“I’m Not Afraid of Dictatorship”: ‘Forgotten’ Tunis Neighborhood Weighs In

A supporter of President Kais Saied demonstrates in front of Parliament in the Bardo neighborhood of Tunis on July 26, 2021. Photo by Lina Chahd.

Sidi Hassine, one of the largest working class neighborhood in Tunis, has been making national headlines since January due to a series of incidents of police repression and confrontations—some of them deadly. In June, a bystander took video footage of police stripping and beating a 15-year-old boy there, which sparked further confrontations.

Meshkal went to Sidi Hassine and spoke with more than two dozen people, asking their opinions on President Kais Saied’s decision on July 25 to suspend Parliament, sack Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, lift Parliamentary immunity, and give himself power of prosecution.

Recent polling suggests Saied’s decisions enjoy broad popularity, and this appears to be true in Sidi Hassine where nearly all those Meshkal spoke with expressed their support and said they see it as an opportunity to get rid of a corrupt political elite. While many expressed nervousness about the future, it was hard to find anyone who did not agree with Saied’s decisions.

“I am 300 percent with Kais Saied’s decision,” said one older vegetable seller in Sidi Hassine’s central market who preferred to remain anonymous. “All the politicians are criminals, except for Kais Saied. For 10 years, they did not do anything for the country and especially not for Sidi Hassine.”

On narrow streets in summer heat regularly above 40 Celsius, many locals sit outside on plastic chairs to escape the heat of homes without air-conditioning, well into the night despite curfew restrictions.

A street in Sidi Hassine, July 2021. Photo by Jakob Plaschke.

“I support Kais Saied and his decisions completely,” said 35-year old Yasmine in Sidi Hassine’s market. “I’m not afraid of dictatorship. If something like that happens, people will go out again and protest.”

Some Not So Sure

However, many others are ambivalent.

“People in Sidi Hassine just want some changes, then they will keep quiet. We don’t care about Ennahdha and Kais Saied. We just want some dignity, for example from the cops,” said Mohammed, a 27-year-old engineering student who said he is skeptical of Saied’s chances of following through on change.

Development in Sidi Hassine has been neglected for years – people in the neighborhood describe themselves as ‘forgotten’ [mensiin]. A sports and youth complex was inaugurated in the Sidi Hassine neighborhood, Jayara, in 2009, but maintenance was never kept up. Now, the complex, which holds the only sports fields in Sidi Hassine and what was meant to be a park for families, is better known in the neighborhood for crime and drugs.

The youth and sports complex in Sidi Hassine, July 2021. Photo by Jakob Plaschke

“No matter who is president, actions need to be made for the forgotten. Not just in Sidi Hassine, but also in places like Gafsa and Kasserine,” said Alaa, a 23-year old server at a café and a member of one of the politically active football fan clubs—also known as Ultras. “I’m not a fan of Kais Saied, but if he doesn’t do well, hopefully the next one will.”

Other initiatives in Sidi Hassine since the revolution in 2011 include the rebuilding of the police station which was burned down by protesters in 2011, renaming the “School of November 7” (the date that Ben Ali took power from Bourguiba) to the “Ibn Abi Diyaf School” and neglecting to do anything about the large waste dump on the neighborhood’s outskirts, which was supposed to be closed years ago. Instead, locals allege that the dump was used for politicians’ shady business, as they took advantage of the foul smells to buy land cheaply and then sell at much higher prices.

As for the new police station, after mass, arbitrary arrest sweeps and excessive use of tear gas in residential neighborhoods at night in January and the death of Ahmed Ben Moncef Ben Ammar during a police encounter in June, many see the police generally as a repressive force.

“At the protests, we present a frontline against the backsliding toward dictatorship,” said Ghaylen, a 24-year old political activist from Sidi Hassine who has been attending protests all year. “For example, they wanted to bring back the police immunity law prior to July 25,” he added.

That law is draft law No25-2015, which would offer legal immunity to police officers who use excessive and lethal force. It was last considered by Parliament once again in October last year, but its adoption was postponed following mass protests. Many human rights groups have condemned the law, asserting it would rebuild the pre-2011 police state. Ghaylen’s concern over democratic backsliding thus predates Kais Saied’s July 25 decision.

And in fact, just hours before Kais Saied’s decision on July 25, a 15-year-old boy from Sidi Hassine taking part in the protests in front of the parliament in Bardo was arrested and mistreated by the police, not because he had committed a crime, but because an officer recognized him from Sidi Hassine. The arrest and circumstances were confirmed to Meshkal by Nawres Douzi, who works for the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH)–a group that was observing the protest and have video evidence of the incident.

Some Denounce Arrest Of MP Ayari

Many expressed anger at the Parliament and its governing coalition—especially the Ennahdha party whose office in Sidi Hassine was vandalized and burned after July 25.

But many expressed dissatisfaction with the recent detention of independent Member of Parliament Yassine Ayari, who won his Parliamentary seat representing Tunisians in Germany and has a reputation as an outsider.

“Arresting Yassine Ayari was a mistake in the ‘game of democracy’,” Mohammed, the engineering student, argued.

Yassine Ayari was arrested on July 30 for a military court conviction from 2018 for Facebook posts criticizing the Tunisian army. Human rights groups have previously condemned authorities “relentless” prosecution of Ayari, particularly the use of military trial for a civilian.

Mohammed added that the authorities raiding Al Jazeera’s Tunis bureau is also a mistake by Saied.

“He is the worst politician I’ve ever seen. If Kais Saied wants to win this battle, he needs to go after the big businessmen, but he won’t do it because he’s scared,” Mohammed told Meshkal.

Reacting to arrests of various politicians in the days following July 25, Alaa, the server and football supporter, was concerned only about the arrest of Yassine Ayari.

“If they were clean, they would not be arrested. But I’m against the arrest of Yassine Ayari because it is about freedom of speech. We cannot go back to how it was with Ben Ali,” said Alaa.

“It’s not fair that the law can take civilians to a military court. I don’t agree with Yassine Ayari’s ideology, but this could be anyone writing a Facebook post in the future,” said Ghaylen about the same case.

Vows to Hold Saied Accountable

Many expressed their intention to hold Saied accountable if he fails to follow through on promises for change. Ghaylen, the activist, said he is skeptical of the legality of Saied’s decisions.

 “When we talk about the law, it’s not legal. But politically, I agree with him… The Mechichi government only did things for their own sake,” he explained. “In terms of Ennahda, they have money and outside support, and they have members in all the important institutions. That’s why what Kais Saied did was necessary, and now we need to be careful.”

“For now, I don’t know what will happen. He [Kais Saied] has the ability to go in the right direction, or he can become a fascist dictator. That’s why I’m afraid. We should be vigilant and stand against him if he takes us toward dictatorship,” he added.

Some echoed this cautious approach, but others bluntly stated that if Kais Saied tries to take Tunisia in the direction of the pre-2011 Ben Ali regime, they will rise up.

The older man selling vegetables echoed Yasmine’s sentiment: “If he [Kais Saied] tries to do things like Ben Ali, we will stand up against him.”

Clarification: Nawres Douzi works for LTDH but was not speaking on behalf of the organization when confirming details to Meshkal. The article has been updated to reflect that.