Protests & Mourning on 11th Anniversary of Revolution

People gather in Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2021, to mark the 11th anniversary of the day Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of oppression and sparked Tunisia's revolution. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

While December 17 is now a national holiday marking the start of Tunisia’s 2010-2011 revolution, this year’s anniversary was marked more by protests and mourning than celebration. Beside protests against and in support of Saied in Tunis, the day was one of public mourning for families of those who were killed during the revolution and families of migrants who have gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean.

In downtown Tunis during the day, on Habib Bourguiba Avenue where protests in early January 2011 helped topple former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, hundreds rallied in three separate demonstrations. The largest group of several hundred was organized by “Citizens Against the Coup” as part of a continuing series of protests they launched in late September against President’s Kais Saied’s July 25th decisions suspending Parliament. Saied’s latest announcement on December 13th extending his measures for a year, setting new elections for December 17, 2022, and calling for “popular consultations” and a national referendum on a new constitution have prompted fresh rebukes from these critics. At night, many from this group, including high officials from the Ennahdha party as well as some non-partisan groups returned to downtown and began a sit-in.

A smaller counter protest was in support of President Saied, while a third–the smallest of the three–was organized by the Democratic Current, Ettakatol and the Jomhouri parties.

A pro-Saied counter-demonstration in front of the National Theater in Tunis on December 17, 2021.

Meanwhile in Sidi Bouzid, where Kais Saied has enjoyed some popular support, some celebrated while others protested against his decision not to implement law 38/2020 which mandates the State to recruit t university graduates who have been out of work for more than ten years into the public sector.

Demonstrators in Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2021 call for public sector recruitment of university graduates unemployed for more than 10 years. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Specific areas for each of the Tunis protests were set up, with police completely locking down Avenue Habib Bourguiba except for a few chokepoint entrances with check points. Many from the anti-Saied/anti- “coup” protest were blocked by police from reaching the main part of Avenue Bourguiba. Hundreds of police vehicles and police agents both in official and plain clothes filled the city center. Around 9:30 am, Meshkal observed Minister of Interior Taoufik Charfeddine personally checking on the security measures downtown. Meshkal overheard Charfeddine giving clear orders not to touch any of the protesters and allow freedom of assembly.

“You need to be a republican security today,” Charfeddine said as he was talking to police forces near a main entry point on Avenue de Paris. In early September, President Kais Saied had mildly rebuked security officials in a meeting with them and an official Facebook post from the presidency after they violently dispersed a peaceful demonstration in downtown Tunis.

But organizers of the anti- “coup” protest and citizens who came downtown to celebrate the anniversary of their revolution expressed their discontentment with excessive policing of the Avenue that has been the symbol of the Tunisian uprising for the past 11 years.

Contrasting Calls on the Two Sides of “the Street of the Revolution”

“Today’s protest comes as a call to stop what happened in Tunisia after July 25… Tunisians deserve better. They fought for their freedom and for the installation of a democratic regime,” Ennahdha member and former Member of Parliament in the 2011 National Constitutional Assembly & the 2014 Assembly of People’s Representative, Badr Eddine Kefi, told Meshkal in the morning of December 17.

Kefi believes that all powerful political actors are now convinced that Kais Saied’s decisions are nothing more than attempts to monopolize power.

“[Saied] only tried to take advantage of some of the failings that took place in the last ten years…We are going towards an autocratic and individual ruling system,” Kefi said. “We cannot go ahead with this… We will keep protesting till the end of the state of the so-called exceptional measures and the fall of the coup.”

On the other end of Bourguiba Avenue, in front of the National Theater, former Saied campaigner and current supporter, Farhat Zaghbani, reiterated his support for President Saied and his latest decisions for elections in a year and a constitutional referendum following “popular consultations.”

“I am with all the decisions Saied has taken…The popular consultation is going to allow Tunisians to share their vision, and I am convinced that this will be the first step towards true reforms in the country,” Zaghbani told Meshkal on the sidelines of the demonstration.

Zaghbani also said he believes that fears of a setback to democracy and resurgent autocracy are baseless.

“The day Kais Saied decides to break his promises, these people [pro Saied supporters] will be standing against him… The question is no longer whether you are a supporter of Kais or whether you are against him; the question is now about if anyone out there is willing to meet the social and popular demands that the Tunisian revolution was based on,” Zaghbani said.

Mothers Continue to Mourn

For some, marking the December 17 anniversary is painful. Fatma Ouerghi, mother of Ahmed Ouerghi, came from Ras Jbal, Bizerte to mark the occasion in Tunis, not in celebration but in protest against the injustice she feels she still bears.

Fatma’s son Ahmed was killed by a soldier who fired one bullet at him in Tunis on January 16. There have been several court cases that have attempted to prosecute the alleged killer, but Fatma Ouerghi said the security official who killed her son is still roaming free without having been held accountable.

Fatma Ouerghi holds a photo of her son Ahmed in Tunis on December 17, 2021. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek.

“We [victims’ families] do not celebrate… We came here to have our voice heard by president Kais Saied. We want the fulfillment of the revolution’s goals that our children died for,” Fatma said, explaining why she came to Tunis to mark the occasion.

“We do not want any compensation. We want a fair trial,” Fatma added.

For Fatma and for Ahmed Ouerghi’s family, monetary compensation was never part of their request, she said, insisting that all they wanted was justice through the prosecution of those responsible for their loss. Fatma told Meshkal that they have lost hope not only in Tunisia’s regular court system but also the transitional justice special tribunals. She said they are now trying to seek justice through international legal mechanisms now instead.

Fatma is disappointed with President Kais Saied, saying she believes he has not given the case of the martyrs of the revolution enough attention.

“[Saied] did not offer any apologies or tribute to us,” Fatma told Meshkal on the stairs of the National Theater, breaking down in tears of frustration as she expressed her disappointment.

Sonia Rejeb, mother of journalist Nadhir Guetari who, along with his colleague Sofiene Chourabi went missing in Libya in September 2014, was present in the crowd celebrating Kais Saied’s decisions in front of the National Theater. With a banner that read “we want the truth,” Sonia stood there crying as people were cheering on the day of the revolution. Meshkal was able to have a word with Sonia as she stood there.

“The revolution that we did was supposedly for freedom and dignity. But Nadhir and Sofiene went on a work mission and lost their freedom and for eight years the state did not move for their sake, then why did we do it [the revolution]?,” Rejeb told Meshkal.

It is widely believed that Chourabi and Guetari were killed in Libya following an announcement of their execution by their captors, but many, including Rejeb, think Tunisian state officials didn’t do enough to locate or save them.

Also at the protest were families of Tunisian migrants who have gone missing on their way to Europe–forced to travel in dangerous conditions across the Mediterranean due to excessively onerous visa restrictions. They were there demonstrating, calling on officials to help them know the fate of their children. With persistently high unemployment and deteriorating purchasing power, many Tunisians have traveled to Europe in search of making a living. Another protest by these families of missing migrants is planned for December 18 at 11:30 a.m in front of National Theater in downtown Tunis.

Chahd Lina Belhadj contributed photos to this article from Sidi Bouzid.