Governor Confirms New “Temporary Refugee” Camp Near Libyan Border

Main Photo: A screenshot of a post on the official Facebook page of the Tataouine governorate depicting the January 9, 2020 visit of Tataouine Governor Adel Ouerghi and local officials at Bir al-Fatnasiyya, the site of a camp.

Governor Confirms New “Temporary Refugee” Camp Near Libyan Border

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Tataouine – Achref Chibani

In an interview with Meshkal, the governor of Tataouine, Adel Ouerghi, has confirmed that a camp in the municipality of Remada is being built to provide logistical support to refugees until the crisis in Libya eases.

Ouerghi told Meshkal that the camp will be temporary and for refugees, and noted that the regional authorities are coordinating with the United Nation’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Many, however, have expressed fear and concern that authorities intend to make the camp permanent and that it might host migrants expelled from Europe in line with previous suggestions made by the European Union.

The Tunisian state news agency TAP had reported on January 9, 2020 that Ouerghi visited the site of the camp in Bir el-Fatnasiyya that morning—apparently confirmed by photos shared on the official Facebook page of the Tataouine Governorate—and that a meeting the night before by the Regional Security Council in Tataouine had hosted a representative from UNHCR. Another report has suggested UNICEF and the World Health Organization are also involved in the planning of the camp.

On January 7, 2020, the United Nations’ Resident Coordinator in Tunisia, Diego Zorrilla, told radio station RTCI he was meeting later that day with Tunisia’s foreign affairs, defense, and interior ministers “to talk about a contingency plan…to permit the establishment of response mechanisms, responding to the needs of the population that could cross the border, this population that is fleeing a conflict situation.” A 2020 “Planning Summary” of the UNHCR’s work in Tunisia released in November 2019 noted that “while a major influx from Libya cannot be ruled out, the refugee population is anticipated to increase from some 2,490 (as of August 2019) to 5,000 by the end of 2020.”

The Bir el-Fatnasiyya camp is about 27 kilometers from the center of the town Remada and is situated on a well. A number of local activists have told Meshkal they are concerned that the camp will turn into a permanent platform to host migrants. In 2018, the European Union had suggested that African countries host screening centers for refugees seeking to go to Europe, a proposal the late president Beji Caid Essebsi reportedly rejected at the time. In recent years, Tunisia’s coast guard officials have ramped up their detention of migrants bound for Italy by sea.

Meshkal spoke with a blogger from Remada who asked to be quoted only by his initials M. J. (many Tunisian bloggers who comment on social affairs opt for anonymity). Although Remada only has 6,315 inhabitants according to the 2014 census, M.J. runs a Facebook page on local affairs called “Remada 24” which has over 28,000 followers.

M.J. told Meshkal that many in the town fear the Bir el-Fatnasiyya camp will be more than just a temporary shelter for those fleeing the fighting in Libya. According to M.J., regional authorities should provide sufficient guarantees to reassure the residents that the Bir el-Fatnasiyya camp is a temporary solution for refugee relief and there is no intention to make it a permanent platform. In addition M.J. said local officials should prioritize securing potable water for Remada—which experiences repeated interruptions especially in the summer—before working to secure water for the camp and its future inhabitants.

Omar Abdelkader, in charge of relations and communication in Tataouine-based non-governmental organization the Association for Citizenship and Liberties, also told Meshkal that civil society organizations in Tataouine fear the camp could become a permanent shelter for displaced and deported people. Abdelkader recalled the that 2011 scenario, when the influx of displaced people from Libya boosted the prices of local rents and consumer goods, is still fresh in the minds of many in the south.

Asked about these concerns, Tataouine governor Ouerghi told Meshkal he understands them. He said that the layout of the camp is designed to respond to developments in Libya and there is no way to transform the camp into a platform for the resettlement of migrants. As for concerns about water, Ouerghi responded that Remada secured self-sufficiency in water three years ago thanks to the concerted efforts of the various relevant departments.

However, it’s not just local activists concerned about the camp. National organizations and political parties have also raised flags. The “Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights” (FTDES by its French Acronym), a non-governmental organization, expressed concern about the camp.

“Faced with the lack of information on this plan, with the questions raised by the choice of its location, in particular the respect of human conditions and minimal help, faced with the shortcomings of the Tunisian legal system and faced with the absence of a national strategy as well as a law that regulates and guarantees the rights of migrants, the FTDES questions whether it is appropriate to make such choices knowing that they threaten the fundamental rights of refugees,” the FTDES said in a press release about the camp on January 7, 2020. The same press release also condemned “the international and especially European policies that have aggravated the situation in Libya” and closed Europe’s borders, “thus pushing Tunisia to assume the responsibility of refugees fleeing Libya.”

Former member of parliament and current leader of the “Harak Tunisia Al-Irada” party, Imed Daimi, commented in a recent Facebook post on his official page that “the biggest fear is that the whole plan is to set up a camp to receive clandestine migrants who are prevented form reaching or are expelled from Europe, on our land under the pretense of a humanitarian camp.”

In the post, Daimi noted that the choice of the camp’s location is concering because it is 75 km from the Dhehiba border crossing with Libya and 185 km from the Ras Ajdir crossing, yet it is only 20 km from the Remada airport. Many Tunisian migrants expelled from Italy are often transported by airplane.

Daimi added that it is customary to set up humanitarian camps either within the country at war (i.e. Libya in this case) with international protection or in a neighboring country in an area close to the border.

Daimi suggested in his post that he has information the there are plans to make the camp a permanent center with fixed structure, although he did not explain where this information came from and Meshkal was unable to verify this information.

“Tunisia cannot accept to become an open detention center and an advance protection point for Europe’s maritime borders. We cannot accept to be the gendarmerie of southern Mediterranean Europe in exchange for some crumbs,” Daimi added.

Fadil Aliriza translated and adapted this article from the Arabic.

Climate Change, Environment Prompt Search for Short-term Farming Solutions

Main photo: A date farmer Kebili, September 2019. Photo by George Gale.

Climate Change, Environment Prompt Search for Short-term Farming Solutions

Friday, February 14, 2020

Tunis – Morgan Beard

Climate change and rising temperatures are expected to have serious effects on Tunisian agriculture. Assessing some of these effects and proposing coping solutions were the focus of several presentations in Tunis in recent weeks.

“It is very, very serious what is happening,” said Samia Cherif, a professor in the Environmental Department at ISSBAT, the University of Tunis El Manar, and a member of the Editorial Committee of the Mediterranean Experts on Climate and Environmental Change (MedECC) network.

Cherif was speaking at a conference on environmental issues in the Mediterranean region held at Culture City in Tunis on Wednesday, January 29. The conference was attended by about 100 people.

“We may well change our agricultural practices; we may well change all of our plants; we may well change everything, but we arrive at a point where we have no solutions left, where we have no water, where it all evaporates, where it’s just too hot,” Cherif warned.

According to a World Bank study published in 2013, as climate change pushes up global food prices, the basic foods which Tunisia currently imports, such as wheat and sugar, are going to be difficult to afford. Apart from affecting the yields of strategic foodstuffs—the World Bank report notes that “yields for wheat, barley, and irrigated potatoes are expected to fall”— climate change is also set to affect the production of Tunisia’s export-destined cash crops, such as dates, olives, and citrus.

This, as Essia Guezzi, Project Officer at World Wildlife Fund North Africa, explained to Meshkal in previous reporting, “threatens agriculture and sources of subsistence for the population.”

Apart from the threat to food production and basic subsistence, researchers also expect broader economic consequences in the short-term resulting from climate change’s impact on agriculture. According to World Bank statistics, the agriculture, forestry, and fishing industry accounted for over 10 percent of Tunisia’s GDP in 2018, the most recent year on record.

