New Documentary Revisits Protest Campaign Against Corruption Amnesty Law

A photo of the "#Manich_Msamah Generation" film poster projected onto the screen at the CinéMadart cinema in Tunis, Wednesday May 22, 2019. Photo by Fadil Aliriza

On Wednesday night in the CinéMadart cinema in the Carthage neighborhood of Tunis, some audience members began to copy the protesters they were watching on the film screen by clapping to the cue of a drumbeat when the protesters clapped. Many were literally copying themselves: they had been the protesters they were watching in the film’s documentary footage from 2015 to 2017 when they took to the streets as part of Manich Msamah.

What exactly is “Manich Msamah” is up for debate and one of the subjects discussed by activists themselves in the film, entitled #Manich_Msamah Generation. Some refer to it as a movement, others a campaign, others a hashtag or a slogan. What’s clear is that Manich Msamah, literally “I am not forgiving,” mobilized hundreds if not thousands of people across the country, most of them young, around the issue of blocking a draft law dubbed a “reconciliation law” proposed by the President of the Republic that would amnesty elites accused or convicted of corruption during the pre-revolutionary era.

“I miss those days…we succeeded to give people back the streets. At a certain time, we lost hope of demonstrating in the streets. I really want it back if we have another chance to go back to the street to fight again for more causes,” said Henda Fellah, an activist with Manich Msamah, a project coordinator at the transparency NGO IWatch, and a member of the audience on Wednesday night who watched herself on screen.

The particular clapping in the audience on Wednesday night mimicking the clapping on screen was an example of the innovative forms of protest activists adopted during the movement.

“I forgot that I was holding that tambour [drum], and it was a nice moment. I have a bit of nostalgia…Often we had fun, using the Viking clapping,” Fellah told Meshkal, referring to the type of clapping that Achref Aouadi, president of IWatch and a football fan proposed protesters use, having adopted it from the Iceland national team fans.

The film #Manich_Msamah Generation opens with a clip of President of the Republic Beji Caid Essebsi announcing the draft legislation for reconciliation on July 14, 2015. In the president’s address, the law would cover not only officials who did not benefit personally from corruption but also, “human beings—not business people because that’s not a legal category—citizens, who did benefit, who even took bribes or gave them.” The film then narrates four rounds of mobilization against the proposed reconciliation law with each round following a familiar arc: the planning and organizing amongst activists, the marches, demonstrations and press conferences, and finally the activists’ discussions and reflections as they regroup for the next round.

It was produced by Nawaat, the media platform and reporting outlet that describes itself as a “collective blog” and which had been blocked in Tunisia before the 2011 revolution. Nawaat covered the protests from day one and in the process gathered a huge archive that made up almost the entirety of the documentary’s footage, according to film producer and cofounder of Nawaat Sami Ben Gharbia.

One of the key themes of the film is that in opposing amnesty for pre-revolutionary elites, Manich Msamah represented a continuation or a revival of the Tunisian revolution.

“Many members in the movement were involved either in the revolution itself or in the revolutionary process that started in 2011 in many grassroots movements,” Sami Ben Charbia told Meshkal. “It is in a way a continuation of the revolutionary process and, even in what they declare and confirm in the discussions that the movie covered, they defend the revolution and the revolutionary process and they stand on that path.”

Another of the film’s themes is the antagonism between peaceful protest in the street and repression by security forces.

“You’re speaking to us like you have no respect for us, like we’re a virus in the country,” Charfeddine Kellil, a well known lawyer and human rights activist who helped organize some of the Manich Msamah protests says in the film, addressing a security official off screen.

It’s a peaceful scene, but others are more violent. In some, the footage appears to show police shoving and grabbing protesters and knocking phones out of hands. Sometimes the camera tries to follow the flux of bodies and screams when marchers are confronted by lines of policemen wearing body armor. There are occasional scenes of injured young people lying in the street, writhing in pain.

Myriam Bribri, one of the original 28 people who first gathered for a protest against the law in downtown Tunis on August 27, 2015, said that the violence security forces inflicted on protesters was even worse outside of the capital. In a panel discussion after the film, Bribri recounted how she and others had been beaten in the town of Sfax. While the film included some footage from other Manich Msamah protests outside the capital like Jendouba, Sousse, and Nabeul, some in the audience told Meshkal they wished there had been more footage from other cities.

The justification for the law was that businessmen wanted to invest in the country but were too scared of facing prosecution to do so. At the time, the Tunisia researcher for Human Rights Watch wrote that the law would “undermine the transitional justice process painstakingly initiated in 2013.”

However, according to the narrator of #Manich_Msamah Generation, the fight against the law wasn’t led by international NGOs, domestic political parties, or even local civil society groups, but by mostly young people from diverse political backgrounds who mobilized under the banner of Manich Msamah.

“Manich Msamah was the key mobilizer on the ground,” Ben Gharbia told Meshkal. “Of course they built alliances with other civil society NGOS, with alternative media like Nawaat, with grassroots activists from the regions, but they were key in building the momentum.”

In moments where Nawaat’s cameras capture intimate discussions among activists, there is a lot of talk about the value of Manich Msamah’s distance from and positioning relative to other groups. Some claim that this distance, as well as Manich Msamah’s “horizontal” leadership, gave it its strength. Yet some also seem to grapple with the limitations of the movement’s narrow focus. At one moment in a roundtable discussion, Sami Ben Ghazi questions how to move beyond just the reconciliation law and mobilize around all economic and financial issues in the country.

In September 2017, the reconciliation law was finally passed after four rounds of pushing by proponents and pushback by opponents. The final law was no longer called a bill on the “reconciliation in the economic and financial sectors” but instead “administrative reconciliation,” covering only officials rather than businessmen. Some opponents of the bill have said that this passage of the bill, even in a watered down form, signals that Manich Msamah ultimately failed.

However, in the film, one of the leading organizers of Manich Msamah, Samar Tlili, argues that the movement was victorious on two counts: first because it revived the streets as a center of power, and second because the movement was instrumental in forcing the government to remove the most controversial articles of the bill. Some in the audience suggested Manich Msamah continues to influence politics today.

“Manich Msamah created a spirit, one which we saw in the cinema tonight,” Ghassen Besbes, one of the Manich Msamah activists said on Wednesday night in a panel discussion after the screening.

Besbes and others in the audience pointed to current political campaigns and movements that they traced as having roots in the Manich Msamah mobilization, including the campaign for food sovereignty, the campaign to block the Tunisia-EU Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Deal (ALECA by its French acronym) and others.

Over 30 people worked on the film according to Thameur Mekki, editor-in-chief of Nawaat. The film was presented Wednesday night by Nawaat and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung North Africa, kicking off a week long film festival called Ciné Social. Organizers of the festival said that they were planning to hold other screenings in Tataouine and Kasserine as well.

This article is the first part of a series exploring the topics raised in the documentary films screened at the Ciné Social film festival in Tunis from May 22 to May 26, 2019. The films were hosted by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung’s North Africa office and shown at the CinéMadart cinema. To read the second article in this series, click here.