When I first moved to Tunisia in 2010, the country was under the heel of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. However, just three months after my arrival, the Arab Spring was triggered in a truly unforeseen manner, by the self-immolation of a poor street trader called Mohamed Bouazizi, outraged at the brutal and off-hand way he’d been treated by Ben Ali’s police. There ensued a month of chain-reaction protests that climaxed with Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and a squad of her family members fleeing the country for Saudi Arabia.
Ben Ali seemed to be everywhere during my first few months in Tunisia – his last few months in Tunisia, as it turned out. From roadside and street-side billboards and from framed portraits on the walls of public offices and private businesses, his visage beamed down at me. He was supposedly long in the tooth by then and many Tunisians whispered that, physically, he was ailing badly and was kept near-comatose on medication administered by his wife. (This situation suited the Lady Macbeth-like Leila Trabelsi nicely. She was reckoned to be the one calling the shots anyway – and most of those shots seemed to involve money being siphoned out of the Tunisian economy and into the pockets of her mafia-like relatives.) What made those ubiquitous portraits of Ben Ali grotesque were the efforts that’d obviously been made to keep the old fellow young-looking. His hair seemed to have been pickled in Grecian 2000 and his features were caked in make-up.
He put me in mind of a certain movie-star, though probably not the movie-star that his hair stylists and make-up artists had been hoping for. I took one look at him and thought of Bela Lugosi, playing the title role in the 1930 Universal Studios production of Dracula. Which I suppose for the long-suffering Tunisians was appropriate, considering what a bunch of bloodsuckers he and his in-laws were.
Anyway, I’ve just spent a month in Algeria, where I felt a strange sense of déjà-vu harking back to those early days in Tunisia. An election was coming up (and was held two days ago, on Thursday, April 17th), and the current incumbent in the presidency, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was running for an unprecedented fourth term – he was only supposed to stay in office for two terms but in 2008 he changed the constitutional rules to prolong his presidential tenure. I heard familiar-sounding mutterings about corruption, ruling cliques and rigged election-results. The fact that the 77-year-old Bouteflika was wheelchair-bound following a recent stroke did not inspire faith in the country’s political future, either.
That said, I’d be surprised if the Arab Spring, which claimed Ben Ali as its original victim, made a belated appearance in Algeria. During the 1990s the country witnessed a civil war between Islamist militants and the army that left 100,000 people dead. Seeing the potential arise for a similar, devastating militants-versus-military conflict in Egypt, the biggest and powerful country to have experienced the Arab Spring, must seem to Algerians like a reminder of a hideous nightmare.
And yes, it felt like Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s face was everywhere in Algiers too. And again, whenever I saw his ravaged features on billboards and in framed pictures, I found myself thinking of another actor in a well-known drama about vampires. This time, this particular North African Arab leader made me think of the elderly James Mason, playing the villainous Mr Straker in the 1979 TV-miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling vampire novel, Salem’s Lot. Here are pictures of the two old fellows – can you tell which one is Abdelaziz and which one is James, aka Mr Straker?
However, at this point, experts on Stephen King’s fiction will no doubt interject and point out that in Salem’s Lot Mr Straker was not actually a vampire. He was the evil human familiar of the even-more-evil vampire mastermind Mr Barlow, who eventually vampirised the whole population of the town of the title. In the TV miniseries, Mr Barlow was depicted as a sinister, skeletal-faced, bald-headed creature and was played by the strikingly-featured character actor Reggie Nalder.
Actually, Mr Barlow in Salem’s-Lot-the-TV-show reminded me of a politician too, though not a North African Arab one. I always thought he was a dead ringer for the sinister, skeletal-faced and bald-headed Norman Tebbit, who was Margaret Thatcher’s take-no-prisoners Secretary of State for Employment and who once, notoriously, instructed the United Kingdom’s unemployed to get on their bicycles and to keep pedalling until they found work.