The bizarre and counterproductive crackdown by Tunisia’s police

Courtesy Willis from Tunis: A tear gas canister explodes while cries from inside the cloud call for freedom, dignity, and the people

It’s been a busy week for me. I hosted friends from Europe, which included a beautiful tour of northern Tunisia in all its springtime glory. As I was hiking up beautiful Mount Zaghouan, enjoying the flowers in bloom and views across Tunisia’s fruited plain, I received a scary text – things were exploding down on Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis.

I was shocked – protests are often called on public holidays, in this case Martyr’s Day, to celebrate Tunisians killed by French colonial forces in 1938 – but these seemed to be particularly violent. Back in Tunis, the stories rolled in, the violence and brutality almost unimaginable.  Activists, onlookers, and even Western journalists were savagely beaten by police.

I’ve witnessed police brutality firsthand in Tunis, but none since the elections. What was happening? After all, the tourists are finally returning, the economy seems to have a little life. Why would the Interior Ministry embark on such a public and violent crackdown?

The official line was that protests on Tunisia’s main avenue had been banned. After the embarrassing scenes of religious extremists attacking a theater troupe and climbing the central clocktower, Islamist flags (not Tunisian ones) in hand – the government had banned further protests on Bourguiba Avenue.

A week later, with public condemnation by most political leaders and an official investigation underway, we are still no closer to understanding why the police would act the way they did. But for now, the ban on protests has been lifted. It is an open question  whether this will change either public opinion or the government’s actions. One thing is certain, the heavily reported event will do the Tunisian tourism industry no favors.

For many, this week’s events were a sad reminder of how much work remains to be done to reform a police state.