Tunis Martyrs’ Day Violence: Why and What Next?

Last Monday, I followed a protest in Tunis that was violently dispersed by police, using tear-gas and baton-beatings.

It is a delicate thing to comment on political protest in a country you have only been in for a month. But we all have eyes to see (except under tear-gas attack) and we all have brains to interpret for ourselves. My previous post demanded further explanation, so that is what I attempt here.

Since Monday, I have spoken to actual Tunisians, both in person and online, to find out more about the background to the protests and to ascertain how much support there is “on the street” for the protesters.

First, though, the official explanation for why the protest was broken up by the police. The government ruled a month ago that no protests were to be allowed on the main street in Tunis, Avenue Habib Bouguiba. The reason they gave for this ruling is that repeated protests and counter-protests (including one by radical Salafists in which they attacked the national theatre) were damaging commercial activity on the street and interrupting the flow of traffic down one of Tunis’ main transport arteries.

It should also be added that protests are allowed in the rest of Tunis (so far as I have been told) – and, indeed, our little march was politely escorted by police through the city to the union building, where it officially ended. That such a demonstration was permitted is certainly a step up from the days of Ben Ali.

So far, so reasonable.

Avenue Habib Bourguiba: nice, wide, pedestrian-protest-promenade…

(An obvious, although not necessarily relevant, counter-observation is that Habib Bourguiba is plenty wide enough to accommodate both traffic and protest. There is a vast promenade running down the centre, between the two vehicular lanes, that would be perfect for a leisurely march – were it not obstructed by barbed wire, soldiers and military vehicles…)

… Plus soldiers, tanks and a statue of Ibn Khaldoun.

That is the official line, but what did my proverbial man on his hypothetical street say?

To tell the truth, in all my conversations, interviews and casual chats, I am yet to meet a Tunisian who whole-heartedly backs the protesters (aside from the protesters themselves, naturally).

One man, when I asked him why the police attacked, said simply that the protests were forbidden. I pressed him further, asking him if it was political, but he waved an irritated hand at me and reiterated: it was forbidden. His closing of the topic reminded me of the political silence under Ben Ali. Not a good start to my information-gathering.

Others, thankfully, were happy to talk politics – and this freedom of speech is another genuine joy of post-revolutionary Tunisia.

One of my new Tunisian friends, a charismatic fruit-seller and fine art photographer, told me that he was sad to see photographs of the protests on my Facebook wall. He said they were ugly (I can’t disagree). But he also disapproved of the protesters. He told me that they were friends of Ben Ali and that they had started the fight by throwing rocks at the police – so of course the police attacked back.

I did see people throwing rocks at the police, but they were kids – teenagers – certainly nobody who would ever have been in the pay of Ben Ali. And nor did they start the fighting. The first rocks I saw thrown were a good half hour after the protesters had been set upon with batons and tear-gas.

Others said that these protesters have no idea what freedom is, that they are drunk on the power of revolution, that stability and patience is needed now, not more chaos. Every time there is a protest, they say, it is followed by a counter-protest and then a counter-counter-protest and on and on and on.

Another very wisely pointed out that these protesters are giving the government just excuses not to change anything, not to make things more liberal, not to give the people more democracy. In other words: their confrontational stance is counter-productive. He told me too that there have now been demonstrations in support of the right to demonstrate on Habib Bourguiba – “A demonstration for the right to demonstrate! Pff!” His frustration was palpable – and understandable, given the many economic challenges facing Tunisian society. Not least of which is the fact that, since the revolution, foreign tourists are going elsewhere, draining away the 7% of Tunisian GDP that tourism contributes.

Man on street, day after. Banner (approximately) reads: “Tunisia martyrs, commemorated in the Lord.” Excuse Arabic!

On reflection, it makes sense that the average man on the street would disapprove of the protesters. I have written before about Tunisia’s relative social stability, compared to neighbours Algeria and Libya and their relative prosperity in comparison to Egypt and most of the rest of Africa. These combine to give Tunisians a sense that they have much to lose by disrupting life further. My school-teacher friend told me that they have enough freedom for the moment. There are more important things than petty matters like more rights for actors: jobs, for example.

On top of that fear of loss, nearly 40% of Tunisians voted for the leading party Ennahda in the elections. It’s natural that they would largely support the government over anti-government protesters. Then there are the people who are simply tired of the conflict, tired of the constant protests and counter-protests, tired of the disruptive strikes, tired of abnormality. Together these groups must make up over half of the population, so it’s not unexpected that the average man on the street disapproves the protests.

