Still Under Curfew, Tunis Goes Quiet

Since the bus bombing that struck Tunis in late November, the city has been under strict curfew. Here's what it's like.

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After a suicide bomber killed 12 security agents in a bus bombing in Tunis on November 24, Tunisia’s president, Beji Caid Essebsi, declared a one-month, nationwide state of emergency that may be extended when it expires.

The response to the terrorist attack also included the imposition of a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew for both people and vehicles in the Greater Tunis metropolitan area, which encompasses Tunis, the capital, and its suburbs.

The curfew turned the capital into a ghost town. The city’s lively night life abruptly disappeared. Cafés and restaurants started closing in the late afternoon. Restaurants that were usually open only at night had to close entirely; so did bars, clubs, and lounges. Employers had to worry about their staff getting home safe in time. In the pre-curfew era, people typically started heading home in the late afternoon; after the curfew, the whole afternoon became rush hour. It became hard to find taxis, and as you drove, you could see people pushing each other to board buses at the side of the road. At 8:30 p.m., you could feel the city slowly dying until it came to a fully stop at 9:00. Some taxis were still available during the curfew for people who could provide documentation proving a valid reason, such as a medical emergency or a night shift at work.

Decision-makers finally noticed that the curfew was hurting businesses. On December 1, the president decided to shorten the curfew hours, from midnight to 5:00 am. People joked about the idea of being home by midnight like Cinderella, but others had real concerns about being fined or assaulted by security officers if they got stranded.

“It’s very difficult to find taxis starting 10 p.m.,” a taxi driver told me. “A lot of my friends have been fined for breaking the curfew. You need a special permit from the Interior Ministry to drive a taxi [during the curfew hours]. I honestly don’t think it’s worth it. I don’t need to risk paying hundreds of dinars for no work at all. There are no people out after 11!”

Yahya, a twenty-something student living in Marsa, a northern suburb, said that all he can hear in his neighborhood after midnight are sirens and police vehicles. “Sometimes, I hear cops shouting at some unlucky guy. Or if it’s a group of guys, sometimes they end up beating them up. They either fine them or beat them up and let them go without a fine.”

Many young Tunisians have been fined or arrested for breaking the curfew. Every other day or so, the Interior Ministry has been issuing press releases announcing arrests of curfew violators — such as this one, which declares that 17 people were detained for breaking the curfew during the night of December 9-10.

The state of emergency gives broad powers to the security forces: they can raid houses without a warrant, arrest suspects, and interrogate them without providing them with a lawyer. Amna Guellali, director of Human Rights Watch Tunisia, addressed these violations in an interview: “Unfortunately, two years after approving the new constitution, there are still many loopholes in the Tunisian law — such as the lack of a right to have a lawyer after getting arrested,” she said. Guellali criticized the anti-terrorism law and said that Tunisia’s penal code must be revised.

“A lot of Tunisians witnessed many raids. These raids are justified by the state of emergency, but they happen in a very random way.… People are sleeping in their beds and all of a sudden a masked cop is in their living room after breaking through the front door!”

Youssef Belgacem, a young activist, was arrested and interrogated by police officers while on his way to a conference organized, ironically, by the Ministry of Justice. According to his friend Mouheb, the officers looked through his laptop, photos, and emails. Seeking to probe whether he held extremist views, they asked him questions such as “Do you pray? Do you go to a mosque?” The young man was released after one and a half hours, and only after a special intervention from the prime minister’s office, thanks to the efforts of the watchdog organization he works for.

It certainly looks like security officers are abusing their jurisdiction to punish young people who have nothing to do with terrorism. Two other young men, Adnen Meddeb and Amine Mabrouk, were first arrested for breaking the curfew, only to be subsequently accused of drug use after rolling papers were found in their possession. Their friends started a social media campaign demanding that they be freed and criticizing this violation of human rights under the state of emergency.

It’s true that Tunisia is at war with terrorism, especially since the latest escalation: a suicide bomb that targeted security officers at the heart of the capital. But the weaknesses of the security apparatus should not, and cannot, be redeemed by violating basic human rights.

The photo shows closed restaurants on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in the center of Tunis on November 26, 2015.

Photo credit: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

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