Despite Cherif’s bleak assessment of the potential worst-case scenario, this hasn’t stopped researchers from considering new techniques to mitigate the effects as climate change wreaks devastation on crops. While some of those solutions involve new technologies, like drones, others are based on centuries-old cultivation practices.

“Right now, we’re effectively going back to ancient cultivation practices,” Cherif said during the conference. “For example permaculture, which can actually offer better growing outputs – and there have been studies done on that.”

Permaculture, a term coined in the late seventies, is a framework of agricultural design principles which uses a mixture of ancient techniques and modern ecological understanding to promote sustainable agriculture and ecological resilience. Some of the core principles of permaculture include an emphasis on biodiversity and maintaining natural resources such as soil nutrients. The Permaculture Research Institute calls it “a multidisciplinary toolbox” that “integrates land, resources, people and the environment through mutually beneficial synergies – imitating the no waste, closed loop systems seen in diverse natural systems.”

Professor Abdelaziz Mougou, who attended the January 29 conference and identified himself as an Emeritus Professor of Agronomy and former State Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, told Meshkal that farmers might need adapt to climate change by changing the types of crops they grow. Mougou gave the example of almonds, which are currently grown in Tunisia but require cold temperatures.

“Either you need to find a new variety that can thrive in elevated temperatures or you need to move them to a colder region which can support them,” Mougou told Meshkal.

On the other hand, Mougou also argued that warmer temperatures in Tunisia might enable the cultivation of crops which would normally be grown farther south, such as coffee. However, regardless of temperature changes, climate change is unlikely to significantly increase Tunisia’s annual rainfall, and a tropical crop like coffee requires at least 750 millimeters of annual rainfall. Tunisia currently experiences about 450 millimeters of annual rainfall.

Nevertheless, specialists at the conference appeared to agree that it was important to increase the diversity of agricultural products so that unforeseen consequences would not lead as easily lead to disaster.

“Now since we’re going to have a problem, especially in the Mediterranean…with viruses and bacteria. If you have a monoculture, it will kill everything all at once,” Cherif told Meshkal.

Insects, Pesticides and Technology

According to Professor Kaouther Lebdi Grissa of the National Agronomic Institute of Tunisia (INAT) which is a college of the University of Carthage, an often-overlooked effect of climate change that is nevertheless likely to have a significant impact on the agricultural industry is on insect life.

As temperatures rise, many species will survive the winter in greater numbers and begin to appear earlier in the season, according to Lebdi Grissa, who was presenting her research at a January 24 conference held at Cité des Sciences in Tunis. Some species are likely to take advantage of those longer seasons by increasing the number of times they reproduce per year, further increasing their populations.

In addition, new invasive species of pests are likely to migrate north seeking lower temperatures, further affecting the ecosystem in ways that are difficult to predict.

This may increase farmers’ dependence on industrial pesticides.

“It’s a compromise,” Cherif said on the issue of pesticides at the January 29th conference. “Effectively, we can’t go back. If you do even a little bit of farming, you know that you can’t do without pesticides because you can lose the entire crop down to the last fruit.”

However, Cherif argued that newer types of pesticides exist which are less harmful to the environment, and Tunisian farmers can switch to using these types of pesticides.

Testing Farming Drones in Sidi Bouzid

Meanwhile, other researchers are trying to add technological innovation to improve overall productivity.

Elyes Hanfi, an aeronautical engineer and the technical and cultivation director at the National Company for the Protection of Plants, or SONAPROV by its French acronym, presented the group’s findings from a three-month pilot program held in Sidi Bouzid during the summer of 2019 that tested how drones might be used to increase productivity and efficiency in agriculture.

SONAPROV, which is a government-funded company linked to the Ministry of Agriculture, received funding for the project from the Regional Commission for Agricultural Development Bizerte (CRDA Bizerte) and the Bizerte 2050 Association which is an NGO partner of the Bizerte Smart City development project.

Hanfi’s team used two types of drones, one fixed-wing (like a plane) and the other quadcopter (like a helicopter with four individual rotors).

The fixed wing drone, equipped with high-definition cameras that capture images in both visual-spectrum and infrared, is used to map out a given parcel of land by taking many individual photos that are later stitched together by a computer system, Hanfi explained.

When these images are compiled, they give the user not only a highly detailed map of the land, but also a 3D model of its topography.

These models provide a variety of data, including: slope rates, which can be used to optimize irrigation systems; available sunlight in any given point, which can help farmers decide where to place different kinds of crops, and the density of vegetation to show where crops are growing well and where they are struggling.

By analyzing the color of soil and crops, the system can also determine how healthy plants are and show where soil varies in composition, according to Hanfi. That helps farmers determine where they may need to use more fertilizer or water their crops more frequently.

If the user needs to get a closer look, the quadcopter drone, which is equipped with its own articulating camera, can hover and move more precisely in the air. That can be useful when trying to visually diagnose problems in hard-to-reach places like the tops of trees.

Though they were not tested in this pilot program, similar drone systems which are able to automatically dispense pesticides are already commercially available. Such systems, when used in conjunction with the 3D models created by other drones, might make pesticide use more efficient and enable farmers to target specific areas where they are needed, decreasing the overall amount of chemicals released into the environment.

Despite these advancements, however, there is little room for optimism as long as the root causes of climate change are not addressed urgently and comprehensively as the existential threat that they are.

“It’s no longer a question of politics, or energy, or war. If we have nothing left to eat, if we have nothing left to drink, war is left behind. For me it is a bit like a kind of war,” Cherif said.

In Sexual Harassment Case, Many Teachers Support Accused Colleague

Main photo: Teacher Jamila Chemlali (L) and Nour Jihen Becheikh, Aswat Nissa’s legal consultant (R), speak at a press conference in Tunis on January 30, 2020. Photo by Morgan Beard.

In Sexual Harassment Case, Many Teachers Support Accused Colleague

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Tunis – Ghaya Ben Mbarek

After a teacher at the Rue de Russie high school accused of sexual harassing a student was detained and charged with crimes relating to sexual harassment, the mother of the student and another teacher at the school supporting the student have faced threats from the detained teacher’s colleagues, according to the Aswat Nissa [Women’s Voices] NGO.

The details of what has been called a public smear campaign against teacher Jamila Chemlali were outlined at a press conference hosted by Aswat Nissa on Friday, January 30, in a hotel in downtown Tunis. Chemlali said she had been approached by a student who claimed to have been sexually harassed by another teacher. Chemlali then brought the case to school administrators. Since then, she says she has faced death threats and abuse from colleagues on social media. The name of the accused teacher and of the victim have not been published in media accounts.

In an interview with private radio Mosaique FM on January 17, Fatma Helal, the regional director for education in Tunis, explained that a teacher from Rue de Russie high school had been arrested on January 10 and was placed in pre-trial detention after a female student’s parents filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him. Helal clarified that the incidents surrounding the case dated back a year before and had been referred to administrative authorities and “necessary administrative steps” had been taken. According to Aswat Nissa, the newest criminal charges filed relate to alleged violations of law 58 passed in 2017 that updates and brings together existing laws under the category of violence against women.

In response to the detention of their colleague, several teachers represented by the Tunis branch of the Secondary Education Union went on strike on January 17 demanding his immediate release. A press release on January 20 bearing the logo of the national umbrella union the UGTT and signed by the secretary general of the regional branch of the teachers’ union Mounir Kheireddine, called the case a “malicious” one, adding that “certain media and political parties forcibly involved themselves in search of cheap exploitation.” The same statement stressed the union’s support for combatting sexual harassment, but insisted allegations of such should not become a method of settling political scores.

