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.

A step backward in Tunisia

Weekend violence in Tunisia has cast a shadow over the transitional process, just as political campaigning and voter registration get underway.

The weekend started badly, with clashes between police and protesters at the Kasbah in Tunis, where “les sit-inners” tried once again to protest against the slow transition of the government. By the end of the day on Friday, protesters had holed up in a nearby mosque, where police continued to clash with them. Friday’s events were followed by further violence on Saturday, including the burning down of a police station north of Tunis, and further clashes in Tunis. Sunday saw more violence, including unconfirmed reports that a 15 year old in Sidi Bouzid may have been killed.

What’s striking about these events is not just the violence itself, but the multitude of theories over who is behind this violence, when the majority of the country is looking for security and stability. The lack of authoritative information and the distrust of the media and the ministry of the interior are at the heart of these conspiracies.

While the ministry of the interior released a statement claiming that religious extremists were behind the attacks, Jeune Afrique reported today that former ruling party members may behind the attacks. The motive: to trigger doubt about the electoral process and sow discord.

The events come at a time when political parties are trying to reach out to voters and just one week into the voter registration campaign by the electoral commission. According to Leaders.com, Afek Tunis, a center right party, had to abort plans for a weekend rally in Sidi Bouzid amidst violence and threats.  Ennahda, the main Islamist party, condemned the violence over the weekend, in particular the attack on protesters at the Kasbah on Friday. In a statement posted on the Muslim Brotherhood’s English website, Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi called on the state to “open an independent inquiry into the above events, and bring those responsible for attacks on citizens and the mosque to account.”

These are troubling events that make campaigning difficult and further divide the population. They also play into popular fears that nothing has really changed in Tunisia and that the RCD is still controlling the levers of power. Prime Minister Essebsi’s government may be facing its most important challenge to date. The future of democracy in Tunisia will be based on whether citizens accept the government’s legitimacy and believe it is accountable for its actions. These weekend’s events are a key test, for both the transitional government and the political parties.