The Revenge of the Police State

Tunisian Democracy Continues to Take Harsh Blows

By Monia Mazigh

July/August 2023

Bendir Man, a popular Tunisian popular singer lived abroad and wrote songs denouncing and making satire about the then-President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali regime.  

In a Tunisian adaptation of the famous Italian folk song “Bella Ciao,” he ended his “Habiba Ciao” version released in 2010. He related the story of an illegal migrant to Italy with the last sentence being, “I will return to the country of the police.” This was an allusion to Tunisia’s “police state” run by policemen (Ben Ali, himself was a military officer).

It isn’t a coincidence that Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010, was doing it in an act of despair against the policewoman who slapped him in the face and confiscated his merchandise and wooden stand. Nor was it a coincidence that the huge protests, held after Bouazizi’s death in January 2011, were concentrated in the capital city of Tunis in front of the ministry of interior’s gloomy building, which represented both the system’s brutality and its oppression. For years, during both Presidents Bourguiba (d. 2000), considered as the father of the independence, and Ben Ali, the arrests of dissidents and their torture happened behind that building’s thick grey walls.

During the decade that followed Ben Ali’s departure and the beginning of the Arab Spring, democratic institutions were built in Tunisia to replace the ministry of interior’s arbitrary powers. They gradually dismantled the opaque network that over two decades weaved an iron shield against the implementation of the rule of law, participated in the maintenance of dictatorship, and oppressed voices that called for democratic reforms. 

This line from the song is one of the best descriptions of what Ben Ali achieved over his 23-year reign. He made Tunisia into a police state granting powers to police officers and their superiors who controlled Tunisian lives at every step. They were spied on in their neighborhoods and humiliated through random arrests. They were requesting and receiving bribes, holding their passports or other official documents as means to prevent them from traveling or applying for jobs. 

Despite some mitigated successes, all the democratic building process came to a halt on July 25, 2021, when the elected president Kaies Saied grabbed all power, suspended the legally elected People’s Assembly and dissolved many of these democratic institutions that played the roles of checks and balances. 

Saied wouldn’t have been successful in his somber endeavors if it wasn’t for the reemergence of the “police state.” Today it is taking revenge against all the changes that occurred during that era often described by many media commentators as the “decade of destruction.”

Last February a crackdown on prominent figures including opposition politicians, activists, protest organizers and a media figure as well as an influential business leader and two judges marked the descent into hell. Indeed, the arrest of liberal secular oppositions figures like Ghazi Chaouchi (secretary-general of the Democratic Current), Cheima Issa (poet and journalist) and Khayam Turki (a former finance minister), is a clear indication that not only the “police state” is back at work but also striking hard. With that crackdown, Saied signaled that he isn’t mainly focused on the Islamist politicians. He is targeting all forms of dissent. 

Last April, Rached Ghannouchi, 81, leader of the Islamist Party Ennahdha and speaker of the suspended People Assembly was arrested a few minutes before iftar on Ramadan 26, a very symbolic day, given Ghannouchi’s religious background. For about two years, since the coup by Saied, Ghannouchi has been brought to testify in front of judges and interrogated in several cases against him and was always released. 

More recently, a judge sentenced Ghannouchi, in absentia, to a year in prison and a fine of 1000 Tunisian dinars (equivalent to $323). According to his lawyer, Ghannouchi had been found guilty on charges of incitement. Ghannouchi’s daughter, Soumaya, who made short videos on social media defending her father, explained that her father’s “crime” was to use the word “taghut” during the eulogy of one of his former colleague and member of the Ennahdha party. “Taghut”, is a word used several times in the Quran. 

However, what many Tunisians ignore is that the police officers in Tunisia despise the word “taghut” as for years it was implicitly directed at them. It is Sayed Qutb (d. 1966), an Egyptian religious thinker who originally wrote extensively about “taghut” and oppressive regimes and how Muslims should break free from them through God’s path. On the ground, the word “taghut,” which literally means tyranny, came to represent for many Islamist activists, the torture and imprisonment that happened to many of them and their families under the hands of police officers and agents who protected the repressive regimes in many Arab Muslim countries including Tunisia. 

