North Africa, West Asia: Feature

Tunisia’s new uprising: a return of the police state?

A decade on from the country's revolution, protesters are once again taking to the streets in Tunisia.

Asma Abidi
29 January 2021
Protesters in Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the capital Tunis on 19 January 2021
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Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved

Ten years after the revolution that sparked the Arab Spring, Tunisia, often hailed as its only success story, has yet to deliver the promised freedom, jobs and prosperity to its people.

Civil unrest erupted on 14 January 2021 across the country when the authorities announced a four-day strict lockdown, ordered by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, supposedly to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Yet many protesters branded it a ‘political lockdown’ because it coincided with the ten-year anniversary of the revolution. They saw it as a tactic to protect the government from mass protests after it failed to manage the ongoing crisis.

Further protests took place the next day after a video, seemingly of a police officer assaulting a shepherd in the Siliana region in north-western Tunisia, circulated online. Two weeks on, protests are continuing to rage across the country, day and night.

Angry protesters are demanding employment, dignity and the release of detainees. They have burned tires, blocked roads and hurled stones at police forces who used tear gas and water cannons against them.

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Anti-government protest in Tunis, Tunisia on 26 January 2021 | Mohamed Krit/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Hundreds have been arrested, and a young protester, Haykel Rachdi, died on 25 January – fuelling new clashes in his hometown of Sbeitla, western central Tunisia. His family claimed he was injured by a tear gas canister, and an autopsy into the cause of his death has been ordered by the public prosecutor’s office in the city of Kasserine.

Occupy the streets

On 26 January, hundreds of Tunisians marched towards the parliament while others marched across the capital’s marginalised neighbourhoods such as Kabaria and Hay Ettadhamen. The crowds chanted the slogans of Tunisia's 2011 uprising – “the people want to topple the regime” and “bread, freedom, national dignity” – which led to the fall of the country’s long-time dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Since then, Tunisia has been considered the only country to have enjoyed a new and transformative democracy. But the scenes in front of the parliament earlier this month told a different story, one of a fragile democracy and mutual distrust.

Police forces were deployed everywhere. Clashes erupted after police tried to stop protesters from reaching the parliament. It was history repeating itself.

“It looked like an outdoor military base,” Abdelhak Basdouri, who attended the protest explains. “This is not a protest, this is an attempt to occupy Bardo square [where the parliament is located]. Other protesters could not make it because of the police siege.”

Basdouri is one of Tunisia’s growing number of unemployed. He was arrested on 25 January after protesting in front of the government headquarters with a group of other long-term unemployed Tunisians, who lost their right to employment in the public sector due to their activism and political activity during Ben Ali’s regime.

Basdouri claimed police randomly arrested many protesters, describing the arrests as violent and intimidating. “The right to protest has been trampled,” he added.

Journalists were also arrested. Islem Hkiri, a freelance photographer, was arrested on 23 January and charged with breaking the curfew and assaulting a public servant. He was released on bail four days later. Before his arrest, Hkiri published photos of police using pepper spray against protesters. Journalists in Tunisia have condemned the arrest and asked the Interior Ministry for an immediate investigation.

On 17 January, Ahmed Ghram, a blogger and member of the Tunisian League of Human Rights, had his home raided by Tunisian police who arrested him and charged him with 'incitement to civil disobedience'. His phone and computer were confiscated. The charges were dropped and Ghram was released on 28 January after demands for his release by protesters.

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Protesters clash with security forces in Hay Ettadhamen on 18 January 2021 | Khaled Nasraoui/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Social media pages related to police syndicates posted pictures of demonstrators taken with a drone camera during several protests on 26 January. Activists were labelled ‘vandals’ and pictures of female activists were shared alongside hateful and sexist comments. These practices are reminiscent of a pre-revolution era of tyranny and surveillance and damage the trust in the democratic institutions.

A return of the police state?

Since the protests erupted, security forces have arrested at least 1,400 people according to Nawres Zoghbi Douzi, who works as a project coordinator at the Tunisian League for Human Rights. “We spent days and nights receiving phone calls from families in distress, who cried for help after police forces took their children by force, many of them were underage.”

