Tunisia. Habib Bourguiba Avenue, Tunis – a street that once bustled with hopeful revolutionaries chanting slogans of freedom and liberty in front of the Ministry of Interior – is now a bleak and empty bastion of the same ministry that has reverted back to the ways of the old Regime. The street is filled with police barricades, armored vehicles and lots of policemen in uniform and undercover. This show of force sends a clear message, the regime is here to stay.
Originally published by The Khalifa Ihler Institute. Written by Hella Grichi. Images by Emna Fetni.
The revolution on January 14th, 2011 marked the beginning of a decade of hope, a feeling that would ultimately decline due to economic failures, corruption, an imminent return to the police state and high levels of disillusionment with the political class. This period saw the gap between poor and rich widen, and surprisingly the decline of middle-class citizens’ purchasing power to dangerously low levels. To add insult to injury comes COVID-19, which has dealt a poorly-timed blow to an already aching economy. The result is what we have witnessed during the past weeks: protests, upheaval, and clashes.
After an initially successful lockdown in spring 2020, the pandemic still caught up in Tunisia and is now running rampant. The Tunisian government announced a lockdown of only four days from January 14th until the 17th of 2021– a move that many consider as a way to stifle the screams of a country at the verge of economic ruin and ever-climbing unemployment numbers – especially among youth (35,7% Source: Tunisian National Institute of Statistics). January 14th 2021 marked the 10th anniversary of the revolution and peaceful demonstrations were expected. By hindering people from this, the government has poured oil into a fire that was already alight and wringing to be set free.
One would think that during times like this, the Tunisian government would inspire hope in its people by letting them express their right to peacefully demonstrate, buying vaccine doses and using the public Coronavirus fund (that everyone had to donate to by deducting a day’s salary from every employee and setting up an emergency hotline) to purchase hospital beds which it is running out of. The French logistics company Marseille Manutention, gleefully boasted about how proud it is to deliver 60 police trucks to Tunisia, 26 of which will be on their way soon and how beautiful the pictures of them are on their terminal.Will this company also share the pictures of the practical use of their vehicles in the repression, illegal detainment and suffering of Tunisians who call for better living conditions and social justice?Across Tunisia people are being detained, beaten and in some cases losing their lives due to police-inflicted injuries, like the young Heykel El Rachdi from Sbeitla who recently passed away as a result of the injuries sustained after being hit by a tear gas canister at a peaceful demonstration.
The mainstream media speak of rioters and criminals, nightly infiltrators and rowdy teenagers, yet continue to hound those who leave during the day to protest peacefully. Police unions use social media to harass protesters by sharing their images and mocking the very people they are sworn to protect by making fun of their appearances and calling them slurs – especially women and people whose looks challenge the status quo. Even the journalists’ union released a press statement criticizing the unprofessional and shallow approach of the media that is ignoring the deeply rooted reasons of the uprisings and is only focused on scapegoating and protecting the status quo.
One of the outlets that has been determined to provide investigative journalism is Meshkal. The name, kaleidoscope in Arabic, reflects their colourful journalism that explores the myriad facets of the topics which it treats. One of their journalists, Ghaya Ben Mbarek, participated in the protest wearing her press badge. While trying to film, the police used one of their common tactics: asking her to either delete the footage or menacing to take the phone out of her hands, effectively “confiscating” it. Ghaya posted a video on her Twitter where policemen in plain clothes detained peaceful protesters and forced them into a police van. “About ten of them cornered us and tried to see and make me delete this video, after trying to snatch my phone at first.” she tweeted. Interesting that the police unions wanted to push a legislation through parliament in October 2020 to grant themselves immunity and require citizens to have a special permission to film them during their duty. Fortunately, Tunisians took to the streets to protest that abomination and the vote on it was subsequently postponed – just like it was done in 2015 for the same legislation.
Mohamed, (name changed), is a protester who comes from a rather poor neighborhood in Tunisia. Like many others, he feels disappointed.“As a Tunisian who took a breath of freedom after growing up in fear of the dictatorship of the previous regime, I feel the fear rising again in me and among my peers. A fear of going back to the old practices of a corrupt system we believed took its last breath.”
Mohamed’s fears come from the fact that law enforcement has started to knock at the doors of those it is mandated to protect, kidnapping them from their homes over a social media status like what happened recently to Ahmed Ghram, a young adult who merely expressed his opinions on a social platform. He was jailed and his phone and computer were taken. His first hearing is on January 28th.
“Now as I walk around after a protest or after posting something on social media , my anxiety skyrockets because of fear of getting kidnapped by the police, and I say kidnapped , because they are criminals, and not even worthy of being called law enforcers because there is nothing they do that has to do with the law,” Mohamed says, “they are criminals that serve the higher-ups: politicians and the rich. They treat freedom seekers like cockroaches and whenever they spot one, they face them with indescribable methods of violence.”
The dream we once had is turning into a nightmare. Uprisings: check. Revolution: check. Free and fair elections: check. A functioning civil society: check. What does it take to not end up in a dead end? Will another revolution be necessary to uproot irreversibly corrupt elements? Or can the Tunisian people prevail and reform the country despite the challenges? These are not simply rhetorical questions; for most Tunisians, it is a question that accompanies them daily, constantly.
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