While the name of the accused teacher has not been released in media reports, the teachers’ union has named the accused individual and announced their support for him, including planning a demonstration in front of the courthouse this Wednesday, February 12.

Meshkal was unable to reach a representative from the regional branch of the teachers’ union for comment. However, its general secretary Kheireddine, reiterated in an interview with private radio IFM that accusations made against their colleague are part of “a settling of political accounts.”

“What is strange in this case is that I was subjected to smear campaigns and death threats,” Jamila Chemlali, the teacher at Rue De Russie school who stood up for the student victim, said at the Aswat Nissa conference. “I was subjected to attempted violence inside the teachers’ room and continuous bullying on social media.”

According to Chemlali, the student was also subjected to extortion from some parties to drop the charges against the accused teacher.

“Instead of providing protection to the people involved in this sensitive sexual harassment case, including the victim, we see a horrendous mobilization against anyone who says a righteous word in favor of this lawsuit,” Chemlali added.

The mother of the alleged victim was also planning to attend the January 30 press conference, however she backed out after a public smear campaign and in light of ongoing threats that she and her family have been subjected to, explained Nour Jihen Becheikh, Aswat Nissa’s legal consultant.

Chemlali believes that many untold stories in Tunisian educational institutions still exist, and it has led to what she called “a normalization of sexual harassment.”

In an interview with Meshkal, Chemlali said that she “would like to call on my students and encourage them to speak up against sexual harassment. You need to stand for your right to study in a safe environment.”

“Such phenomenon goes against the principles of educational institutions… Many students also come to me to tell me about such incidents, but I always find myself incapable and with no mechanisms,” Chemlali told Meshkal.

Sonia Ben Miled, Aswaat Nissa’s communication officer told Meshkal that “right now, everything is in front of the judiciary power and we’re waiting for a final decision to be made… in a press release we made few days ago we called on the UGTT and its Secondary Education Syndicate to stop this kind of pressure on the judiciary power.”

Becheikh, the legal consultant for Aswat Nissa, also reiterated the commitment of both Aswat Nissa and the #EnaZeda campaign to support victims of sexual harassment, in light of what she called “the lack of responsiveness from official authorities and the frightening numbers that we are becoming aware of.”

The #EnaZeda movement has seen victims of sexual violence, abuse, and harassment recount their personal stories, often anonymously and online in a Facebook group of the same name that has about 21 thousand members as of November 13, 2019. The movement was launched in early October 2019 after Zouheir Makhlouf, a recently elected member of parliament for the Qalb Tounes party, was apparently photographed with his pants down and cream on his hands by a woman who alleged he had been following her in his car.

An oral testimony recorded by a high school student from Gabes was also presented during the January 30 Aswat Nissa press conference. The girl in the recording, who opted to remain anonymous, recounted how she was sexually harassed by her teacher last year.

“He would slip his hands on my back, stand behind me and grab my waist and many other similar acts,” the student said. “Unfortunately, the judiciary was not fair to me.”

Ben Miled noted that in this case from Gabes, despite having one witness to back up her story, the student’s case was dismissed in court.

The student from Gabes said she is now facing a defamation lawsuit filed against her by the teacher who assaulted her and that even though there are more students who are coming forward and alleging sexual harassment by the same teacher, they are routinely being dismissed by her high school’s headmaster.

Becheikh referred to the decision of teachers to strike in response to the judicial process as “a justification of sexual harassment despite the amount of violations this act bears on the sanctity of the body and human dignity. Also, despite its criminalization in law 58 which concerns the eradication of all forms of violence against women.”

However, Aswat Nissa was careful not to place the blame on the unions, and Ben Miled noted that they trust the UGTT and they want them to stop the pressure on the judiciary.

“In this case the victim was traumatized by the sexual harassment case and she was traumatized again as people don’t believe her and are carrying out a smear campaign against her,” Ben Miled added.

A teacher present in the press conference, who asked to remain anonymous because of fears of similar backlash from colleagues, told Meshkal about an incident that dates back to 2004 where a student confided to her about her physics teacher sexually harassing her.

She said that back then, her school’s director asked her not to talk about it for fear of creating chaos. Eventually this student had to change her school while the teacher who allegedly did the harrasing remains until this day unpunished teaching in the same high school.

She said hearing Ms. Chemlali’s talk encouraged her a little bit because Chemlali did what she was unable to do back then: protect her student.

Two Demonstrations Denounce “Injustice of the Century”

Main photo: Demonstrators in downtown Tunis denounce the so-called “Deal of the Century” on January 31, 2020. Photo by Morgan Beard.

Two Demonstrations Denounce “Injustice of the Century”

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Tunis – Ghaya Ben Mbarek

Hundreds of people gathered to demonstrate in downtown Tunis Friday afternoon, January 31 against the so-called “Deal of the Century” announced on January 28 by U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The “deal”, a plan which apparently formalizes the continued de facto fracturing of Palestinian territory and loss of sovereignty, was promptly rejected by Palestinians with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas saying at a press conference the same day the deal was announced that “Jerusalem is not for sale…your conspiracy deal will not pass.”  In an interview with national TV on January 30th, Tunisian president Kais Saied called the “deal” the “Injustice of the Century.”

Demonstrators in downtown Tunis denounce the so-called “Deal of the Century” on January 31, 2020. Photo by Morgan Beard.

One demonstration, which began at 14:00 on the steps of the National Theater on Bourguiba Avenue, was organized by the General Tunisian Union of Students (UGTE by its French acronym), one of two major student unions. The UGTE, considered to be traditionally associated with Islamist politics, splintered in 1985 from the main student union, the UGET, or General Union of Tunisian Students, which is considered to be more closely associated with leftist, nationalist, and pan-Arab political currents.

Demonstrators in downtown Tunis denounce the so-called “Deal of the Century” on January 31, 2020. Photo by Morgan Beard.

Meanwhile, a second, separate demonstration began at 15:00 across the street from the national theater and continued at the same time as the first one. Although both demonstrations appeared to attract diverse groups including passers-by, the second demonstration across from the theater appeared to feature more nationalist, pan-Arab, and leftist political currents.

Demonstrators on both sides of the street waved Palestinian flags, expressing solidarity with Palestinians and Arabs while denouncing the “deal.” Chants in the first one included support for the Qassam brigades, the military wing of Hamas. Calls for criminalizing normalization of relations between Tunisia and Israel were prominent in the second demonstration.

Demonstrators in downtown Tunis denounce the so-called “Deal of the Century” on January 31, 2020. Photo by Morgan Beard.

“This deal of the century can be called a shameful deal, a traitorous deal…because it breaches all the agreements, breaches accords, and it infringes on the Palestinian people who have been resisting for years, who have been defending their rights, their dignity, and their land,” Hamza Akaichi, general secretary of the UGTE and general secretary of the Maghreb Students’ Union, told Meshkal at the protest.

The first demonstration included many speakers and chants invoking religious language, framing political issues in Palestine through the lens of Judaism, Islam, and holy sites. Akaichi told Meshkal that the “deal” was a “disgrace to the Arab Islamic Ummah.”

“This demonstration is a message to the Palestinian people, the Palestinian people are not a people all alone, isolated,” Akaichi said. “The second message is to dictatorial regimes, traitorous client regimes.”

Demonstrators in downtown Tunis denounce the so-called “Deal of the Century” on January 31, 2020. Photo by Morgan Beard.

The second demonstration featured signs with caricatures of Trump and Netanyahu blowing up part of the globe with dynamite. A flag of the the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was also held aloft at the second demonstration.

Demonstrators in downtown Tunis denounce the so-called “Deal of the Century” on January 31, 2020. Photo by Morgan Beard.

