North Africa, West Asia

Tunisia’s fight against its revolutionary youth

The threat of terrorism has been exploited to justify anti-democratic laws and an escalation of arrests and detentions, apparently more focused on silencing dissent than anything else.

Debora del Pistoia Lamia Ledrisi
7 January 2016

Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.The 5th anniversary of the beginning of the Tunisian Dignity Revolution falls around this time. It marks the wave of political and social unrest sparked in December 2010, which detonated a massive chain reaction across the Arab world. In a process of popular awakening, first in Tunisia and Egypt, then in Libya and Yemen, these uprisings against long-standing authoritarian regimes managed to bring about the resignation, flight, or death of their historical dictators.

All the Arab countries involved in the 2010-2011 protests have developed in distinct ways (just look at Syria), leading to different outcomes. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify a common framework shared by the protagonists of this momentous revolutionary movement. Unfortunately, this mostly concerns the political recovery process put in place by counter-revolutionary forces, through the escalation of internal conflicts and the backlash against invigorated Islamist movements. All this has led to a generalised feeling of disappointment and unfulfilled expectations, often associated with a social and political climate marked by state repression and intolerance.

In this article we want to talk about Tunisia and describe the great paradox it represents, by attempting to reconcile—at least on paper—two apparently incompatible aspects of Tunisian reality. Drawing on Ouejdane Mejri and Afef Hagi’s work, we have on the one hand the visible space, which is a postcard-like construction of Tunisia as exceptional; a successful democratic transition unique to the region, recently granted the Nobel Peace Prize. On the other hand, we have the lived space, the reality of everyday life. The revolutionary anniversary has been made bitter by the most severe post-revolution security crackdown, which threatens to overturn recent democratic gains—the implementation of which Tunisian society is still demanding, in a desperate attempt to save the revolution.

Tunisian youth speak of everyday abuses, negation of dignity, and loss of hope.

Once again, state repression and the increasing neglect experienced by Tunisian youth seeking change has fallen outside the international spotlight, which has instead focused on the celebratory image of a country able to carry out a democratic transition despite all obstacles (first the bogeyman of an Islamist government, and later the spreading phenomenon of terrorism). This is especially the case since the European Union became financially and politically invested in the democratisation process, alongside a more recent focus on security—now it cannot possibly be challenged as a flop.

However, many Tunisian youth speak of everyday abuses, negation of dignity, loss of hope, and an idea of citizenship reclaimed on the streets but yet to materialise. The oppression that the revolution generation is subjected to begins with serious regression in terms of civil rights and freedom. This appears to be revenge against those who took part in the revolution, especially after the 2014 arrests and prosecution of young Tunisians accused of having damaged property and police stations during the early 2011 protests.

Tunisia’s state of emergency and curfew, special measures (re)adopted after the latest terrorist attack on November 24, 2015—following attacks at the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March and at the touristic resort of Sousse in June—have produced a liberticidal current, legitimised in the name of security and the fight against terrorism. Dubbed the number one threat both domestically and internationally, the terrorist threat has been exploited to justify anti-democratic laws and an escalation of arrests and police operations, apparently more focused on silencing dissenting voices than anything else.

According to an Interior Ministry press release on 5 December, from the declaration of the state of emergency on November 24 until December 7 2015, 3000 raids were carried out, leading to 306 arrests and detentions. That makes an average of 200 raids and 20 arrests per day.

From January until the end of November 2015 there were 2934 terrorism-related arrests. According to a statement by Raoudha Grafi, the president of the Magistrates’ Association, 1697 terrorism-related investigations were started in 2015. These shocking numbers cast doubt on the validity of such accusations and raise concerns over the impunity with which the police forces act. In fact, the police have a carte blanche, enjoying exceptional powers thanks to the state of emergency—which was extended to February 21, 2016 by the president, a few days before it was expected to end on December 23, 2015.

The state of emergency, first decreed in 1978 by former president Habib Bourghiba following a trade union protest, allows authorities to suspend all demonstrations, publications, and public gatherings, and to conduct raids, vehicle seizures, and arrest anyone suspected of being a threat to public order.

These arbitrary powers are further enhanced thanks to the July 2015 anti-terrorism law, in which the definition of “terrorist crimes” leaves far too much room for interpretation. Moreover, the Tunisian parliament has reintroduced the death penalty for those found guilty of these crimes, alongside the immediate arrest of anyone who expresses support for the terrorist phenomenon. The authorities can detain suspects for up to 15 days, denying them legal support and due process.