The symbolism of making the use of such word as “criminal” or equivalent to “incitement against the state” and the fact that it is one police officer who sued Ghannouchi for using this word and the fact that a judge ruled in the police officer’s favor are clear indications that Tunisia is back to its “police state” roots. 

Another evidence of the “police state” playing at full swing is an incident that happened during the Tunis International Book Fair. Police officers in civilian clothing, suddenly shut down the pavilion of a publishing house, Dar El Kiteb, hours after Saied had inaugurated the event. The reason was a recently published book by a Tunisian author who lives in Canada, Kamel Riahi. The book, The Tunisian Frankenstein, a criticism of the populist president, with a depiction of Saied and a chainsaw on its cover, was at the heart of the incident. 

Many journalists and activists took to social media and denounced this flagrant censorship as very similar to the Ben Ali era. Articles were written about it in the international media. Some journalists even reported that a few days after the book was seized, police officers visited some bookstores and asked the owners about the names and addresses of those who bought the book. The same old ridiculous and scary tactics used by dictatorial regimes. When the public pressure against this act of censorship reached high levels, the President ironically came out publicly in one the capital bookstore and bought few copies of the same book and insisted on the importance of “freedom of thinking.”

On May 15, a student and amateur rapper accompanied by two friends, posted a parody of a song (once again songs are tools of denouncing police brutality) on his TikTok account. The children’s song is originally from the “Elephant Babar,” an animated series. However, this version isn’t for children. It talks about a father. Baba is in Arabic the word for father, a word similar to Babar. It talks about a young man, looking for his son in all the police districts after police sweep a neighborhood and arrest his kid for smoking weed. Use and possession of cannabis is illegal in Tunisia despite the increasing number of young consumers. Even though the satiric song was kind of innocent and represented a true and sad reality, the police felt entitled to move quickly and restore that “law and order” approach that represented them for years before “they” felt pushed aside during the last decade. It took a message from Saied to order the liberation of the students. Once again, he came out as a savior. A kind of the “nice guy” who is protecting his own people. 

Beyond these examples, the situation in Tunisia remains bleak and very troubling. Journalists and bloggers who document police abuse or dare to criticize the president are arrested. Ennahda, the main opposition, is now almost banned with most of its leaders in prison and demonized. Iconic opposition leaders like Ahmed Néjib Chebbi whose party fought dictatorship under Bourguiba’s regime and Ben Ali’s, are mocked publicly and intimidated by the same police.

Unfortunately, today democracy doesn’t seem to be on the radar of many Tunisians. However, when Tunisian youth, harraga, drown crossing the sea trying to reach the European shore, and when governmental authorities secretly bury their bodies without informing their parents and families, like what happened last fall in the southern city of Zarzis, the families are angry and organize to push back against the injustice. Again, when a former football player sets himself on fire and tragically dies, after a fight with local police officers around the price of bananas in market that the President fixed the price at five dinars to appease the population during Ramadan, the family and friends of the footballer are outraged. 

Perhaps for now the fate of prominent politicians wouldn’t bother the common people. However, these small and seemingly isolated incidents are creating new stories and a new reality about the return of the “police state.” This is when people would feel directly affected in their daily lives, in their children’s safety and their own future. Only then, the population would realize how the “police state” came back to haunt them. And perhaps, they will go back again to build a real democracy.

Monia Mazigh, PhD, an academic, author and human rights activist, is an adjunct professor at Carleton University (Ontario). She has published “Hope and Despair: My Struggle to Free My Husband, Maher Arar” (2008) and three novels, “Mirrors and Mirages” (2015), “Hope Has Two Daughters” (2017) and “Farida” (2020), which won the 2021 Ottawa Book Award prize for French-language fiction. She is currently working on a collection of essays about gendered Islamophobia.

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