The “deal” is an “aggression against the historical rights of the Palestinian people,” Moutaa Amin Elwaer, one of the demonstrators at the second demonstration and  a member of the Tunisian Boycott and Anti-Normalization Campaign, told Meshkal at the protest. “It’s limiting the historical rights of the Palestinian people…It’s abandoning their right to go back to their homeland.”

Elwaer explained the resonance of Palestine for Tunisians noting that Tunisians have fought in Palestine in resistance organizations since 1947. Tunisia also hosted the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which was based in Tunisia from 1982 to 1991. In 1985, Israel bombed the PLO headquarters near Tunis killing dozens of Palestinians and Tunisians and wounding many more. In 2016, a Palestinian drone engineer linked to Hamas was killed in Tunisia, with many pro-Palestinian groups accusing Mossad of being responsible.* Tunisian authorities subsequently arrested ten Tunisians accused of participating in the killing, but two Bosnians suspected of involvement reportedly escaped.

Demonstrators in downtown Tunis denounce the so-called “Deal of the Century” on January 31, 2020. Photo by Morgan Beard.

Several other signs called for a Boycott of US Products with the acronym BUP. A group of people holding such signs explained to Meshkal that they had launched the campaign about a month before, following what they say are similar campaigns in other countries. However, the campaign members declined to answer more questions or go on record.

Demonstrators in downtown Tunis denounce the so-called “Deal of the Century” on January 31, 2020. Photo by Morgan Beard.

At least two demonstrators at the second demonstration held aloft photos of Bashar al Assad the president of Syria, and of Hafez al Assad, Bashar’s predecessor and father. The Assad posters appeared to prompt a brief set of arguments within the second demonstration.

Fadil Aliriza contributed to this article.

*Updated. An earlier version referred to speculation about Mossad’s involvement rather than definite accusations of such.

After Long Delay, Government May Publish Truth Commission’s Final Report, Official Says

Main photo: Belhassen Ben Amor, an advisor in the prime minister’s office, at a panel on transitional justice organized by civil society at the Sheraton hotel in Tunis on Tuesday, January 28, 2020. Photo by Morgan Beard.

After Long Delay, Government May Publish Truth Commission’s Final Report, Official Says

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Tunis – Fadil Aliriza

More than one year after the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) finished its investigative work and drafted its final report on state abuses going back half a century, an official from Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s office suggested that the publication of the report in the official state gazette is “in its final stages.”

“Without overburdening you with details…without delving you with details, the issue, I assure you, its settlement is progressing; it is in its final stages. There are no more problems,” Belhassen Ben Amor, an advisor at the prime minister’s office told the audience at a civil-society organized conference on transitional justice held at the Sheraton hotel in Tunis on Tuesday, January 28. The conference was hosted by a civil society campaign called “La roujou3” [Never Again], organized by the Tunis office of Lawyers Without Borders (ASF by its French acronym), the transparency NGO Al-Bawsala, and the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights (FTDES by its French acronym).

The government has faced criticism from victims of state abuses and activists for thus far not officially publishing the report, which documents the systemic human rights abuses perpetrated by the state from July 1, 1955, just before Tunisia’s formal independence, to the passing of Tunisia’s transitional justice law in 2013. An executive summary of the report published independently by the TDC itself in May 2019 runs to 505 pages and the final report is expected to run over 2,000 pages. Activists supporting the transitional justice process have been calling on the government to publish the report in the state gazette for months and are still concerned it may not be published.

“If they don’t do it, the document will not be a document of the state,” Antonio Manganella, the director of ASF’s Tunis office told Meshkal on the sidelines of the conference ASF helped organize. “The truth that we have within the report and all the recommendations will just be a dead letter if it’s not endorsed by the state.”

“What will happen if they don’t do it? They can say that the report is not good and so we have to open the process again to write a report to find some truth etc. etc.,” Manganella said.

Ben Amor blamed the delay in publishing the TDC report on the TDC itself, noting “several procedural problems with the ending of the commission’s work,” although he did not specify what these procedural problems were or how they delayed publication in the state’s official gazette, the JORT (Journal Official de la République Tunisienne).

Panel participants at the La roujou3 campaign event on transitional justice at the Sheraton hotel in Tunis on Tuesday, January 28, 2020. Photo by Morgan Beard.

Ben Amor appeared for a few minutes in the middle of the conference. His appearance was the first time an official has even responded to an invitation by civil society groups who have advocated the continuation of transitional justice cases, according to ASF’s director Manganella.

“This is the first time. Step by step. We worked for five years on the issue and we never had even an answer, a reply to say I can’t come. Nothing. Zero. Open letters, closed letters, communiqués,” got no response, Manganella told Meshkal.

Asked if this change in attitude towards transitional justice discussions from the government was an effect of the election of president Kais Saied in October 2019, Manganella responded: “I can’t find any other explanation.”

Saied had campaigned on the slogans of the 2011 uprising. On Monday, Saied visited the family of activist Lina Ben Mhenni, a prominent activist known for her role in the 2011 uprising and subsequent protests against state abuses who succumbed to a chronic auto-immune disease the evening before at the age of 36. A state funeral was organized for Ben Mhenni on Tuesday and she was buried in Jellaz cemetery where prominent political leaders are buried, reportedly decisions taken under Saied’s authority. Several activists have commented on social media that the state honoring a prominent activist and rights advocate such as Ben Mhenni would have been unthinkable under the presidency of the late Beji Caid Essebsi, who spearheaded an amnesty law for old regime officials over the protests of activists like Ben Mhenni. A minute of silence was observed for Ben Mhenni by conference participants on Tuesday.

Conference participants stand in a minute of silence to honor Lina Ben Mhenni, who died the previous night after an illness. Photo taken on Tuesday, January 28, 2020 at the Sheraton hotel in Tunis by Fadil Aliriza.

President Saied did not attend Tuesday’s transitional justice conference, although he had been invited. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and head of parliament Rached Ghannouchi were also invited but did not attend.

Panel discussions at the event featured comments from prominent judges, lawyers, civil society activists and victims of state abuse. About 120 people were in the audience on Tuesday, and many of them were also given the chance to comment or ask questions. Several expressed frustration with the slow pace of court proceedings for the special tribunals set up to hear cases referred by the TDC and for the delay in publishing the list of “martyrs” killed largely by state security officials during the 2011 uprising. Protests over this issue have continued for years, with one prominent protest held recently outside of parliament on November 13, 2019 as newly elected legislators took their seats

On that issue, Ben Amor from the prime minister’s office placed the blame for the delay at the feet of the state’s administrative court and Parliament’s Committee on Martyrs and Wounded of the Revolution.

“There’s an order published by the administrative court. This order needs the Committee on Martyrs and Wounded of the Revolution to publish its position…It’s a legal discussion,” Ben Amor told the audience “I can give you my personal opinion, but my opinion is as a legal expert, and I have another opinion but which I keep for myself,” he said, without elaborating further.

But many conference participants pointed to procedural and administrative delays as undermining the transitional justice process altogether.

“The official from the judiciary told us about the big problems in Tunisian courts etc., but us as citizens, we have the impression that things are going so slowly as if we are being made to wait until those responsible die natural deaths and then you can close the case and move on,” said one conference attendee who identified himself as Khaled Abdullah.

Others pointed to a continued overall lack of attention and value placed on the ongoing special tribunal hearings.

“The hearings which I attended or where I gave testimony the rooms were almost empty,” one conference attendee said of the specialized transitional justice tribunals without identifying herself. She called on more reporting and media attention for the cases, as well as basic information about the cases to be transmitted to victims themselves who are sometimes unable to get details on hearing schedules.

