When Civil Society Groups Tried to Support Protesters, Police Pressure Increased

Police prevent demonstrators from reaching Parliament on January 26, 2021. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek

Police violence against and mass arrests of protesters and bystanders across the country this January and February have been extensively documented by numerous human rights organizations as well as by Meshkal’s own reporting. While the repression appears to have overwhelmingly targeted young men living in poor neighborhoods or individual activists, civil society groups that tried to help protesters with legal assistance or political support have also faced heightened police pressure, according to several people interviewed by Meshkal.

Meshkal spoke to representatives from civil society groups that described different police techniques they claim have been used to intimidate them, ranging from police surveillance outside of their headquarters, tapping and recording of phone calls, intimidating comments and interactions on social media they believe are coming from police, and the non-issuance of passports to civil society activists. Protests, police repression of those protests or bystanders, and various civil society groups’ subsequent efforts to respond to that repression in recent months has increased the police targeting of civil society groups, activists told Meshkal.

This police pressure, according to Alaa Talbi, Director of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES by its French acronym), is intended to cut off demonstrators from organized groups like FTDES

“The State—the system itself—it is in its interest that protesters remain isolated, without support from organizations, lawyers, media,” Talbi told Meshkal.

Talbi pointed to a history of protest movements that have been successfully blocked from coalescing into a larger unified movement or a revolutionary political process when the State prevented them from linking up with other parts of civil society. In particular, Talbi cited the 2008 protests in the mining basin around Gafsa—a year-long protest that received almost no media attention and in which individual towns in revolt were physically blocked off from normal transportation circuits within the country. Unlike the 2010-2011 protests in Sidi Bouzid, the 2008 protests did not spread to the rest of Tunisia or cascade into a revolution.

Today, the State “has a social and economic crisis, a political crisis. It has no response; so, according to it, the demonstration has to die. It has to be shut off. So how to shut it off? With repression: the security approach. So it doesn’t want—it has no interest in—an alliance forming between demonstrators and civil society,” Talbi said.

But between demonstrators and civil society, there are social and class gaps that can hinder efforts to build coalitions. Meshkal has previously reported on the skepticism some in poor neighborhoods like Hay Ettadhamon have expressed towards outside activists joining them in their protests. This gap is also visible when examining whose arrests receive the most attention from activists, journalists, and lawyers.

Layla Riahi, founder and director of the Tunisian Platform for Alternatives, said that many of the roughly 2000 detained in recent weeks are “unknown detainees” who have been arrested “arbitrarily.”

“Us activists in civil society, when one is arrested, we all gather and try with the energy we have with friends to mobilize, go to court and everything. This is not available to the 2000 people arrested [in recent weeks]. They don’t have these networks; they don’t have access to the media; they don’t have opportunities to organize,” Riahi told Meshkal.

Riahi and her colleagues have tried to respond to this by creating a series of video interviews of the families of those detained in January and February and sharing them on Facebook via a page they call “General Civil Mobilization.”

So far, their efforts to bring the voices and faces of victims of police repression to a wider audience has not drawn pressure from police because, Riahi said, they are still a very new group with a small following. The General Civil Mobilization Facebook page had just over 1200 likes and most of the 16 video testimonies they posted had less than 1000 views as this article went to publication. But Riahi said she believes that her phone conversations may be listened to by police, something she said is “normal” for most social and political activists in Tunisia in an “authoritarian police system.”

Directly in the Crosshairs

Two civil society groups that have received particular negative attention from police forces are the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH by its French acronym) or DAMJ (the Tunisian Association for Justice and Legality. Both have decided to challenge police arrests and support lawyers who have taken up the work of representing the detainees, and they are two of several organizations that are part of a committee set up on January 16, 2021 to track “detentions, [police] raids, and violations,” according to Saif Ayadi, a member of DAMJ who describes himself as an intersectional, queer activist.

When police first began mass arrests in mid-January, DAMJ and LTDH activists spent 24 hours a day at the LTDH branch in Bab Bhar, sleeping there, Ayadi told Meshkal.

Zoubeir Louhichi, a lawyer who heads the LTDH branch in north Sfax and has also worked with DAMJ, was the target of a police union rally in Sfax on February 2, 2021.

“In a meeting of security officials they mentioned him by name, threatened him, defamed him, harassed him,” Ayadi said. Meshkal watched a video of the rally shared on a Facebook page called “The Official Page of the Regional Union of Internal Security Forces in Sfax” that confirmed Ayadi’s description.

