A Ramadan TV series has been duping politicians and public figures into thinking they have a private line to ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The producers of the show “Allo Jeddah”, which has aired two episodes so far during this year’s holy month, invite guests to video conference with the former authoritarian ruler who is currently living in exile in Saudi Arabia.
Once the show begins, however, the guests encounter only a still image of Ben Ali and are told that the video connection has been lost. An audio-only phone call ensues, the guests apparently believing that they are speaking with the ex-president.
But in reality, the voice on the other end of the line belongs to comedian Wassim Herissi, also known as “Habib Migalo”. Impersonating Ben Ali, he complains about his situation, professes his dream to return one day to Tunisia and even weeps at one point. None of this seems to trigger the suspicion of the guests, which so far have included the politician Ibrahim Kassas and the journalist Hassan Ben Othman, who console the ex-president and advise him on orchestrating a return to his home country.
The show, which is directed by Khalfallah Khalsi and hosted by Makki Helal, has come under criticism on social media for “trivializing” the crimes of the Ben Ali regime and the sacrifices of those who struggled for the 2011 revolution. Some even view the show as playing on Tunisia’s current political and economic problems and promoting the idea that Ben Ali and his cronies are the country’s sole capable rulers.
But Helal told Mosaïque FM today that the show’s creators have no intention of glorifying the old regime but rather aim to test the sincerity of the country’s current politicians. He also stressed that the show in no way intends to mock the revolution or minimize its importance.
Herissi, Ben Ali’s impersonator, was previously sentenced to six months in prison for reportedly imitating President Béji Caïd Essebsi in a phone call to a businessman that his lawyers later said was part of a “journalistic investigation into a major corruption case.” Herissi was released without having served the full sentence.
The first episode of “Allo Jeddah” aired Monday, the first day of Ramadan, and hosted Kassas, a former-critic of Ben Ali who previously served as a deputy in the National Constituent Assembly. Apparently convinced that he was speaking with Ben Ali, Kassas thanked the former dictator and praised his reign saying that Tunisia had been doing well during that period and that ordinary citizens never had trouble finding food to eat.
Kassas also called on Ben Ali to return to Tunisia offering to provide support and protection; he added that he believes a large portion of the Tunisian people still love Ben Ali.
The second episode aired yesterday hosting Ben Othman, a novelist as well as a reporter for Attassia TV, the channel that produces “Allo Jeddah”. During the conversation, Ben Othman who was appointed head of a newspaper under the Ben Ali regime, professed that he believes the ex-president is innocent of any crimes.
His comments spurred critical reactions on social media to which Ben Othman has responded that he did not regret his comments. “Faced with all the shenanigans that we are seeing today, I consider Ben Ali an angel,” he is reported to have said.
Zeineb Marzouk is a journalist at Tunisia Live newsroom. She is currently pursuing a Master's degree in English language at the university of Human and social science of Tunis (FSHST). Zeineb speaks Arabic, English, French, and Italian.