When police finally gained entry to the house, they arrested a young man. Chedly went over to ask what the young man was being charged with and whether he needed a lawyer. “One of the cops told me then if he [the boy] does not show up in the videos [police were reviewing of earlier clashes]…he will come back home and we do not need to worry,” Chedly said. Chedly told Nawaat/Meshkal that the father of the boy who got arrested had a breakdown and started beating himself up after hearing the fate of his son.
“The father had special needs and had a disability card.But when the police saw him in that state, they tried to take him as well…When I tried to stop them and explain to them his medical status one of them, who I think was the head of the police squad, screamed, accusing me of incitement and ordered the rest to take me,” Chedly recounted.
Chedly said that upon their superior’s order, four or five of the cops rushed to him and started punching him, kicking him, beating him with batons, and ripping his clothes down to his underwear as they moved him into the police car. “I was wearing my mask and they kept punching till my nose started bleeding.If I did not tell them I was suffocating, he would not have stopped beating me…However, he gave me a few minutes to breathe and then resumed beating me,” Chedly recounted.
Chedly told Nawaat/Meshkal that the officers kept beating him and punching him from the moment he was arrested until they reached the police station, where they stopped since the station has surveillance cameras. Chedly said he was also a witness to other people getting beaten up in the police station. “This cop came in and found three guys arrested, so he just started randomly hitting them without even knowing why they were there,” he said. Chedly was later released that night after multiple rounds of questioning and signing a commitment not to infringe the curfew again.
Economic Roots of Recent Protests
One of the biggest centers of the recent protests has been the Hay Ettadhamon [literally “Solidarity Neighborhood” in English] area of Tunis. Nawaat/Meshkal went there on Thursday, January 21, to ask people their thoughts on recent protests. Many pointed to increasingly desperate poverty and other economic hardships as fueling local anger with the state and state officials.
“Whenever I go to the central market to buy what I need, I see people eating from trash,” Sami, a fruit and vegetable seller told Nawaat/Meshkal as his eyes welled up with tears. Sami singled out inflation as a key obstacle in his struggle to make a living. “One thousand dinars used to allow me to buy all I need. Now with increased prices and with taxes later, I barely manage,” he added. “They need to decrease the prices of food…they keep increasing it and prefer to later throw it away instead of giving it to the poor [“zwawla”]. Why do that when people are hungry?”
Heni, who owns a nearby shop that makes aluminum door and window frames, has seen the police destroying property in their clashes with young people. “Look at that… someone brought me his window [frame] to fix because the police hit it during their nightly chases,” Heni said, pointing to a misshapen frame on the ground. Heni told Nawaat/Meshkal that it has been three years since he started his business, but it’s not really going well. He said he has thought about emigrating for the last ten years, like four of his siblings living in Italy and Qatar, but hasn’t been able to.
“If they give me the choice, I will leave tonight,” Heni said in a laughing tone toa friendstanding beside him. As for the police activity in the area, Sami and Heni both expressed anger at the police tactics used.
“There is a limit to using tear gas and violence… some people are sick with asthma and some are old… one of my neighbors had to rush his asthmatic son to the emergency room because of the excessive tear gas,” Sami told Nawaat/Meshkal. “They are treating them like dogs… kneeling on their knees, facing the wall for hours.” Sami expressed disappointment with president Kais Saied’s lack of response to the protests and police violence. “All people are talking about it… when the elections came, we did it all because you could call him the son of our neighborhood… we cleaned these streets,” Sami said. “How come the president does not come out to give a speech and talk to us?” a customer of Sami who did not give her name added.
Sami told Nawaat/Meshkal that people in his neighborhood will probably continue protesting because their friends have been arrested. “At the beginning maybe the reason of some was looting and vandalizing, but now people are protesting because of their friends who are in prison… this deepened the crisis and what is going on at the moment is people versus police that is it,” he said.
On January 21, 2020, Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi delivered a speech addressing recent unrest on the state TV channel Wataniya 1. Mechichi, who has been acting as interim Minister of Interior after sacking previous minister Taoufik Charfeddine on January 5, did not address the question of the excessive use of force by the police but instead praised what he called “their professionalism.”
“I can make a clear distinction between this [socio-economic demands] and the acts of violence and theft that came with it, which our security forces had countered with all professionalism”
“We understand your rage and frustration… Your voice is heard and your demands are legitimate,” said Mechichi in a speech. Some Tunisians on social media later compared Mechichi’s speech to Ben Ali’s speech on January 13, 2011 just before he fled revolutionary protests.
This article was produced as part of a reporting partnership between Nawaat and Meshkal