A gradual return to dictatorship in Tunisia?

A gradual return to dictatorship in Tunisia?
5 min read

Tharwa Boulifi

04 February, 2021
Comment: Tunisians' biggest fear remains the return to a dictatorial regime that crippled their country. Recent events suggest they have good reason to worry, writes Tharwa Boulifi.
A protester faces security forces preventing demonstrations in front of the Tunisian assembly [Getty]
Tunisia recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of its Jasmine Revolution. The review of the last decade hasn't been very positive, and many Tunisians consider freedom of speech as almost the "only" lasting gain of that uprising.

Over the past decade, activists and organisations have kept a close eye on human rights to make sure Tunisia's fundamental liberties were respected. Lately, however, there has been growing concern over a possible gradual return to dictatorship in the country. 

These fears became explicit in January, but they surfaced months ago. Last October, young Tunisians mobilised against a police protection bill that a group of deputies brought to the floor of the assembly. The bill caused outrage among the Tunisians who, after spending 23 years under Ben Ali, do not want the the return of a police regime. 

And more recently, a few days before the 10th anniversary of the revolution, the government announced a four-day lockdown under the pretext of the increase in Covid cases.

Most doctors agree this very short lockdown makes little sense, given the current state of public health. Tunisians took to social media, criticising the decision as an attempt to oppress the anniversary festivities and in particular the protests. And despite years of hunger strikes and sit-ins by those who were injured in the revolution and the victims' families, the government still hasn't published the official list of wounded and martyrs. 

For many Tunisians, this short lockdown was simply a way for the government to kill two birds with one stone; stopping the protests, and showing the Tunisian people they are taking the necessary measures to contain the pandemic. While a few dozen did try to 
protest, they were mostly prevented from doing so by force, leading to a sense that the lockdown was more political than sanitary. 

These fears became explicit in January, but they surfaced months ago

After the lockdown was lifted, protests did resume at night, despite the government's Covid curfew. In many cities, including Sidi Bouzid and Tunis, young people went out to express their anger regarding the economic and social situation, which has improved very little since the revolution.

But i
n a move reminiscent of a decade ago, police forces cracked down on these protests with tear gas and brutality, and the government ordered the intervention of the army

For their part, Tunisian authorities qualified these protests as actions of violence and turbulence. In his "reassuring" speech, the Tunisian prime minister Hichem Michichi told the Tunisian people that their "voice is heard and anger is legitimate. But chaos is rejected and we will address it with the force of law and the unity of the state".

These words bear a striking similarity to Ben Ali's final speech in which he famously proclaimed, "I understood you," before fleeing the country with his family. 

Rights groups say at least 1,000 people were detained in the wave of arrests that followed the protests, many of them young people under the age of 25, or minors. Tunisian mothers have accused the authorities of arbitrarily arresting their kids, who were not involved in the protests, and gathered in front of the court to protest against these unfair practices.

Read more: Tunisians protest against 'police state'

Members of the "Lawyers without Borders" NGO, 
stated that minors were illegally detained and forced to appear before the judge without the presence of their parents or representatives of child protection services.

This violation of basic human rights has outraged Tunisians who have expressed their disapproval on social media and in the streets. In the capital Tunis, hundreds 
flooded the streets to once again demand the regime's fall, the prime minister's dismissal, and the release of the detained protesters. 

Clashes once more broke out when an injured protester Haykel Rachdi died in hospital in late January. According to the victim's family, their son was struck by a tear gas canister during the protests. After Rachdi's funeral, angry demonstrators in Sbeitla, his hometown, fired projectiles at the police, who again retaliated with tear gas. The use of the same tool that killed Rachdi angered the protesters who blocked the roads, and Tunisians are outraged by the police reaction, which they consider the best proof of the gradual return to the police state.

Last Tuesday, the prime minister, who since dismissing Taoufik Charfeddine in early January is also now interior minister, instructed an aggressive police presence to surround the national assembly. The police formed a ring around the building to prevent any citizen from coming inside while there was a voting session for the new government.

But this didn't stop hundreds of citizens and activists from confronting the police and 
gathering in front of the assembly to denounce the police's repression of the protest movement. 

Tunisians are outraged by the police reaction, which they consider the best proof of the gradual return to the police state

Back in mid-January, Ahmed Ghram, a member of the Tunisian human rights league was also arrested on the grounds of "encouraging civil disobedience" for a Facebook post he authored. His release on January 28, following the investigating judge's dismissal of his case did little to reassure Tunisians that their civil liberties are protected.

Today, in the midst of an economic, social, and public health crisis, Tunisians' biggest fear remains the re-establishment of the dictatorship that crippled their country. The latest events suggest they have good reason to worry. For now, we rely on Tunisian civil society to keep a close eye on the government's every move, ready to fight relentlessly to defend the democracy we obtained with our blood and tears.

Tharwa Boulifi is a 19-year-old Tunisian author. She writes in Arabic, French, English and Spanish about feminism, Arab and African women's rights, culture and LGBTQ+ rights. He writing has appeared in Teen Vogue, Passport Magazine, Ms Magazine and others.

Follow her on Twitter: @TharwaBoulifi

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.