Law 52: the quintessential excuse for repression

This is the context in which Adnen Meddeb and Amine Mabrouk, two young volunteers working for the Tunis film festival Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage, were arrested for violating the curfew (certainly not Tunisia’s first curfew, but among the most rigid).

This took place on November 28, 2015 just after 9pm. The curfew runs from 9pm to 5am and during this period any movement is forbidden in the area of Greater Tunis (the capital and its environs). Adnen and Amine were not granted any leniency by the police forces, despite showing their staff cards and explaining that the festival’s closing ceremony had just ended. In addition, the police charged them with possession and consumption of drugs, after searching their car and finding a pack of short rolling papers, used to roll tobacco cigarettes—and no trace of drugs.

On December 1, the Tunis court of first instance convicted the two young men to one year in prison and a fine of 1000 Dinars (around 500 Euros, much more than the Tunisian average monthly wage), based on their intention to consume narcotics and in the absence of any evidence proving their ‘guilt’.

Less than a week later, on December 8, the Nabeul court of first instance convicted another three promising young artists: Ala Eddine Slim (independent filmmaker and producer), Fakhri El Ghezal (photographer) and Atef Maatallah (painter). On November 19, the three young men had been in a private house in Nabeul, when fifteen heavily armed policemen stormed the house and arrested them on charges of drug possession.

Law 52 has caused the prison population to skyrocket, without deterring drug consumption.

The police initially justified the raid with the usual ‘terrorist threat’ excuse, accusing Ala, Fakhri and Atef of being suspected members of a jihadist cell. Finding no evidence to support this, the police shifted to charges of drug possession, despite again having no evidence. This is how three internationally acclaimed Tunisian artists were unjustly accused and imprisoned in their own country (here is the link to the petition to free them).

In line with regular police practice, the presumption of innocence was not respected. The young men were in custody for six days with no visitation rights or chance to consult with their lawyer, who was not informed of the charges against them nor given access to their files. After a month of obscure police efforts to collect evidence, the three detainees were finally released due to a procedural error.

Like Adnane and Amine, Alaa, Fakhri and Atef refused forced urine tests, defending their physical integrity and resisting this humiliating and arbitrary practice condemned by many civil rights lawyers and human rights organisations.

These cases are typical of the many young Tunisian victims—most of whom unfortunately do not receive the same media attention—accused of the zalta crime (‘hash’ in the Tunisian dialect), often without proof, under the infamous law 52.

This repressive law goes back to 1992 and was used during the Ben Ali regime to silence political opponents. Law 52 has caused the prison population to skyrocket, without deterring drug consumption. Instead, black market profits have increased (Tunisia is not a drug producer, but imports mainly from Morocco and Algeria), as has corruption linked to drug sales and to the clearing of drug charges.

Most importantly, this uncompromising law, which criminalises the consumption, possession and selling of narcotics (mainly cannabis) has allowed extensive police abuse, arbitrary arrests and torture. In addition, the law does not allow for any mitigation of penalties nor the possibility of suspended sentences, is left open to interpretation and often used to justify abusive police behaviour during arrest procedures, of which the law makes no mention. Today, around 8000 people are being detained and convicted under law 52 (in a country with a population of around 11 million). 

Alaa, Fakhri and Atef have been released due to media pressure in the capital and in their artistic circles, but the same cannot be said of the many young people who end up imprisoned around the country, in the poor interior regions far from the capital. These victims of the system are completely invisible and subject to self-censorship, given the social taboos related to drugs and terrorism.

For some time now, human rights organisations and social movements have extensively denounced law 52 as a government tool to enact social control and repress all forms of freedom of expression. They have demanded that the law be repealed or radically reformed.

After the empty promises of legal reform that marked the 2014 election campaigns, recent online and offline protests forced the authorities to schedule a debate on the law during the 30 December Council of Ministers. Without consultation, the ruling coalition has come up with an amendment to the law that observers such as lawyer Ghazi Mrabet consider weak and contradictory. For example, the new law criminalises the rejection of urine tests, making this punishable by up to one year in prison (the independent platform Nawaat has published the original version of the amended law here).

