Ben Ali’s Ghost Still Haunts Tunisia

The Arab Spring’s democratic success story is wrestling with the vestiges of an authoritarian past.

A Tunisian woman carrying a dog gestures with her middle finger at police officers during a demonstration in Tunis on Jan. 30.
A Tunisian woman carrying a dog gestures with her middle finger at police officers during a demonstration in Tunis on Jan. 30. ANIS MILI / AFP

TUNIS—The scenes on Tunisian streets in January seemed like deja vu: Teenagers throwing stones at police. Chants calling for the fall of the regime. An embattled head of government on television, pleading for calm and met with derision.

A decade after the Arab Spring, a new generation of Tunisians are voicing their anger with the government, as time and democracy have failed to resolve the underlying grievances of the 2011 uprising.

This time, police have not turned live ammunition on protesters. But they have deployed tear gas and batons, conducted mass arrests, and jailed hundreds of minors and at least one journalist.

The heavy-handed crackdown has catalyzed a broader movement against vestiges of dictatorship. Lawyers and human-rights activists warn that Tunisia, considered the Arab world’s democratic exemplar, is creeping back toward a police state.

The unrest began just after the tenth anniversary of former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s flight into exile on Jan. 14. Faced with mounting coronavirus cases and political tension, the government enforced a four-day national lockdown that banned demonstrations. Many saw the moves as less designed to fight the pandemic than to keep Tunisians from protesting their suffering economy and out-of-touch political class.

In Tunisia, overall unemployment stands at 16.5 percent, and 36 percent among youth aged 15 to 24. Uneven development marginalized Tunisia’s interior regions and poor neighborhoods before the pandemic, and COVID-19 only made things worse; the economy, dependent on tourism, contracted 8.2 percent in 2020.

As in 2010, however, it was not the economy but police harassment that provoked the ongoing uprising. Protesters and security forces clashed in Siliana, a town 80 miles from Tunis, after a video of a police officer harassing a local shepherd circulated on social media. Residents blockaded the town’s streets and set fire to tires, and similar demonstrations soon took shape across the country. Some nighttime protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at police and looted and vandalized public and private property.

Many of the demonstrators were young men from poor areas, where the quest for dignity—at the heart of the Arab Spring—remains unfulfilled. Its absence is felt acutely in suburbs of Tunis like Ettadhamen, which saw some of last month’s most sustained clashes.

As in 2010, it was not the economy but police harassment that provoked the ongoing uprising.

An unemployed 22-year-old there—who requested anonymity for fear of police retaliation— said he was arrested during an evening protest. He spent several days in detention before being slapped with a fine he couldn’t afford.

“Some … just participated in order to steal,” he said of his fellow detainees, “but the majority are good people [who] have demands like employment and development.”

Dozens of boys from Ettadhamen joined a peaceful march toward Parliament last week, calling for their friends’ release. Hussam Bouazra, 22, said that police ended up “beating everyone, without question or answer” during evening clashes. Facing a wall of cops in riot gear the following week, protesters shouted: “No fear, no terror, the streets belong to the people!”

In El Kabaria, an area in southern Tunis where unemployment hovers around 18.4 percent, protesters have also clashed with police. Families here live a hand-to-mouth existence, and many say they have not received aid from the government during the pandemic. They pinpoint corruption and government neglect.

Police represent virtually the state’s only footprint in neighborhoods like El Kabaria. Teenagers and young adults recount being arbitrarily stopped and harassed by cops, who sometimes prevent them from traveling to the capital’s more affluent quarters.

The relationship between security forces and Tunisia’s urban poor has long been troubled. After 9/11, Ben Ali exploited international pressure to fight terrorism to justify an uptick in policing. Repressive practices continued after the 2011 revolution; according to a survey of residents of several poor Tunis neighborhoods conducted by Lawyers Without Borders and the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights, 57 percent of respondents considered themselves victims of state violence.

The government’s response to the January uprising only inflamed tensions. During nighttime protests, police filled residential streets with tear gas and armored vehicles. Some cops fired tear gas into homes and dragged protesters down the road. The army was then deployed to several regions.

On Jan. 25, Haykal Rachdi, 21, became the uprising’s first casualty. Days before, he had been hit on the head with a tear gas canister in western Tunisia, his family told Amnesty International. Tunisian authorities have opened an investigation into his death. At Rachdi’s funeral the next day, cops turned tear gas on the grieving crowd.

The Tunisian Human Rights League estimates that at least 1,680 people have been arrested in connection with the protests, including hundreds of minors. Charges ranged from violating curfew to “inciting disobedience,” which can lead to up to six years in prison.