The campaign hosting Tuesday’s conference, La roujou3, is working to observe hearings in the special tribunals and offer some transparency to the public about court proceedings. The campaign also published a series of policy recommendations in a pamphlet handed out at the conference. These included urging the government to publish the TDC’s final report in the official state gazette and that the government develop a plan of action based on its recommendations. In addition, the group recommended that Parliament’s Committee on Transitional Justice take responsibility for ensuring the government acts on its transitional justice plan while opening up to public oversight and participation from outside consultants and authorities.

La roujou3 also made recommendations it said are aimed at helping insulate the national archives and the special tribunals from interference by state bodies, like guaranteeing their public funding, making sure their responsibilities are well-outlined, and ensuring that these bodies have full access to necessary records. Finally, the group suggested in its pamphlet that the state should make public the criteria for disbursing reparations from the so-called Dignity Funds to victims of state abuses. La roujou3 also recommended greater transparency over how reparations are managed.

Trial Begins for Customs Officials Accused of Killing 19-Year-Old

Main photo: Graffiti in the Hay El Wahhat neighborhood of Tunis mourning Omar Laabidi and Aymen Othman, two teenagers allegedly killed by security forces. Photo taken December 25, 2018 by Fadil Aliriza.

Trial Begins for Customs Officials Accused of Killing 19-Year-Old

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Tunis – Fadil Aliriza

The first hearing in the trial of customs officials accused of killing 19-year-old Aymen Othman was held Tuesday morning, January 21, at the Tunis II Court of First Instance. Othman, erroneously referred to as “Othmani” in most media reports, died on October 23, 2018 in the Sidi Hassine neighborhood of Tunis after customs officials opened fire. Witnesses claim he was shot once in the upper leg and once in the torso from behind. Photos allegedly of Othman’s body widely shared on social media and mainstream news outlets appear to show a bullet wound in his back.

Human rights organizations and media outlets have documented customs officials using live ammunition against stone-throwing locals that day following a raid on a nearby warehouse suspected of housing smuggled goods. Othman’s mother told Amnesty International that her son got caught up in the clashes around 3 p.m. that day. The human rights organization assessed evidence, including video evidence, indicating that Othman had not been throwing stones, had been trying to escape, and that customs officials beat Othman after they had shot him. The Amnesty report cites the Othman family as saying at the time that officials prevented people from calling an ambulance, and that the private car of a neighbor was eventually found to transport Othman to a hospital two hours after he initially sustained injuries. He died of his wounds around midnight.

A spokesperson for the customs agency, Haithem Znad, had contradicted this version of events, telling press outlets at the time that customs agents had fired their guns into the air. Meanwhile, Moez Ben Salem, a prosecutor at the Tunis II Court of First Instance, denied the veracity of a report Express FM claimed it had received from a medical examiner indicating a bullet had entered Othman’s back on his left side.

Tuesday’s hearing ended shortly after it began with a postponement to February 18, 2020. None of the five suspects were present at the hearing, nor were their lawyers, a normal occurrence according to Sondos Ben Ghorbel, the lawyer representing Othman’s family. According to Ben Ghorbel, the state prosecutor had initially charged two customs officials with manslaughter and three others with failure to provide assistance. Othman’s family then appealed, seeking that the officials be charged with second degree murder, but that this was rejected by the appeals system.

“With regard to this decision, we are not happy with it at all,” Ben Ghorbel told Meshkal in an interview in her office following Tuesday’s hearing.

According to Ben Ghorbel, they had appealed the charges and gave arguments to support it, but the state prosecutor “unfortunately didn’t support us at all.”

The two customs officials charged with manslaughter face two years in prison and a fine of 720 dinars according to article 217 of the penal code.

Meriem, Othman’s mother, told Meshkal after Tuesday’s hearing that she still dreams that “Aymen returns home alive.”

“What do I want? I want justice I want prison [for the perpetrators]. I want my son to rest,” Meriem told Meshkal.

After Othman’s killing on October 23, the investigating judge at the Tunis II Court of First Instance ordered the detention of four customs officials on October 25, 2018, according to the state’s news agency. However, two days later, on October 27, the investigating judge decided to release the customs officials. At the time, Moez Ben Salem, a spokesperson for the court, told the state news agency that this decision came after a so-called “ballistic report…confirmed that the young Aymen was hit by a bullet ricochet.” The report, if it exists, was not made available to the public, and details about its authorship and methodology were not clarified to press outlets at the time.

In the evening that the customs officials were released, about 300 people in Othman’s Sidi Hassine neighborhood blocked roads with tire fires, and clashes erupted between locals and security forces, the spokesperson for the Interior Ministry Sofien Zaag told the state news agency at the time. The following day, on October 28, several civil society groups and human rights organizations held a protest in front of the Interior Ministry in Tunis.

No media outlets other than Meshkal were present at the hearing this week. The Othman family’s lawyer, Ben Ghorbel, said that one radio outlet had reached out to ask if there were any new developments before deciding not to interview Othman’s mother.

However, a group of about ten activists were present with the family to support them.

“We came to support Aymen’s family, because the union of customs officials came to support their colleagues implicated in the killing,” Mayssa Oueslati, an activist, told Meshkal.

Oueslati, who has publicly spoken about her own experiences being targeted with police violence just for being young and out at night in working class neighborhoods, added that there is a bigger social issue involved in the case.

“We wanted to move public opinion,” she said, noting that she and other activists want to draw attention to the “violence of security and judicial authority over kids in poor neighborhoods.”

Some public figures have also shown support. Samir Ben Amor, a former legislator, is representing Othman’s family as a lawyer. Both Ben Amor and Ben Ghorbel are working pro bono. Meanwhile, Meriem, Othman’s mother, says she has received a phone call from Samia Abbou, a prominent member of parliament.

According to Ben Ghorbel, the trial is likely to be delayed several more times, as any of the four defense lawyers may request and will likely receive postponements. Amnesty International has noted in an April 2019 press release that “the overwhelming majority of investigations involving members of security forces as suspects do not lead to successful prosecutions of perpetrators.”

“For too long police violence and abuses in Tunisia have gone unpunished,” Magdalena Mughrabi, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in the release. “It’s time for Tunisia’s government to recognize that shielding perpetrators of police brutality from justice and stalling investigations will only maintain the cycle of abuse.”

Working While Black in Tunisia: An Uphill Struggle

Main photo: Hundreds marching several kilometers down the main Marsa-Tunis highway on December 24, 2018, blocking lanes of traffic to protest widespread racism after Ivorian Falikou Koulibaly was killed the night before in a stabbing. Photo by Fadil Aliriza.

Working While Black in Tunisia: An Uphill Struggle

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Tunis – Maisie Odone

In March 2017, Georges, a young graduate from Côte d’Ivoire, came to Tunis for an internship as a business developer. His job was to negotiate partnerships with West African companies, and his employer had promised to help him get a residence permit to ensure he could work and live in Tunisia legally. Just over one year later, Georges left Tunisia, with a 500 dinar (about $200 then, or a whole month’s average salary) fine at the airport for overstaying.

“I was frustrated and disappointed,” said Georges, who believes the way employers, colleagues, and officials treated him is linked to racism and discrimination against people from Sub-Saharan African countries. “If I am black but I have a European or US passport, then they will respect me. If I’m black and from Cote D’Ivoire, then I’m shit. They are racists but they don’t want to confess they are racists.”

It is particularly difficult for workers coming from sub-Saharan Africa to get a residence permit, according to Romdhane Ben Amor, from the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES by its French acronym), which campaigns for migrants rights.