LTDH has since filed a lawsuit against the police union in Sfax.

Activists from DAMJ have been detained several times in recent months, with Ayadi himself detained four times since August 2020 and Hamza Nasri, who is both at DAMJ and also a member of LTDH, having been arrested three times since October 2020.

Nasri described the dangerous conditions he experienced at the Bouchoucha prison in January, particularly with overcrowding. According to Nasri, there were about 800 held in a space in the prison that is only supposed to hold about 150 people, and transport to the prison was also over crowded with no health precautions in place to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

“There was no respect of health protocols, even normal soap wasn’t available; the water [flow] was very little,” Nasri told Meshkal.

Food was provided to prisoners irregularly and Nasri said due to his booking time and court appearance times, he did not receive food for 72 hours during his detention. One prisoner tried to commit suicide in the prison while Nasri was imprisoned, and he said that medical care was not adequate or timely for those in need of medical attention. Nasri’s detention drew the attention of international organizations and he was eventually released. However, as a member of LTDH, he has since been singled out by authorities as not having permission to do prison visits per a long-standing agreement between the LTDH and the Ministry of Interior which allows field visits to observe prison conditions. Nasri thinks this is because his previous detention means he knows where to look and where to go during a prison visit to find the places where authorities are hiding the worst abuses and worst conditions.

While DAMJ activists often are targeted by police for being queer, their appearance or their advocacy of LGBTQ rights specifically, Ayadi said there has been greater pressure on their organization and its members since they first went out to demonstrate against a police immunity law in October 2020.

“They target our activists via their identity, because our identity is considered something vulnerable, people can target it on morals,” Ayadi explained.

But as DAMJ activists began to play a leading role in broader protest movements, they noticed a change in the way authorities targeted them.

“From January 2020 to August 2020, those eight months, there was a lot of targeting of the community by the regime, by police due to gender and sexual orientations…and afterwards it transformed because we began to directly face power so they began to face us directly,” Ayadi said.

Outside Cities, Rural Civil Society Groups Also Face Police Pressure

While civil society groups operating in cities have reported a recent increase in police pressure on them through various techniques, there is also evidence that groups trying to connect with or understand rural protest movements have also faced police pressure.

In the summer of 2019, Meshkal participated in a reporting and research summer-school trip to Tunisia’s northwest farming communities organized and hosted by the Observatory of Food and Environmental Sovereignty (OSAE by its French acronym) with assistance by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. During the trip, participants met with some farmers in their fields a few kilometers away from Jendouba. During that meeting, a national guard representative arrived to question the farmers and OSAE representatives. Farmer and activist Hosni Ghanney had been recounting to the OSAE participants an 86-day sit-in that farmers had staged in Jendouba to demand development investment by the central state.

Of the farmers, OSAE founder and member Habib Ayeb said they were known to local officials, and them speaking to researchers has drawn the attention of authorities.

“They [the farmers] are part of local resistance, so they know police will control them. They participated in the Jendouba sit-in so they are listed and the police don’t like it,” Ayeb told Meshkal at the time on July 8, 2019.

Ayeb clarified in a Facebook post at the time that the security officials had asked him what OSAE was, who they were, who had invited OSAE to speak to farmers, and whether they had authorization to speak with farmers—an authorization they said was necessary due to the national state of emergency law, which has been active permanently since 2015.

Using Anti-Terrorism Techniques Against Protesters

While Talbi of FTDES noted that police have targeted colleagues at other non-governmental organizations like LTDH and DAMJ, they have not specifically targeted FTDES or activists from FTDES. However Talbi did say he was sure that there is police surveillance of their headquarters—something he has been told may be because their offices are close to the French embassy and previous armed attacks against police forces but which he believes is also specifically following FTDES. He also added that he believes that police are monitoring the phone calls and social media activity relating to FTDES’ work.

As evidence of the former, Talbi recounted the story of a legal dispute between public sector “site” workers from Tunis, Gafsa, and Sidi Bouzid and the State in which the former have accused the State of not meeting its employment commitments to them. FTDES assisted the site workers in the case, but State prosecutors brought their own accusations against the site workers.

“What was in the [State’s] dossier? They had intercepted communications within closed groups on Facebook. They had intercepted vocal messages on [Facebook] Messenger. Do you know what that means? It means that this, when does it happen? It only happens in the terrorism law. With terrorists,” Talbi said.