Lawyers and family members say young people with no connection to the protests were arbitrarily arrested at home. Others report beatings during police interrogations, and in jail.

Tunisian law requires that police question children in the presence of their parents, but Hamida Chaieb, a lawyer in the coastal city of Sfax, said police interrogated some minors alone and forced them to sign written confessions.

This all has sparked what some observers describe as Tunisia’s most significant protest movement since the revolution. Mobilized in part by a burgeoning, youth-led anti-fascist movement that calls itself the “The Wrong Generation,” demonstrations have attracted a cross-section of Tunisians chanting “Release the detainees!” and anti-police slogans. Some carry signs reading “No justice, no peace = defund the police,” evocative of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. They often face phalanxes of cops in riot gear, and occasional scuffles have broken out. At a demonstration in downtown Tunis on Saturday, young protesters doused riot police with paint.

Asked about police behavior toward demonstrators, Interior Ministry spokesperson Khaled Hayouni said security forces “found themselves faced with incidents in which people did damage to public and private property.”

A decade after the Arab Spring, Tunisia’s security sector still has authoritarian tendencies.

He referred further questions about police conduct to the Justice Ministry. A Justice Ministry spokesperson declined to comment.

In a televised speech Jan. 19, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi—an independent chosen by President Kais Saied in July to form Tunisia’s third government since the 2019 elections— promised to listen to young people, calling their demands “legitimate.” Still, he praised the “professionalism” of security forces and warned they would continue to crack down on looting and vandalism—comments he repeated this week. Last month, Saied told young people not to “let anyone exploit your misery.”

A decade after the Arab Spring, Tunisia’s security sector still has authoritarian tendencies. The Interior Ministry, which notoriously used torture and intimidation to quash political dissent under Ben Ali, remains opaque and largely unreformed. In the interim, the rise of police unions has empowered cops to resist accountability. In recent days, unions have posted messages disparaging and threatening activists and lawyers on Facebook. On Monday, a Tunis police syndicate urged its members to crack down on non-authorized protests, and, that same day, some police union members beat and attempted to run over protesters in front of a Sfax court. During a visit to the Interior Ministry on Tuesday, Saied warned against the political instrumentalization of security unions and suggested consolidating them into a unified syndicate, emphasizing that officers must answer to the state. “Freedoms are guaranteed, and security forces and citizens are not enemies,” he said.

Meanwhile, a counter-revolutionary party stoking nostalgia for the dictatorship—the Free Destourian Partyleads in the polls. Its leader, Abir Moussi, a former official in Ben Ali’s party, denies that a revolution took place in 2011. She praises the “stability” seen under authoritarianism—appealing to a growing sentiment among Tunisians that, though freedom was scarce before 2011, basic necessities were less expensive.

Since 2011, Tunisian security sector reform has drawn considerable foreign aid from European donors and the United States. But after terror attacks struck Tunisia in 2015, bolstering counterterrorism took priority over human rights.

“The culture of impunity that was dominating the police and the Ministry of Interior under Ben Ali has never been challenged,” said Ruth Hanau Santini, a professor of politics at the University of Naples, L’Orientale, who studies Tunisian security forces.

The U.S. government has provided Tunisia with more than $100 million in aid to bolster the country’s law enforcement and the judiciary. Some of this has gone toward modernizing the Interior Ministry’s flagship police academy and improving police and National Guard training capacities to create “a new ‘citizen-oriented’ police force,” a State Department official said.

As demonstrations continue, the police crackdown has produced a chilling effect in the downtrodden neighborhoods where the unrest began. According to Lawyers Without Borders, at least 16 activists and bloggers have been arrested for posting on social media about the protests. Lawyer Yassine Azaza argues that the dictatorship-era law used to justify their arrests violates the 2014 constitution. But since Tunisia still lacks a constitutional court, there is no avenue for challenging it.

Last Thursday, the national judges’ association called on security forces to exercise restraint and affirmed the right to freedom of speech and assembly. As trials continue, many protesters have been freed—an outcome, Lamine Benghazi of Lawyers Without Borders said, which demonstrates the “absurdity and arbitrary nature of the arrests.”

Others weren’t so lucky; some protesters received prison terms of up to two years. Rim Ben Ismail, a Tunis psychologist, warned that jailing young Tunisians will only serve to further alienate them from the state—and risks perpetuating a cycle of violence.

Chaieb, the lawyer in Sfax, pleaded for judges to show mercy toward her young clients.

“I hope that they understand that these young people are victims of poverty or victims of marginalization for years,” she said. “They protested to express their fragile situation—that’s all.”

­Abdslem Herchi contributed to this report.

Claire Parker is a freelance journalist based in Tunis. Twitter: @ClaireParkerDC