Perhaps, then, the protesters should not have our sympathy. Perhaps their message is not shared by most of Tunisian society. Perhaps, even, the police were justified in using force to disperse the illegal demonstration – particularly as protests in London frequently face similar obstructions from both government and police (note: I have never been tear-gassed in London).

But against this conclusion, I would put that the protesters I marched alongside were a diverse group. They were not all angry young men. That was the reason I joined them in the first place, when they were just fifty or so people happily chanting and marching near the central market on Monday morning. They were young and old, women, men and children. I was particularly taken by a group from the Organisation for Women and Progress: I recognised myself in them and they won my sympathy.

I set against this conclusion also that I SAW plainsclothes thugs climb out of a van and start chasing and beating civilian protesters with cudgels of wood. Ennahda strenuously denies that they had anything to do with these cavemen, but nevertheless it happened. So no matter what the man on the street says, no matter whether the protesters should or shouldn’t be on Habib Bourguiba, no matter whether their protest is justified or not, even: the running battles that took place down side-streets, far from Habib Bourguiba – so reminiscent of the actions of Ben Ali – prove to me that there is something in the protesters’ grievance.

A bad photo I took, forgive me. But those plainclothes men in that white A-Team van are about to produce white painted wooden cudgels, with which they are about beat any protester they catch. Note the police are blithely ignoring them, letting them get on with scaring the heck out of me.

Rumours abound concerning the violence. I have been told that some of the trouble-makers on Monday were ex-government (Ben Ali’s government, that is) and some were from the Ennahda party. There are rumours too that there was an explosion at the Hotel Africa on Habib Bouguiba. Almost certainly we will never fully understand the sequence of events that ended in violence on Monday.

What we do know is that, since the broken protest in Tunis, there has been a wave of sympathetic protests in Kebilya, in Sousse, in Sidi Bouzid and in other towns across the country. What it will lead to, we shall discover in due course.

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The above is all I learnt about the protests, talking to friends in Tunis and online. Now I shall give my impression of why the protest was attacked and dispersed using violent means.

My impression was that the protesters went one step too far. They had rolled over three police lines already, each progressively more aggressive – the first linking arms, the second with riot shields, the third unfortunately had tear-gas. The crowd was so large (thousands, according to some counts) and so optimistic that it could have carried on rolling through those lines all day, if the police hadn’t used their weapons.

If the protest had been small – perhaps restricted to the fifty people I joined near the market – and if they had behaved in an acquiescent manner, instead of insisting on marching, then perhaps the police would have allowed us to remain in a kettle at the edge of Habib Bouguiba. Perhaps we could have stood on the steps of the cathedral, a noisy – but static and merely symbolic – protest.

This kind of protest is allowed. Outside the union, not on Habib Bourguiba.

But the protesters pushed too far. The police couldn’t keep rolling back and retreating – they had to counterstrike. And once the first shot had been fired, that was it. The tragic but inevitable outcome was running battles in the streets.

(A side note: I don’t think you can ignore the part played by pride in the actions of both the police and the protesters. It reminded me of the Orwell story Shooting an Elephant. The police couldn’t accept defeat, for pride in their position. The protesters, once committed, couldn’t back down either.)

But supposing the police had let us march to the Ministry of Interior – what would have happened then? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps the crowd would have gathered there awhile, chanting, singing, making speeches. Then perhaps they would have dispersed of their own accord, their protest heard, their point made, the martyrs remembered.

But the police couldn’t let that happen. They couldn’t allow themselves to be defeated, even for the sake of injured civilians and widespread panic.

I am not naive, however. There is a strong chance that the protesters wouldn’t have stopped peacefully at the Ministry of Interior. There is every chance that the protest would have escalated and swelled beyond control.

But perhaps therein lies the real reason why the protest was broken up with such force. Perhaps the government and the police fear a second revolution to follow the first, as happened in Russia and in France. This second revolution, of course, would not be patient with the current hierarchy.

I cannot say I support a second revolution or not: it is none of my business. But I believe one thing is certain: the actions of the police on Monday – and let’s not forget the government, who provoked the violence by making the march illegal – have made a second uprising only more likely.

Repression does not breed acquiescence in the Tunisian people – you would have thought 2011 had shown that eloquently enough.

Sidi Bouzid’s memorial to the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. Or the first Tunisian revolution?

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