Police Violently Disperse Peaceful Demonstrators, Journalists

A demonstrator on the ground following a police assault as demonstrators tried to gather in front of the National Theater on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis on September 1, 2021. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

On September 1, police violently dispersed a peaceful demonstration in downtown Tunis, punching, shoving, and using pepper spray against demonstrators as well as journalists who were there covering the event. Aside from some incidents in front of Parliament on July 26, Wednesday’s police repression was the first documented use of police violence against peaceful demonstrators since President Kais Saied suspended parliament and dismissed the government on July 25. However, many of the activists who participated in Wednesday’s demonstration have long been familiar with police repression of peaceful demonstrations and protests going back to at least October 2020.

Demonstrators hold stencils of assassinated politicians Mohamed Brahmi (L) and Chokri Belaid at a demonstration in Tunis on September 1, 2021. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

“I was trying to prevent one cop from assaulting Ahmed Zarrouki, stating he was a journalist, but I was told to mind my own business. And then another cop who had three stars on his uniform and seemed like a superior came back and slapped me in the face, knocking off my glasses…they kept pushing and hitting me as I was trying to take my glasses off the ground,” said Kmar Ezzamen Khaldi, who was one of the people who tried to gather for the demonstration in front of the Municipal Theater on Habib Bourguiba Avenue on Wednesday.

“I was lucky that my glasses did not break in my eyes, otherwise I would have lost my sight,” she said, adding that she plans to file a lawsuit.

A woman at the demonstration after she was pepper-sprayed by police on September 1, 2021. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

The newly-launched collective movement “Manech Msalmin” [We do not give up] organized Wednesday’s demonstration, publicizing it online three days earlier. The demonstration called for reopening the investigation into the 2013 political assassinations of opposition politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi and the alleged facilitation by some authorities of Tunisian jihadi fighters travelling to Syria during that period.

“We gathered because we believe that what happened on July 25 could be a step towards reform and through which we can put pressure,” Raghda Fhoula, a member of the Manech Msalmin movement told Meshkal/Nawaat. “For us being in the street today to put pressure regarding critical files, such as the file of political assassinations, is very important for the justice system to become effective.”

Demonstrators face police blocking them from assembling in front of the National Theater in downtown Tunis on September 1, 2021. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

A similar demonstration by another group calling for reopening the investigation into the 2013 assassinations occurred in the morning downtown on September 1, but that demonstration did not encounter police repression. That demonstration has been held weekly for years, organized by leftist political parties.

Blocking “Unauthorized” Demonstration

When demonstrators tried to gather in front of the National Theater on Wednesday, uniformed police barred them from doing so. Officer Lotfi Belaid, who identified himself as the Head of the Tunis Police Division, told the demonstration’s organizers that the “demonstration is unauthorized”.

When protesters refused to leave the area, police officers gathered on the stairs of the Municipal Theatre and called for more back up.

Protesters initially chanted “Alive, alive, Chokri is Alive… Alive, alive, Brahmi is Alive,” but after police used pepper spray on some demonstrators, they included the chant: “Down with Police Repression, Down with State Terrorism.” Shortly after this chant, police assaulted the demonstrators and journalists present, despite journalists showing their credentials.

Demonstrator holds a stencil of assassinated politician Mohamed Brahmi in downtown Tunis on September 1, 2021. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Meshkal/Nawaat witnessed at least two people who were pepper-sprayed at close range. Oussema Dhahri, one of the demonstrators pepper-sprayed, fell instantly to the ground.

Activist Seif Ayadi, who had previously been targeted with police violence, at the demonstration on September 1, 2021. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Beating Journalists

Police also physically assaulted several journalists, including myself as I was pushed, then punched in the chest and stomach by several officers before being thrown to the floor by one officer.

Yosra Chikhaoui, a journalist from the online media outlet “Hakaekonline” said that she was pushed and assaulted on multiple occasions despite showing proof of being a member press and wearing a press jacket.

“We kept saying that we are journalists, but the harassment continued…At one point a police officer pulled me up aggressively in the air and if I did not scream for him to put me down I could have broken my ankle,” Chikhaoui told Meshkal/Nawaat.

Journalists and activists confront police who used violence to disperse them on September 1, 2021. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Manech Msalmin has since expressed in a statement its condemnation of the violence which it described as “the police repression of protesters and journalists, which represents a dangerous indication of the tendency towards tyranny and the suppression of freedom of demonstration.”

The National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) has also condemned the use of force by the police against journalists and protestors alike in a statement.

“The Union [SNJT] calls on the Ministry of Interior to open an investigation into the attacks against journalists, to hold the aggressors accountable, and to provide a clear public condemnation of the attacks against field journalists…The Union calls on the President of the Republic to take all necessary measures to ensure freedom of journalistic work and the protection of journalists,” the statement reads.

Presidency Seems to Weigh In

On Thursday evening, the Presidency’s Facebook page released a statement that appeared to reference Wednesday’s police repression. The statement showed President Kais Saied meeting with his de facto acting Minister of Interior Ridha Gharslaoui, Director General of National Security Sami al Hichri and Director General of Public Security Murad Hussein.

“The Head of State gave instructions on the necessity to behave towards demonstrators within a framework determined by law and committing to respecting the rights of citizens to peaceful demonstration and freedom of expression,” the statement said.

While some of the demonstrators from Manech Msalmin have hopes that President Kais Saied will listen to their demands, the Presidency’s Thursday statement did not go far enough according to many of them discussing it on the movement’s Facebook page.

“Saied was present at the Mahmoud Materi hospital after the assassination of [Mohamed] Brahmi and declared that the system was the one responsible for what happened… so as Manech Msalmin we’re asking for a clarification [about what happened],” Sarra Brahmi, a representative of Manech Msalmin and the daughter of Mohamed Brahmi told Meshkal/Nawaat.

Demonstrator holds sign calling for the “whole truth” in downtown Tunis on September 1, 2021. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Fadil Aliriza contributed to this report.

This article was produced as part of a reporting partnership between Meshkal and Nawaat.