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Protesters march across Hay Ettadhamen, Tunis on 26 January 2021 | Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved

The human rights defender said that she has been helping detainees to access legal help since the protests erupted. She explains that many human rights violations have occurred during the arrests and describes most of the charges as arbitrary and based on rudimentary articles of the Tunisian penal code. According to Amnesty International, many of these repressive laws should have been reformed in the past years.

Hamza Nasri Jridi is a 27-year-old law student and human rights activist. He was arrested on 18 January after participating in a protest demanding the release of arrested activists and protesters. He claimed that the police assaulted the demonstrators who marched through the downtown streets and attacked them with tear gas and batons.

We spent days and nights receiving phone calls from families in distress, who cried for help after police forces took their children by force, many of them were underage

Jridi was taken to the police station, where he was charged with ‘insulting a public officer during the performance of his duties’, a charge frequently used to intimidate citizens who take part in civil demonstrations or speak up against police brutality.

“I have the right to protest!” said Jridi. “I was detained for 72 hours at the Bouchoucha detention centre, with hundreds of other young people, many very young, who were taken from their homes arbitrarily and by force.”

“They brought them in pyjamas and flip-flops, which contradicts the claims of the cops that these were rioters who burned tires and assaulted supermarkets.”

Many of the protesters we interviewed confirmed that they were arrested by civilians claiming to be police officers, which has raised concerns about the return of plain-clothes militias contributing to the repression of protests in the country. In 2012 quasi-militias backed by the Islamist Ennahda party, known as the Leagues for the Protection of the Tunisian Revolution, would stand undercover next to police forces to intimidate and attack civil protesters.

A recent statement by Abdelkarim Harouni, Ennahda’s chairman of the Shoura council fuelled these fears. In an interview about the protests on Zitouna TV, Harouni said: “The children of Ennahdha will be on the ground to support the efforts of the security forces and protect the neighbourhoods.”

Government failure

In his speech on 19 January, Prime Minister Mechichi said that he is aware of the growing anger and frustration among Tunisians. He explained that the COVID-19 crisis has economic implications and that it has limited personal freedoms and the freedom of movement.

A week later, Mechichi reshuffled the cabinet and named 11 new ministers, hoping to alleviate the current political crisis. But Tunisians are craving accountability and a real change, and four of the newly appointed ministers are being investigated or suspected of corruption.

Anti-corruption and pro-transparency watchdog organisation ‘I Watch’ published a series of investigations about these suspicions – and urged Tunisians to oppose the new ministers. But on 26 January, parliament approved the cabinet reshuffle while protesters outside shouted: “The war on corruption will continue.”

Already suffering from high inflation and unemployment, Tunisia has been devastated by the pandemic and is now facing an acute economic crisis. The country is among the most affected in the region and has the second highest mortality rate in Africa, said Yves Souteyrand of the World Health Organization.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, many small businesses are struggling to survive with little to no support from the state. As of the third quarter of 2020, 5.4% of businesses had permanently closed, according to a survey by the International Finance Corporation.

This is not over yet’

Among the crowd in Bardo square were hundreds of young people, including women and members of the LGBTQI community, who were children when Ben Ali's regime was toppled ten years ago. Many are fresh faces to the activist scene in the country. They grew up in a free country and do not really remember the old dictatorship.

“I no longer feel belonging to this country anymore. The leading corrupt political class does not represent us,” said Coffee, an 18-year-old student who recently joined the protests. “We will take our country back.”

The people are fed up and demand the fall of the regime and the current political class. It is a popular uprising, of the hungry and the poor

The self-proclaimed ‘Wrong Generation’, is a new, decentralised youth-led group that started on social media. They have been expressing their anger and dissatisfaction at the current situation and calling for a war on corruption, repression and impunity in the country.

With the mainstream media having adopted the government’s line, calling the protesters ‘saboteurs’, activists have turned to social media to tell their story.

Jawaher Channa is a leftist activist who was wounded during the Kasbah sit-in protests in February 2011. Ten years on, she is helping to run ‘News of the January 2021 protests’, a Facebook group covering the current events across Tunisia.

“The people are fed up and demand the fall of the regime and the current political class. It is a popular uprising, of the hungry and the poor,” she said.

For a decade, Channa has been struggling to defend her rights, as a woman and as a leftist. But like many of the protesters risking their lives to take to the streets amid the pandemic, she is determined to fight. “This is not over yet,” she said.

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