Pirate radio, no police: Tunisia's revolution rumbles on

Pirate radio, no police: Tunisia's revolution rumbles on
'One big family' in Menzel Bouzaiane, where anarchy reigns successfully, central authority has no role but unemployment threatens livelihoods. It is a pirate town, one of a handful and one whose inhabitants insist, at all times, on 'true justice'.
6 min read
13 January, 2015

When Safouane walks through the streets of his home town, he sees no police, no signs of official authority. He couldn't feel safer, he says.

Menzel Bouzaiane lies just south of Sidi Bouzid where the self-immolation in December 2010 of street peddler, Mohamed Bouazizi sparked first the protests that led to erstwhile Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's

     Bouzaiane has a long tradition of protest and revolutionary sacrifice. The town took its name from an independence fighter .

ouster on January 14, 2011 and then the protests across the Arab world that became known as the Arab Spring.

The people of Bouzaiane were early in on the revolution. They burned down the police station several times. But here, locals say, the revolution hasn't ended.

Safouane points out the graffiti on the blackened walls. The revolution has barely started, he says.

These days in the capital Tunis, politicians and presidential candidates talk as if the democratic transition ended with the election of a new parliament and president. Many have heralded Tunisia's political consensus and smooth elections as the success story of the Arab Spring. But in the inner regions, it's a different story.

'Always first, but in the wrong rankings'

The numbers speak for themselves. In 2013, the unemployment rate reached 46 percent in Menzel Bouzaiane. Young unemployed degree holders symbolically put their diplomas up for sale at the local market. Jacer, who coordinates the town’s independent media centre, keeps them in a drawer in his office as a souvenir. He cracks his favourite joke: "Bouzaiane is always first, but in the wrong rankings."

His cousin, the famous Tunisian blogger and activist, Azyz Amami, sums it up this way. "They live very far from all fantasies about the country."

In the next room, half a dozen women are working on the centre’s latest project. Launched in 2013 with a hand-made antenna, the pirate radio station Radio MB can reach everyone in a 17 kilometre radius. The issues: women, technology, agriculture. The shows are made by, for and about the town.

When Salwa first started leading the project, she found too many men, so she hired more women. "Now I realise there are no men left," she laughs, "So I'm trying to get some back."

The authorities tried to close down Radio MB. The station refused to abide by broadcast rules. In particular, the station objected to the proviso the government asks of private radio stations: to "respect the recommendations of the authorities".

"We don’t agree with them, we want to be able to criticize authorities,” says Salwa. Tunisia’s interior is often left aside by mainstream media, she says, so the regions need their own media. To punish them, the authorities broadcast another, stronger signal on the radio’s frequency. Until they can afford a better antenna, they broadcast on the internet.

No police, no mayor, one big family

The small media centre was established along the train tracks that cut the town in half. Twice a day, a convoy transports phosphate from the neighbouring mines in Gafsa to the industrial port of Gabes. Tunisia is the third biggest phosphate producer in the world. And it all goes through Bouzaiane.

Watch our documentary on the mining town Gafsa here

"It's our strength, that's how we hold them by the balls," says Azyz, the blogger. The people of Bouzaiane regularly block the tracks. The state loses millions. Safouane, an unemployed radical, is always at the forefront of protests. He says blocking the tracks is the only way to get the authorities to listen.

In Bouzaiane itself, however, there is no authority, no sign of central control. The police station was burned down twice, as were the offices of the local government delegation. The people usually end up inviting the police back for administrative purposes, to get paperwork done. But it is a tacit understanding that police have no authoritative power here. According to the inhabitants, there are no security problems. Except maybe one time, when a Tunisian tourist was robbed a few kilometres outside Bouzaiane. The villagers hunted down the culprits themselves and handed them over to the military.

The town feels like it is inhabited by one big family. On our way to visit the burnt-out office of the delegation, we meet a young Salafi. He gently grabs my bag from the ground and walks away with it. Then he turns around, laughing about his joke, and gives me a hug.

A year after the revolution, Safouane complained about the mayor’s office of the district. "His system was not legitimate," Safouane says. In response, the authorities put out a search warrant for Safouane, but he stayed hidden in Bouzaiane for more than a year. "It worked like a cocoon. The police couldn’t enter. And if they did, they wouldn’t have dared to come for me."

Meanwhile, the mayor asked for a transfer. There hasn't been a mayor since. On the blackened wall of the deserted administration building, someone tagged a message: "Thank you people, please continue until the end."

Today, they still regularly "go to Sidi Bouzid to get the regional governor ousted", Safouane says as if he talked about going grocery shopping.

From Tunisia to Wall Street

Bouzaiane has a long tradition of protest and revolutionary sacrifice. The town took its name from independence fighter Houcine Bouzaiane, whose death immediately following independence from France remains unexplained. Four years ago, on 24 December 2010, as the first signs of popular revolt stirred, Bouzaiane gave the revolution its first dead, two young men killed by police, after 1,800 policemen had rushed to the town of 6,000.

Menzel Bouzaiane has been a hotspot for dissent [AFP]

The people of Bouzaiane also came up with the slogan of the revolution. "Al-shaab yurid isqat al-nidham” – "The people want the fall of the system". Months later, the Occupy Wall Street movement took over the words in their original version. The owner of one of Bouzaiane’s cafés still greets all his customers with a smiling, "Al-shaab yurid".

They want to defend their freedom of expression against injustice. Jacer, Safouane and their friends could talk for hours. Hundreds of hectares of abandoned agricultural land around Bouzaiane belong to the state. The state, Jacer says, won't even give them up to farmers on credit. "They are waiting for a millionaire to take it all over."

Sometimes, authorities blame the lack of investment on the behaviour of the protestors. "But that’s exactly what we are protesting for: investment," Safouane bursts out. A paradox.

A couple of rich investors did seem keen at one point, but the locals are none too keen on them. The 'businessmen' would receive help from the state to establish a company. Like "that one guy". He announced a new brick factory in the neighbouring clay hills. After he built a few walls, he received his financial support from the government. And then he left.

Another investor built a textile factory. He made money from generous state incentives. To do so, he would fire employees – all women – after a year at work and hire new ones. When the inhabitants helped the women build a workers' union, the investor threatened to leave. They sued. In the end, he had to stay. For once, justice was on their side.

In Bouzaiane, everything seems to revolve around "true justice". The governor once offered to intervene with the judge on all the current trials against inhabitants if they "keep quiet for a while". They refused. Instead, they went to protest against his corruption and "ousted" him.

Four years and two elections after the revolution, the pirate town is one of a handful that continue to regulate themselves. Safouane was on trial that week, for burning down the police station, hitting the mayor and flag burning. He denies everything. The courthouse expected a turnout from all corners of the inner regions.

The trial was postponed until February.