State crime, civil society and resistance: lessons from Tunisia

What the state proclaims as legality can in reality be crime on a grand scale. What it defines as crime may instead be resistance to state crime. Only organised civil society can expose these truths.

Penny Green
15 December 2014
Gafsa Phosphate Company mine copy 620.jpg

Gafsa phosphate company mine. Image credit: Penny Green. Some rights reserved.The self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia in December 2010 animated a revolutionary movement, not only against the violence, corruption and repression of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia, but against despotism across the whole Middle East. Less well known, however, was the growing culture of Tunisian resistance which gave that single act of protest its revolutionary impulse.

Bouazizi’s public act of despair ignited insurrection precisely because it took place in the context of a wider, deeper level of popular civil opposition. This opposition was often conducted clandestinely, particularly by the left and Islamists who were to become the primary victims of state persecution and surveillance in Ben Ali’s police state. 

Repressive laws against freedom of association meant that the majority of active or would-be civil society organisations were criminalised. Those who participated in, or were seen to support, illegal associations risked torture and imprisonment. Human rights organisations, like Liberty and Equity, and the Association for the Support of Political Prisoners were thus prohibited from meeting, holding public events or seeking funds and their activities were outlawed. Activists operating under clandestine conditions faced constant state surveillance and the threat of arrest, torture and detention.

Nonetheless independent forms of civil society did exist. Activists interviewed in the course of our research revealed a range of subversive strategies to evade state surveillance. They met in mosques, coffee houses, the offices of sympathetic lawyers or moving cars; employed aliases, changed meeting venues at the last moment and set up decoys. Their work in documenting, naming and exposing state crimes was central in creating the conditions for the ultimate overthrow of Ben Ali and his criminal state.

In 2008-2009, however, the country witnessed more open opposition in the traditionally militant phosphate mining region of Gafsa. Here in the dusty, desert towns of Redeyef, Moularès and M’dhila, workers, trade unionists, mothers and children took part in widespread acts of civil disobedience, sit-ins, hunger strikes, occupations, marches and public protests – protests commonly understood to have formed the heart of Tunisian revolutionary politics.

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Gafsa region. Image credit: Penny Green. Some rights reserved.One of the most powerful examples of civil society resistance in the years preceding the 2011 revolution was organised in December 2008 by a group of 12 women, all widows, whose husbands had died in the service of the state owned Gafsa Phosphate Company. On December 27, they embarked on a sit-in to challenge the corrupt practice of company hiring and to demand jobs for their sons and daughters. Traditionally the children of men killed in the mine were guaranteed employment in the nationalized company but in 2008 a rigged recruitment exam excluded the children of many company  widows. Stepping through a courtyard into a large open room in the mining town of Moulares, Hadda Saidi recalled, ‘I was upset, I was shocked on the day the recruitment results were posted on the walls of the company  - my husband spent 18 years working in the company and [of] my six sons and daughters, none of them had managed to get a job with the company’.

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Hadda Saidi Moulares. Image credit: Penny Green. Some rights reserved.

Defying police violence and company threats the widows, led by Hadda Saidi, set up a tent blocking the front entrance of the company’s Moulares head office, 22 kilometers from the Algerian border. They stayed put for almost two months.

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The windows protest tent

In an interview with ISCI, Hadda described her struggle: ‘I was ready to do 20 sit- ins…. We slept in the tent for one month and 20 days. None of us went back home. Sometimes we cook food, sometimes we are quiet, sometimes our families bring food to us, sometimes we go out and start shouting against Ben Ali, so it’s like that. ‘ Laughing she added, ‘Sometimes we shout - you are people of Ben Ali, stay away from us! So we kind of managed to get everything out of us through shouting.’

In the same period other families and unemployed activists in the region occupied train tracks in protest against regional discrimination and high levels of unemployment. By blocking the movement of phosphate from the mines they hoped to impede the state mining company’s productivity.

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Unemployed activists in Gafsa. In the only concession made by Ben Ali to the Mining Basin protests, the children of 60 company widows were promised employment as a result of the sit-in. They recognized that organized resistance, publicity and protest could act on a wider watching world: 

‘… we were largely successful because we were the most consistent in our struggle, some people have, say, shouted for a few days, but we stayed in the tent for one month and 20 days. The president did not want Tunisia to be negatively portrayed in the international media, …so he ordered the company to employ our children, to solve the issue’

The initial concerns of the protestors - recruitment, union corruption and unemployment – soon gave way to more generalized critiques of Tunisian state criminality and demands for regional social justice. The Gafsa mining basin protests of 2008-09  arguably paved the way for the revolution in 2011.

The Gafsa Phosphate Company

The story of the Gafsa Phosphate Company widows is one of countless acts of civil resistance in Tunisia and worldwide, which illustrate the power of civil society organization in revealing and challenging state criminality.

What do we mean by ‘state criminality’? Legal definitions are inadequate for the obvious reason that states make laws and seldom define their own practices as criminal. As Burmese activist Ko Bo Kyi once told me, ‘under a repressive regime like Burma state crime is the rule of law’. We cannot leave it to states to define the legitimacy or otherwise of state behaviour.  Rather, it is organized groups of citizens like the Gafsa widows that detect and denounce the crimes of state agencies. Viewing the conduct of the phosphate company from the perspective of civil society, we can understand that it aroused a deep sense of injustice not only because it was corrupt but because it violated an important local norm – the obligation of the state-owned industry to provide employment for families bereaved by dangerous work.

What we mean by ‘state crime’, then, is illegitimate organized violence and corruption as identified and defined by organized civil society. International law offers a discursive resource for those resisting state crime, but the recognition that what the state proclaims as legality is in reality crime on a grand scale – and that some of what it defines as crime is in reality resistance to state crime - is less a matter of law than one of moral and political consciousness. For this we must rely on organized civil society. 

The International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) has launched a series of research projects investigating state crime and the resistance it engenders and many of the articles which will appear in openDemocracy this week are products of that research. Emerging from this work is the extraordinary variety and creativity in modes of civil resistance to state violence and corruption. From the pacifism of Colombia’s Peace Community to the civil militantism of Kenya’s Mombasa Republican Council, civil society emerges from our research as the most important counterweight to state crime and one of the most important sources of the norms that define what state criminality is.

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