The first of the Arab Spring nations, Tunisia gained previously unknown international attention for the decisive series of events that saw its head of state, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, flee to Saudi Arabia, and a democratically elected constitutional assembly set up to oversee the state’s interim government.
However the suspected murders of two secularist, opposition politicians, Lotfi Naguedh and Chokri Belaid, in October 2012 and February 2013 respectively, have provoked fear that Tunisia’s apparently peaceful democratic transition is about to fracture and that civil conflict would ensue. Rumours abounded that Belaid’s was a political assassination, carried out at the behest of Tunisia’s leading Islamist party, Ennahda (Renaissance Party).
Reacting to Belaid’s murder, mainstream Tunisian media coverage, often echoed by the international media, has accused a group called the Leagues for the Protection the Revolution. These reports have referred to the Leagues variously as “vigilantes”, “Islamists” and “militants”. At best, they are described as neighbourhood protection groups claiming to fight corruption and old-regime remnants, and at worst as a militia of “Islamist thugs”, “implicated in attacks on secular opposition groups”. All reports refer to the Leagues as “a grouping close to the ruling coalition”.
But who makes up the Leagues’ membership? What are its aims and what means does it employ to achieve these aims? Of course the investigations into Belaid’s death need to be carried out in a timely and transparent manner, and those found guilty (whether from within the Leagues or outside them) need to be brought to justice. Meanwhile we may ask, do ‘the Leagues’ themselves merit the aura of criminality that have been attached to them?
In contrast to the media insinuations of a shadowy criminal militia, the Leagues’ leadership operates in public view, ready to speak out about its experiences. The Leagues are a complex organisation. Spontaneously organised to keep the peace during the security vacuum of the January revolution in 2011, and led by what one member describes as “field leaders of the revolution”, these groups appeared across Tunisia to orchestrate protection of their home neighbourhoods. The immediate need to protect their local area from vandalism and looting required diligent organisation. In the area of Kabaria, Tunis, for example, men wore white T-shirts to identify themselves as locally known and trusted. In the weeks and months following the revolution, these groups of men and women then formalised into local councils “for the protection of the goals of the revolution”. The executives of these local councils across the regions of Tunisia began to discuss their national role, and decided to form a national league. The National League for the Protection of the Revolution was granted legal status in June 2012.
Remarkably, the goals of the National League are almost identical to those found in the official transitional justice programme: recognition for those injured or killed during the revolution; the transparency of media; independence of the judiciary; social justice for individuals and regions; and reparations for victims of torture. They also stress the criminal accountability of fouloul (former regime figures).
But the current president of the Leagues’ national council, Mounir Ajroud, and Mostapha Tahari, the president of the Tunis regional office, told us that the troika (governing coalition) has been weak in its efforts to realise revolutionary demands for justice. At the national level, the Leagues operate as a revolutionary body that aims to enact justice by direct lobbying, protest, debate, and action.
Despite the assumption that the Leagues are composed of Ennahda lackeys, they claim among their members many who are independent from party affiliations. Indeed the current president has a background not in Ennahda Islamism but in the federal labour union (UGTT), having been Secretary-General of the Franco-Tunisian Bank for 12 years.
Civil society in Tunisia is embroiled in the struggle for political power now raging in the transitional period, and civil society organisations have often appeared forced to choose between either French laïcité-inspired secularism or Ennahda-loyal Islamism. Before the October 2011 elections, members from secular left-wing parties (Popular Front) were a strong presence in the Leagues, especially followers of the Workers’ Party leader, Hamma Hammami. In the eyes of Ajroud and Tahari however the elections of October 2011 were a divisive breaking point. Tahari claims that Hamma Hammami himself was a supporter of the Leagues before October 2011 but that the electoral losses of the Left have caused them “not only to stop supporting us but to turn on us”. Ajroud and Tahari claim that Leftist members of the Leagues depended on the orders given by their leadership, and accordingly left in droves after the October 2011 elections. They claim the Leagues are being framed, and that Belaid’s assassination was an attempt to de-stabilise the transition, and to topple Ennahda despite its legitimate election victory.
The media treatments of the Leagues are not sensitive to such pluralism within the Leagues, and describe them, not simply as “Islamists”, but as Ennahda-backed Islamist criminals. Ongoing security concerns also mean that the label “Islamist” can be used to suggest a criminal, “terrorist” agenda, despite the gulf between Ennahda Islamism and the recent terrorist incidents in the Chaambi mountains.
Despite their large social base, the Leagues have been barred from the official forum in which justice issues are being discussed: the National Council on Democratic Transition. Though it now includes troika members, the National Dialogue is ideologically aligned to a secular Liberal-Left coalition of forces that includes mainstream Tunisian media, the national labour union (UGTT), the coalition of left-wing parties (Popular Front), and the old standard-bearers of Tunisian civil society like the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LDTH). This Liberal-Left coalition, marginalised by Ennahda’s election victory, was quick to style the Leagues as the violent right-hand of Ennahda.
Ajroud and Tahari believe that the National Dialogue, because it is hosted by the leadership of the (secular) national labour union (UGTT), is unfairly influenced and distracts attention from the threat of “counter-revolution”. If the Tunisian media accuse the Leagues of being a militia, the Leagues for their part believe that they are being framed by a counter-revolutionary coalition of forces that are prepared to stop at nothing to prevent Ennahda rule. The UGTT leadership, the old standard-bearers in Tunisian media, the Leftist Popular Front, and remaining old-regime networks have a “shared interest” in preventing Islamist government, by any means necessary.
In any case, Tahari and Ajourd claim that their approach demands a more substantial transitional justice process than the official state-led programme is currently providing. The Leagues’ own programme includes lobbying government officials as well as holding public meetings at their regional offices to discuss employment and health provision, among other issues. Government officials often accept invitations to attend these meetings and listen to public grievances because, as Tahari says, “these [troika] parties believe we are acting in the interests of the country”. The Leagues have even participated in discussions within the Constitutional Assembly.
Perhaps emblematic of the Leagues’ daily work at a local level is the Kabaria office of the Leagues, located in a deprived area of Tunis. Headed by president Mohamed Werghemi, the Kabaria League office operates as a kind of citizens’ advice bureau, with local people flowing in and out with queries regarding access to social services and requests for legal advice. The Kabaria League also seeks to redress the extreme deprivation of the area and its most disadvantaged residents, whom Werghemi describes as “les miserables of Kabaria”. Khaled Lazaar, the Vice-President of the League, describes it not only as a programme of social outreach but as “a bridge between people and local government”.
Supportive of the political goals of the Leagues at a national level, the Kabaria League also works on local cases of corruption within the municipality. During the security vacuum, police stations and municipal buildings were deserted, giving ample opportunity for people to collect files about former regime members.
Werghemi and Lazaar are both former political prisoners who were imprisoned during Ben Ali’s most damaging period of repression against those deemed to be Islamists. However they are both at pains to stress their own independence from all party political interests. Lazaar claims that politics for him is “the art of forging human relationships”.
The National Dialogue is currently at an impasse regarding the Leagues. Despite the many groups of the Liberal-Left coalition calling for the dissolution of the Leagues, deemed part of an “Islamist threat”, the government troika is refusing to disband what is in fact a legally mandated organisation.
With the Leagues’ ability to mobilise disaffected Tunisians in great numbers also comes a responsibility to protect people against outbreaks of violence and against infiltration by criminal elements. But this does not justify the outright vilification the Leagues have received thus far.
For further information about the wider research this article is based on, please click here.
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