Blogger Azyz Ammani, himself imprisoned in 2014 and eventually released after refusing the forced urine test, describes this amendment as a “formalisation of repression”.


Demotix/Björn Kietzmann. All rights reserved.

Civil rights and freedoms at risk

A complete overview of what is happening in Tunisia must also denounce the plight of the LGTB community. In recent months there has been an increase in arrests of homosexuals, who are persecuted and prosecuted under law 230 of the penal code. This law makes sodomy punishable by three years in prison and continues to be arbitrarily applied despite being declared unconstitutional.

In September 2015, Tunisian and international civil society was outraged by the arrest of Marwan, a young man accused of engaging in homosexual relations. Brought by fraud to the police station, Marwan was forcefully subjected to anal testing to prove his ‘guilt’ and then sentenced to one year in prison.

The incident was promptly denounced by Human Rights Watch, which stated that the practice of forced anal tests is inhumane and degrading treatment. It infringes medical ethics and has been recognised as torture by the United Nations Commission against Torture as well as by other human rights conventions that Tunisia has ratified.

After public pressure, the young man was released and his sentence reduced to two months in prison, which he had already served; but he will have to live with the psychological damage and social stigma of the ordeal.

Another similar incident happened shortly after Marwan’s release. Some weeks ago in Kairouan, in the centre of the country, six students between 18 and 19 years old were arrested for ‘homosexual acts’ in the university residences. On 10 December all of them were sentenced to three years in prison. One of them received an additional sentence of six months for indecent exposure, because of videos retrieved from his computer. All of them were condemned to an additional five years of exile from the country, after serving their prison sentences.

DAMJ, the organisation in support of minorities, and Shams, which defends the rights of the Tunisian LGBT community, have denounced the harsh sentences. The Mwjoudin association for LGBT rights has announced that they will be intensifying their campaignOn existe, on est criminalisé’ (We exist, we are criminalised) against law 230. Reforming this law seems to be the least of the government’s priorities under emergency rule.

The Tunisian police have turned into a morality police. 

The paternalistic and moralising state instead authorises the violation of civil and human rights and of privacy, under law 230, which criminalises homosexuality; law 236, which criminalises adultery; and law 57-3, which criminalises cohabitation outside marriage.

The Tunisian police, which should have become a fully republican force after the revolution, seems instead to have turned into a morality police. This is happening with the complicity not only of the Interior Ministry, still waiting to enact promised structural reforms; but also the Ministry of Justice, responsible for the harsh and conservative application and interpretation of flawed existing laws, and the Ministry of Health, responsible for the infamous anal and virginity tests.

Freedom of movement has also come under attack in the name of fighting terrorism, making Tunisia look much like an open-air prison. The practice of restricting the issuing of passports, commonly used during the Ben Ali regime to limit mobility and enact social control, is back in full force.

The local branch of Human Rights Watch reported numerous cases of arbitrary restrictions on the freedom of movement after the attack at the Bardo Museum. Once again Tunisia’s youth was under attack. All those under 35 required parental authorisation to leave the country, and the already limited right of travel to terrorism-sensitive destinations further restricted.

Houssem Hamdi, an IT engineer with a passion for travelling and nature, was one of many victims of abuses of authority. After repeated police harassment for alleged connections with terrorism, he was prevented from travelling on the pretext that his constant trips abroad were suspicious, in the absence of any other evidence. After several days of media attention and public pressure, the Ministry of Interior apologised for the ‘administrative error’. 

Legitimising state repression

Another example of the recent resurgence of state repression involves Afraa, a 17-year-old girl who was arrested on December 16, 2015 for taking part in a peaceful protest against the demolishing of the ‘Bumakhlouf’ café, a historical monument and symbol of El Kef, a city in the north-west of the country. She is an activist with Manich Msamah (literally ‘I do not forgive’), a movement campaigning against the president’s proposed economic reconciliation bill, which, in the name of national unity, seeks amnesty for many financial crimes committed before the revolution.

Despite being a minor, Afraa spent one night in the police station, where she was subjected to abusive treatment and interrogations, and charged with insulting a public official. Her trial is set for December 31.

After her provisional release and the publication of a video interview on Nawaat, Afraa was subjected to an extensive smear campaign, in both the traditional as well as social media. The young activist was accused of spreading lies and of falsely accusing the police. Afraa had the courage to put herself in the spotlight by speaking up against police violence—something that is becoming increasingly rare.