The Association of Tunisian Women for Development Research (AFTURD by its French acronym) is one NGO that works with migrant women. Najet Araari, AFTURD’s executive director, told Meshkal that “there’s a gap in the law around the question of migration. The government doesn’t want to recognize that we are a country of transit as well as a country receiving [migrants]. Because they don’t recognize this, they don’t protect the rights of this population.”

Before arriving in Tunisia, Georges’ employer in Tunis had promised they would support his application for a residence permit. However, his employer never followed through, according to Georges, leaving him without an official legal status in Tunisia.

“I was left with no papers. When I was leaving Tunisia, I had to pay,” explained Georges.

Araari argues that this phenomenon is not only hurting people who come to Tunisia to work, but it also negatively affects the Tunisian state. She sees the forces perpetuating the large informal sector as contributing to a loss of tax revenue and other social problems.

“To work in the informal sector [dans le noir] is a crime, and you’re creating an illegal situation. If you have all of this marginality, as a state you pay for it. You create social problems, because you push people to criminality,” Araari said.

Many non Tunisian workers “cannot complain against their employers. They are paid less, they don’t pay tax. Often they might live in the restaurant because they don’t have a residence permit. They don’t have the right to rent a house,” Araari added.

Ben Amor of FTDES also confirmed that Sub Saharan migrants are paid less than their Tunisian counterparts, noting that it is very difficult for them to get an official work contract.

Union support?

On 13 February 2019, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), announced that they were opening centers to support migrant workers. A press release on the UGTT’s website, explained that the centers would be in Tunis, Sfax, Sousse, and Medenine “in order to monitor and intervene in violations and to provide assistance.”

“The Tunisian General Labor Union, just as it is keen to defend the rights of Tunisians residing abroad, is equally eager and determined to defend the rights of migrant workers residing in Tunisia, whether they are in a regular or irregular situation, by creating central communication points to guarantee guidance and legal assistance,” the press release said.

Ben Amor, however, believes that the centers are only able to support documented migrants, and since so few migrants are documented, the UGTT can offer little help.

The UGTT rarely responds to press requests for comment or interviews, and did not respond to several attempts by Meshkal to obtain basic details on the centers, whether they are operational, and where they are located.

For Georges, racism was not just about the way his employer or the Tunisian state treated him. He also endured racism from coworkers.

“I was the only black guy and the only foreigner. They used to say bullshit about you in Arabic. They made jokes about me, about my country, about my color,” he told Meshkal.

When he complained about his treatment to AIESEC, the organization who had coordinated the internship, Georges said they told him: “This is a nice country; people don’t behave like this.” Georges’ manager similarly dismissed him.

“He said I was frustrated for nothing,” explained Georges.

According to Ben Amor, there are some sectors in which workers from other African countries are particularly vulnerable. These include the agricultural sector and female domestic workers, who are “out of sight.”

Domestic workers are often recruited by informal networks and promised good salaries, according to Ben Amor.

“When they arrive here, they are confronted by reality. They’re paid two or three times less than Tunisians,” Ben Amor said. “There are underage girls, those who work all day without a clear schedule. There are women who work the weekend, without any sort of protection against accidents, and assaults in the house.”

A staff member at Maison des Droits et Migrations, the headquarters of the Tunisian branch of French NGO Terre d’Asile, explained that these women’s cases almost always fulfil the requirements for being classified as trafficking.

Araari, who has worked with migrant women experiencing difficult circumstances, recounted to Meshkal the story of one 20-year-old woman.

“She didn’t have somewhere to live. She was invited to live with 9 guys. She was the object of trafficking,” Araari said. “She couldn’t find a job. In return for staying in the house she began to fulfil sexual favors. She did housework too, and the guys started to invite clients. She became a sexual slave.”

For many migrants, Ben Amor explains, there are also issues within Tunisian public life.

Some migrants are assaulted [in the streets] and don’t report it to the police because they will be questioned” and their work and visa status is ambiguous.

“The first thing that the police ask for is their papers, and if the victim doesn’t have the papers, the police will start to look into this,” Ben Amor said. “Sometimes the police will say: ‘No, there aren’t racist violations in Tunisia,’ or ‘This aggression wasn’t racist.’”

Georges felt that he was treated differently by the police because of the color of his skin.

“Policemen talk to you in a very bad way if you’re black. If you’re white they treat you nicely you pay the fees, you try to behave normally, they treat you as you’re shit,” Georges explained. “I told one of them you don’t have to talk to me like that; he said ‘What will you do if I talk to you like that?’”

Georges recounted an incident in which he was walking in downtown Tunis with an Armenian friend. The police asked to see Georges’ passport, but they didn’t ask his friend for hers. Georges was taken to the police station and had to call the organization AIESEC, who had supported Georges coming to Tunisia. Georges thinks that “maybe they thought I was somehow a danger to her.”

“She said we lived in the same apartment. They couldn’t believe it,” Georges said.

Georges also felt targeted for his color by ordinary people on the street, especially in poorer neighborhoods.

“If you’re black and passing by they try and attack you, take your phone. If you’re a girl, they try to beat you just for fun. This used to happen, especially to girls. If you’re a girl, late at night, they can attack you.”

On the night of the 23 December 2018, Falikou Koulibaly, the president of the Association of Ivorians in Tunisia was killed when he was stabbed by a mugger. The attack sparked outrage and protests among people from sub-saharan African countries living in Tunisia who feel regularly targeted by violent attacks. The day after the attack, several hundred protestors marched down the main Marsa-Tunis highway, blocking several lanes of traffic as they walked several kilometers to the Ivorian embassy in Menzah (see main photo above). There was also a protest downtown at the same time, and protestors chanted “Tunisians are racist.”

Georges told Meshkal  that members of the Sub-Saharan community in Tunis “were so pissed off. There are many associations for black people. They met ministers many times, they were promised many things. But they [the ministers] don’t  want to change anything. They don’t think black people deserve it. They try to show the world they’re working on it, but they’re not.”

Georges explains that there was some reaction after that, but it didn’t last long.

“When something really bad happens they [members of parliament] speak, but after you don’t hear anything,” he said.

FTDES organized an demonstration in May 2018,  calling for the rights of migrant workers to be respected. According to Ben Amor, the demonstration brought together “many actors from civil society, and migrants: students, workers, those with papers, those without.”

They held another one in May 2019 and plan to hold it annually. Those demonstrations pushed the government to make some changes, Ben Amor said.

According to Ben Amor, after the 2018 protests “the interior ministry offered to waive the penalties students incurred from overstaying in Tunisia.”

Meshkal was unable to verify whether a waiver had been offered or implemented.

“We continue to ask for a mass waiver for migrants in Tunisia, to change residency laws,” Ben Amor said.

“The Sexual Harasser Does Not Legislate,” Demonstrators Chant in Front of Prime Ministry

Main photo: A group of women demonstrating against sexual violence near the prime ministry in the Kasbah of Tunis on Saturday, December 14. Photo taken by Youssef Ben Ammar and republished by Meshkal with his permission.

“The Sexual Harasser Does Not Legislate,” Demonstrators Chant in Front of Prime Ministry

December 15, 2019

Tunis – Ghaya Ben Mbarek

On Saturday, December 14, around 100 women took part in a choreographed demonstration against sexual assault in the Kasbah, in the plaza between the municipality of Tunis and the prime ministry.

The demonstration was organized by the recently launched Falgatna campaign. “Falgatna” means “We’re fed up” in Tunisian dialect.

“We thought that it was high time we start acting outside of traditional structures, such as political parties and other civil society organizations,” Amal Bent Nadia, one of the organizers of the Falgatna demonstration, told Meshkal. “As individual citizens we should take charge of the defense of our rights and lobby against sexual violence in our country.”

