Demonstrations, Tear Gas, Arrests: Kamour Protests Return

Top Photo: Confrontations between police and demonstrators in the streets of Tataouine on June 21, 2020. Source of photo: Tataouineup, shared on its Facebook page and republished here with their permission. Bottom Photo: Civil society group "Mouche Hakka Kheir?" [Isn't it Better Like This?], in a June 24, 2020 clean up campaign for neighborhoods that witnessed confrontations with security forces. Source of photo: Sami Ennajah, republished here with his permission.

The streets of Tataouine witnessed confrontations between security forces and protesters over a period of 72 hours following the arrest of the protest movement’s spokesperson on the night of Saturday, June 20. Security forces used massive amounts of tear which spread in the city center.

The demonstrations were a continuation of the Kamour movement of 2017 which shut down oil and gas transportation at the Kamour pumping station in the desert in a bid to get state investment and employment. Demonstrators called for development and for the region to benefit from oil and natural gas revenues.

Recent demonstrators say that authorities have failed to meet its investment commitments stipulated in an agreement signed June 16, 2017 by protesters, authorities and the main national labor union the UGTT.

In response to the demonstrations, the government scheduled a ministerial meeting to address the social and economic demands of protesters on Friday, June 26, 2019. However, as of Thursday night, it appeared leadership of the Kamour sit-in had not been invited to attend.

Meshkal witnessed the demonstrations, the security operations, and spoke with some of the demonstrators.

Popular discontent

“People going out to the street, that was a natural result of an accumulation of oppression and a feeling of injustice because of the state’s failure to honor its obligations towards its children,” Sufian Al-Nasry, a local young person and demonstrator told Meshkal.

Nasry and other demonstrators told Meshkal that the security response was the sad end of the procrastination and delays by authorities over the past three years, and that successive governments have not implemented the terms of the 2017 Kamour Agreement.

In recent weeks, sit-ins have set up tents in various parts of the Tataouine governorate, blocking the way for trucks working for petroleum companies, in protest against what they describe as “the government’s reluctance to implement the provisions of the Kamour agreement.”

The protesters are demanding the implementation of the 2017 agreement’s terms, including the hiring of 1500 local people to work in petroleum companies extracting local hydrocarbon resources, the hiring of 500 others in a company working on environmental development and landscaping, and 80 million dinars annually to a special Development and Investment Fund for the Tataouine region.

Wissem Al-Amrani, another young participant of the sit-in, said that they are demanding the implementation the Kamour Agreement to enable them to have the necessities to live a decent life.

According to Amrani, authorities have given conflicting and contradictory statements regarding the implementation of the agreement, something that has deepened the feeling of injustice among young people who have been waiting on jobs for three years.

While people in Tataouine took the streets in recent days, diaspora Tunisians from Tataouine living in France also brought up the matter with President Kais Saied during his June 22 and 23 official visit to Paris. In a video of the interaction between President Saied and demonstrators outside of a Tunisian diplomatic building in Paris shared on social media, demonstrators denounced what they described as the state ignoring the case of Kamour as well as the security response to protests.

In an interview with France 24 released during his visit, the Tunisian president said that “the Tunisian army intervened during the protests in Tataouine to protect institutions,” adding: “I told the protesters not to wait for the favor and courtesy of the central authority, and I said to them to present development programs. The problem is that there are promises that have not been fulfilled, and I am ready to meet them after my return from Paris to discuss a new approach to the solution.”

Security Forces Break up Demonstrations

The most recent demonstrations and a heavy security response erupted late on Saturday night, June 20, after security forces broke up a sit-in at the bridge leading to the city’s exit to the desert using tear gas and arrested a number of protesters, including the official spokesman for the sit-in of the camera, Tarek Al-Haddad. Haddad was later released on June 24, but he is still facing prosecution.

The security intervention upset young protesters who witnessed what they consider “unjustified violence by security agents,” unjustified they say because they had committed themselves to only holding peaceful demonstrations during their various protest.

The streets of Tataouine witnessed a state of ebb and flow between security and protesters over a period of 72 hours, in which tear gas was used by the security forces, which spread heavily in the city center.

Meshkal’s journalist witnessed an extensive use of tear gas over that period, and saw its health effects on numerous people whose homes were filled with tear gas from the street. Many had trouble breathing, especially elderly residents who were particularly affected by the effects of the gas.

On June 22, Zied al-Hajji, the president of the Association for the Defense of Human Rights in Tataouine (a local human rights association), announced that they had filed a judicial case against the prime minister and the interior minister, the governor of Tataouine, the head of the security zone, and anyone else found to be linked to what they see as the excessive use of force and violation of human rights in the suppression of recent protests.

After the security forces’ use of force on demonstrators, one of the country’s biggest security forces union also released a statement on June 22 on its Facebook page noting that “security is not the solution” to the political challenges of Tataouine.

The Ministry of the Interior justified its intervention noting that they had done so to “arrest a person who had been subject to several wanted notices in the interest of judicial structures.”

The ministry added, in a statement  published on its website on Sunday June 21, that a number of demonstrators “attempted to attack the security complex in the region by burning Molotov cocktails, and resulted in varying injuries in the ranks of the security agents that required their transfer to the hospital. Detained sit-in spokesperson Tarek Al-Haddad was not mentioned by name in the ministry statement.

For his part, the governor of Tataouine, Adel Al-Ouerghi, told Radio Tataouine the same day, Sunday June 21, that the protests started after the arrest of an activist in the sit-in who was “wanted by the justice,” adding that “it’s been more than a month and the roads are closed and sit-ins have been camped in the middle of the road, and this is outside the law.”

One of the leaders of the Kamour sit-in, Khelifa Bouhouach, told Meshkal that they denied the official account of events, claiming that their movement has remained peaceful despite the fact that they feel they are victims of injustice.

Bouhouach said in a statement to Meshkal that, as far as he knows, there are is no concrete proof of demonstrators use of Molotov cocktails “because we seek to obtain our rights, not sabotage. The evidence [of this] is that shops and public administrations returned to work once the security forces withdrew from the city.”

Bouhouach stressed that the governorate of Tataouine “does not deserve all this injustice that has been inflicted upon it,” calling on the Tunisian people to “stand with it in its just cause.”

The governorate of Tataouine is rich in oil and gas reserves, and national and foreign energy companies are extracting hydrocarbon resources in its desert. Tataouine’s fields contribute – according to official figures cited in other press outlets –  to 40 percent of Tunisia’s oil production, and 20 percent of its gas production.

The unemployment rate in Tataouine exceeds 32 percent, more than twice the national level 15 percent, according to official 2017 data from the National Institute of Statistics. It receives less public services compared to many other regions, especially in the field of health care.