How can we speak of democracy in a police state that represses its citizens’ rights and freedoms?

Shortly after her testimony, a policeman posted a video showing a few minutes of her interrogation, supposedly as evidence that she had suffered no mistreatment. Instead, it provided proof of the security forces’ serious violations, as well as the randomness of their actions.

Some journalists called Afraa a “dangerous threat” because they believe state institutions should not be criticised while engaged in the fight against terrorism. These journalists completely disregarded, however, Afraa’s illegal arrest, which was in total contravention of child protection laws.

This incident shows that the servile media is another indication of the counter-revolutionary phase Tunisia is experiencing and of the backlash against civil society, social movements and human rights. In a general state of fear and self-censorship, people are afraid to expose state violence, and the threat of terrorism and Islamism appears to have granted full impunity to police forces. This type of journalism is responsible for indirectly contributing to the preservation of the police state, by enforcing and justifying its arbitrary and repressive abuses against young people who are seeking real change.

It is important to remember that the decades of humiliation young people have faced is one of the causes of the emergence of terrorism. The extreme barbarity of terrorism in Tunisia is but a concentration of violence responding to another less visible, long-term structural violence.

When someone like Afraa dares to make that violence visible, she automatically faces ridicule and virulent personal attacks, in a backlash exacerbated by the prevalent sexism.

The epilogue of the counter-revolution 

The arrogance of the system and the climax of counter-revolutionary forces indicate that the Tunisian people’s five-year struggle for rights and freedoms has not yet produced the desired results. The current wave of repression seems like an attempt to extinguish the ideals and motives of the 2011 revolution, and to deny the struggle and sully the memory of the martyrs. The first was Mohammed Bouazizi, a street vendor who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 in the city of Sidi Bouzid in southern Tunisia, in protest against police abuses.


Demotix/Photo-TN. All rights reserved.The cases illustrated above are only a few striking and recent examples of repression in the same country granted the Nobel Peace Prize in early October 2015. The prize was awarded to the National Quartet (comprising the general workers’ trade union UGTT, the entrepreneurs’ trade union UTICA, the Bar Association, and the Tunisian League for Human Rights) for their contribution to the democracy-building process after the 2011 revolution.

But how can we speak of democracy in a police state that represses its citizens’ rights and freedoms? How can we hope for economic development and better living standards when the state keeps making irrational investments in defence and security?

In spite of the current state of emergency, the curfew and all the exceptional measures put in place by the government over the last dramatic year, the security situation in Tunisia is unfortunately full of holes. Facing the significant gaps in the country’s security and continued terrorist attacks with authoritarianism is not the answer. A return to the repressive measures of the old regime constitutes not only a defeat of the ideals of the 2011 revolution, but also a threat to the country’s development and democratic transition.

The reinstatement of old methods of repression, which was used systematically and extensively by the old regime but within a political framework that is now absent, and the exploitation of fear by the police, are alarming developments.

The campaign against Tunisian youth is driven by generalised suspicion. This is why blogger Azyz Ammami provocatively urges Tunisians to “directly go to prison out of our own free will. This way, at least, we can stop worrying whether we or not we will be unfairly arrested”. This systematic campaign that considers everyone a suspect is suffocating Tunisian youth, and demands an urgent reappraisal of the democratic process, which is currently trapped in mechanisms of social and generational oppression reminiscent of conditions before the revolution.

This is why it is vital to keep an eye on and expose the abuses of the authorities, so they can finally enact the promised democratic reforms. The much-celebrated new constitution is meaningless without a system of checks and balances to protect the rule of law.

The above experiences of unjustly incarcerated youth also demonstrate how political alternatives are being constructed in grassroots community movements rather than traditional civil society organisations, which despite their Nobel Peace Prize have grown dangerously distant from needs of youth and are increasingly trapped in the international funding system. For this reason, they are often accused of trying to normalise the counter-revolutionary process.

The revolution failed to mend vast social, regional and generational rifts; instead they have significantly worsened in recent years. Addressing them is a priority and is the only way to fight the impact of physical barriers and unequal access to state services, to employment, to security and most importantly to human rights.

First published in Italian on Osservatorio Iraq, Medioriente e Nordafrica. Translated by Oana Parvan.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

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