Demonstrators replicated a Chilean anti-rape anthem entitled “A Rapist in Your Path” that went viral after it was initially performed in November. Tunisian demonstrators on Saturday tailored their protest to denounce gender-based violence in general and the “impunity” afforded to sex offenders by the Tunisian justice system and policy makers.

Blindfolded demonstrators pointed their fingers towards the prime ministry during their routine.

“The sexual harasser does not legislate” was one verse of the song demonstrators sang, a reference to Zouheir Makhlouf, a recently elected member of parliament for the Qalb Tounes party, who was photographed in October 2019 with his pants down and cream on his hands by a woman who claimed he had been following her in his car.

That incident sparked the #EnaZeda (#MeToo in Tunisian dialect) movement and its related Facebook page with over 20,000 members who have been sharing testimonies of personal sexual abuse, harassment, and violence.

Other lyrics chanted at the Saturday demonstration included “Patriarchy has ruled us since we opened our eyes,” “The fault Is not mine, neither in where I go nor in what I wear,” and “The rapist is you; he is a member of parliament and a policeman, he is a judge and president.”

In a press release on its Facebook page, the organizers behind the Falgatna campaign described themselves as “an independent intersectional feminist grouping for lobbying against patriarchy, discrimination, and violence inflicted on individuals who were either assigned by birth or identify as women.”

Falgatna aims to gather women with different ideologies and perspectives under the same umbrella to achieve a certain momentum for Tunisian women, Bent Nadia told Meshkal.

Simultaneously, a group of Tunisian women residing in Paris gathered and performed the same anthem, in support of the demonstration that took place in the Kasbah.

Asked by Meshkal about the future of the campaign, Bent Nadia said that the “intersectional” vision of the campaign means that “any Tunisian men or women belonging to this collective is free to initiate further actions in the future.”***

The Chilean song and performance replicated by Tunisian demonstrators on Saturday was initially composed by feminist theater group “Lastesis” as a protest against what they called “femicide.” The performance has since spread, with activists in several other countries in the world adopting and adapting the original format.

***UPDATE: After this article was published, Bent Nadia contacted Meshkal to correct her earlier statement, clarifying that the Falgatna campaign is “separatist,” i.e. it is not inclusive of cis-gendered males. She stressed that the campaign welcomes cis-gendered women, transgender women, and transgender men. Asked why they chose to make their campaign separatist, Bent Nadia explained:

“Because only women know what they want to demand. They want a safe space to organize themselves and what they want to say with no social restraints.”

Despite Legal Reforms, Child Abuse is Widespread in Tunisia

Main photo: A detail from page 26 of a November, 2017 UNICEF report entitled “Familiar Faces: Violence in the lives of children and adolescents.”

Despite Legal Reforms, Child Abuse is Widespread in Tunisia

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Tunis – Ghaya Ben Mbarek

This October, Tunisia became the first non-member state to sign the Council of Europe’s convention protecting children from sexual abuse. The so-called Lanzarote convention, which will come into force in Tunisia in February 2020, includes stipulations for signatory countries to introduce wide-ranging legislation and other measures to prevent such abuse.

“Now, our work to criminalise sexual offenses against children, support victims and prosecute perpetrators expands beyond Europe,” Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe, said in a press release following Tunisia’s signing of the convention and a ceremony with Naziha Laabidi, the Minister of Women, Family, and Children.

But while the signing is the latest commitment to international tools aimed at stopping child abuse, abusive practices in general remain very widespread according to recent official statistics.

A survey of nearly 12,000 households conducted in 2018 by the state’s National Institute of Statistics (INS) on the condition of mothers and children found that 88.1 percent of children between the ages of 1 and 14 were subjects to one form or another of violent punishment at home.

According to a 2017 UNICEF report using earlier but comparable official numbers, Tunisia ranks second highest in the world in terms of what percentage of children experience violent  discipline at home. The same report found Tunisia ranked highest in the world in terms of how many younger children—those aged two to four years—are subjected to physical punishment compared to older counterparts.

Meanwhile, a recent social media campaign entitled #EnaZeda, or #MeToo in Tunisian dialect, has seen dozens sharing stories publicly, although often anonymously, of sexual abuse experienced as children.

All forms of child abuse suffered are not just personal traumas but also have wider consequences for society, according to researchers who work on tackling the phenomenon in Tunisia.

“Violence against children might cause some major developmental problems, and this might manifest in their adolescence years where they could experience school failure and eventually drop out,” Nesrine Ajimi, a clinical psychologist specializing in childhood and adolescence, told Meshkal.

The high numbers of abuse in Tunisia come even though it is amongst a handful of countries where the violent punishment of children at home is prohibited by law. Tunisia ratified the International Covenant on the Rights of the Child (ICRC) in 1991 and established a special legal code addressing the rights of children in 1995.

Before 2010, article 319 of the Penal Code included a stipulation that read “a [violent] correction inflicted on a child by individuals having authority over him is not punishable.”  This was subsequently removed.

The 2014 constitution also reiterated the obligation of the state to protect children. According to Article 47 of the constitution, “children are guaranteed the rights to dignity, health, care and education from their parents and the state. The state must provide all types of protection to all children without discrimination and in accordance with their best interest.”

Despite existing laws and treaties, many in society rationalize violence against children and perceive it as necessary for the discipline of children, according to specialists.

“As Tunisians we were raised on the principle of fear. We were taught that fear equals respect and that itself is an issue,” Marwen Dridi, a sociology master’s student with a research background in child abuse, told Meshkal. “Relationships with our parents and teachers were based on our fear of punishment instead of our respect towards them.”

School violence is one aspect of the violence perpetrated against children in Tunisia. UNICEF noted in its same report that violence in schools significantly hinders attendance, contributes to lower academic results, and leads to higher drop-out rates. In Tunisia, the school dropout rate has been growing, with more than 100,000 reported cases each year.

Victims of all forms of child abuse are also more likely to experience drug addiction and suffer from several mental health issues such as depression and anxiety disorders if the problem is not tackled in young age, explained Ajimi.

Tunisia’s state Childhood Protection Commission has not yet invested in a sustainable effort to oversee the status of children in Tunisia, argues Dridi. The state has taken exceptional measures in certain cases that received massive media attention, such as the Regueb school case. However, other important incidents are generally overlooked, added Dridi.

Popularly known as “The Quranic Regueb School Affair”, a press release by the Interior Ministry on February 3rd, 2019 revealed that 42 children aged 10 to 18 in a Quranic boarding school in Regueb, Sidi Bouzid were subjected to negligence as well as physical and sexual abuse.

“In Tunisia, we raise our children to feel entitled to use violence. If you are subjected to violence in your neighbourhood or your school, your parents would beat you up when you go back home because you didn’t ‘fight back.’ We also have an ethical system that considers it a sin to disobey your parents and speak up against their physical abuse,” Dridi told Meshkal.

“We also have a complicit legal system, where the police would look down upon you and be patronizing to you if you reach out or plead that your parents are beating you up. So, in that sense the police are facilitating the social norm,” Dridi said.

Speaking from her professional perspective, Ajimi identifies the lack of communication and rigid relationships between children and their parents as a leading cause of this phenomenon.

“Children are often taught that violence equals love, to the extent where it becomes the norm,” she said.

Moez Cherif, a paediatrician and the president of the Tunisian Association for the Defense of Children, said it’s not only the state that is not paying enough attention to the issue of child abuse. He says civil society and media are also ignoring the issue.

“When you notice that 70 percent of sexual assault cases tackled by the Tunisian Forensic Medicine Department are children cases, one may deduce the alarming situation in Tunisia,” he said, citing figures he said are public, but which Meshkal was unable to find online.

