for which we in effect propose to the two countries [Algeria and Tunisia] to enable them, in the framework of our cooperation, to act in order that the right to demonstrate can take place at the same time that security is assured." [Note: This is the author's personal translation from French]

What Mme. Alliot-Marie was presumably reacting to was the appalling use of live fire by the Tunisian police and security services, which resulted in dozens of deaths and which Ben Ali, in one of a series of desperate concessions on TV, promised to end.

There is a back story here, which the French minister referred to only obliquely, in the phrase, "in the framework of our cooperation." The fact is that the French have been in bed with Ben Ali for a long time. So has the United States. Ben Ali was seen as a bulwark against the spread of Islamism in a society that has a history of being more liberal ideologically and politically than the rest of the Arab world. Ben Ali had a sort of compact with the Tunisian population: he would provide them education and prosperity, but they would not have political expression. What Ben Ali created was an oppressive police state, accompanied by a pervasive and money-grubbing nepotism that had become a target of popular wrath. Ben Ali's family, and especially the family of his second wife, the former hairdresser Leila Trabelsi, constituted a "quasi-mafia," in the phrase of a cable from the American Embassy in Tunis, published by WikiLeaks.

In the early days of the revolt, touched off by the self-immolation of a young Tunisian graduate forced to become a street-seller, only to have his wares confiscated by the police, the French Government was conspicuous by its paucity of comment. The other supporter of Ben Ali, the United States, was quicker to react in favor of the protesters.

So much for perception. There was also a factual basis for what the French Minister said, in particular the phrase, "to act in order that the right to demonstrate can take place at the same time that security is assured." In the matter of protecting the lives of its own citizens, France, a country that tolerates demonstrations as part of its revolutionary ethos, seems to have found the way to manage these two opposites. In the great demonstrations of May 1968, followed by those of 1986, 1995, and 2010, one astonishing fact emerges: hardly anyone was killed.

Charles Cogan was the chief of the Near East-South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from August 1979 to August 1984. The Division's area extended from Morocco to Bangla Desh. He is now a historian and an associate of the Belfer Center's International Security Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School.