According to Cherif, sexual abuse cases against children only have a 1 percent conviction rate in courts of law, though this statistic could not be independently verified by Meshkal. He believes that this is due to the conservative nature of the Tunisian judicial system, and the socially conservative views of many Tunisian judges.

Cherif told Meshkal that the state has not invested in a serious awareness-raising campaign against child abuse and more importantly, that Tunisian law does not recognize children who are the victims of domestic violence as victims, something he sees as necessary in order to provide both protection and psychological follow up for abused children.

“Children are often told to bring a parent whenever they try to report cases of violence, which is ridiculous since in most cases, parents are often identified as the parties inflicting the violence,” Cherif told Meshkal.

A Photographer and a Parade Celebrate Ancient Buildings in Their “Last Days”

Main photo: Troupes of stambeli artists perform in a parade in the medina of Tunis in celebration of Mouled, the prophet Mohamed’s birthday, on November 9, 2019. Photo by George Gale.

A Photographer and a Parade Celebrate Ancient Buildings in Their “Last Days”

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Tunis – George Gale

On a bright, crisp Saturday this fall, Mourad Ben Cheikh Ahmed stood outside the steps of the grand Zitouna Mosque, a building dating back to the 7th century. Its size and grandeur, like that of many other buildings in the medina—the old city of Tunis—is not immediately obvious to an outside observer.

Ahmed is the founder and sole photographer of the blog “Lost in Tunis,” which he has used to document hidden or forgotten architectural treasures across Tunisia.  While Ahmed doesn’t exclusively focus on the medina, he says his work in the old city is to provide a photographic record for a future generation. Many buildings in the old city have been left in disrepair. While some artistic and civic groups are working to preserve or restore parts of the medina, Ahmed wants to capture what they look like now in case they become more deformed and decayed in the coming years.

“I started exploring the city and taking photos out of personal interest. But I soon realized that the photos would be recording the last days of some of these historical buildings which are very unique,” Ahmed told Meshkal as we walked with him away from Zitouna across sett-paved lanes towards the Zawiya (shrine of a saint) of Sidi Mahrez in another part of the medina to join and document a parade of Stambeli, a syncretic musical, cultural, and religious tradition with roots in Sufism.

The parade on November 9 was held to mark the prophet Mohamed’s birthday, or Mouled, as it is called in Tunisia.  It was organized by the Association for Stambeli Culture, which hosted Stambeli troupes from Tunis, Sfax, Nefta, Metlaoui, Sousse, Tozeur and Kairouan dressed in traditional garb. The troupes played music, danced and chanted from the Zawiya of Sidi Mahrez to the Zawiya of Sidi Ben Arous.

Troupes of stambeli artists perform in a parade in the medina of Tunis in celebration of Mouled, the prophet Mohamed’s birthday, on November 9, 2019. Photo by George Gale.

Ahmed describes what he does as Urbex, or urban exploration. A window left slightly open, or any hint of life behind a door, is enough to spark his curiosity.

As we pass by a now abandoned synagogue, Ahmed points to it and says he figured out a way to enter it and document. The building has high walls and a strong bolt across the door. Asked how he got in, Ahmed responds that urban explorers need to keep some secrets.

Detail of an interior of a building in the medina of Tunis, November 9, 2019. Photo by George Gale.

“To begin with I was sharing the photos on social media accounts and they were getting a lot of attention as there aren’t many photographers documenting Tunisia’s medina. People were asking me where the buildings are and were shocked these places existed in Tunis,” Ahmed, whose Facebook page has almost 50,000 followers and whose Twitter profile has more than 20,000 followers, explained.

Sometimes finding a way into buildings can be straightforward.  Often, all it takes is a knock on the door and asking inhabitants their permission. People are generally hospitable, Ahmed says. In some cases, he is invited in but asked not to photograph. In those cases, what he discovers is for his memory only.

Troupes of stambeli artists perform in a parade in the medina of Tunis in celebration of Mouled, the prophet Mohamed’s birthday, on November 9, 2019. Photo by George Gale.

Ahmed says that while some people live in the old buildings of the medina because they love and treasure them, others are simply in properties in need of repair because they tend to be cheaper. Inhabitants living in the medina due to cheaper living costs are sometimes unaware of the unique spaces they inhabit and are shocked when Ahmed asks to photograph.

Ahmed says his photography blog is “just a hobby” for now, but it has opened up other doors. He has since been asked to give lectures to architecture students, and he also shows around other Urbex people who visit Tunis.

Working in a bank by day, photography offers Ahmed weekend escapes. There have been occasions, however, when Ahmed has found himself in trouble with the police. Suspecting him of espionage as he approached a location, police arrested him and took him to the station. He was only released without charge after interrogation and inspection of his photos to ensure that they didn’t include sensitive content.

At Sidi Mahrez, Ahmed moves further down the path ahead of the procession to find a good angle to take photos of the approaching crowd.

Troupes of stambeli artists perform in a parade in the medina of Tunis in celebration of Mouled, the prophet Mohamed’s birthday, on November 9, 2019. Photo by George Gale.

He quickly darts through an old, heavy, blue door which has been left ajar.

“This is my favorite building in the medina,” he says.

Behind the door we find a wide room with a stretch of tiled wall on one side, glimmering as it reflects the sunlight streaming through beams which once supported a ceiling.

“People still live here, I think,” Ahmed says.

Back outside, a solitary, elderly man raps a drum as he walks, clearing the way for the procession about to fill the narrow street. The calm, rhythm is soon replaced by a cacophony of beating of drums, clapping of Krakeb (a kind of castanet), and chanting of Sufi poems and songs. Towering over the crowd are giant, colorful flags, each representing a different troupe.  The winding street brims with activity, smiling faces, and the smell of incense.

Troupes of stambeli artists perform in a parade in the medina of Tunis in celebration of Mouled, the prophet Mohamed’s birthday, on November 9, 2019. Photo by George Gale.

Ahmed says he wanted to attend the parade to enjoy the way the “mystical atmosphere spreads around the streets of the medina”.

As the noise begins to die down, Ahmed speeds through the lanes again to find his next perch. In the square where Hafsia and Pasha streets meet, he waits.

Ahmed observes that this Stambeli celebration is bigger than the last one he saw, that they have been getting more popular each year. Stambeli ‘houses’ – communities of stambeli performers linked by kinship— have struggled to survive. Since Tunisia’s independence, cultural policy, like policies in so many other sectors, has prioritized “modernization.” Stambeli, often associated with mysticism, animism, and sub-Saharan cultural influences, has not received state support like other arts. The dance often involves individuals entering a trance and ridding themselves of harmful spirits or Djinn.

Troupes of stambeli artists perform in a parade in the medina of Tunis in celebration of Mouled, the prophet Mohamed’s birthday, on November 9, 2019. Photo by George Gale.

At one point during the parade, some participants seemed to enter a semi-conscious trance state, their heads swaying as they wailed and cried. Stambeli troupe members not in trance braced those under the spell of the rhythms, stretching their arms out to block any flailing arm. A girl sprinkled rose water from the sideline.

Troupes of stambeli artists perform in a parade in the medina of Tunis in celebration of Mouled, the prophet Mohamed’s birthday, on November 9, 2019. Photo by George Gale.

Moving up Sidi Ben Arous street, the revelers entered the Zawiya of Ben Arous where the final ceremonies took place. Young children danced to the beat of the musicians.

As the ceremonies end, Ahmed heads home. Much like the buildings, capturing the Stambeli traditions also helps preserve them, in some form, for future generations.

Troupes of stambeli artists perform in a parade in the medina of Tunis in celebration of Mouled, the prophet Mohamed’s birthday, on November 9, 2019. Photo by George Gale.