The Tunisian city of Sbeitla (or Sufetela) in Kasserine Governorate has seen a wave of violent protest after a man died when the authorities demolished the illegal kiosk where he was sleeping on October 13, 2020.[1] The incident was reminiscent of the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who, in late 2010, set himself on fire in protest against the confiscation of his vehicle by the municipal police in Sidi Bouzid;[2] this became the catalyst for the Tunisian revolution that toppled the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Although nearly a decade has passed, Tunisia continues to face a multidimensional crisis, represented in the sharp political polarization between civilian forces and the Ennahda Movement and its allies, and the country’s blatant economic struggles, which have only been exacerbated by the second wave of COVID-19. The development gap between regions has also continued to widen, and “sectarian” and regional protests have spread, especially in remote areas such as Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, and Gafsa, known as “shadow areas” and “poverty pockets” that suffer from three-dimensional marginalization (regional, economic and developmental, and humanitarian).[3]

This paper will examine the catalysts behind the protests in Sbeitla, the government’s policies for handling the protests, the position of civil society organizations regarding the protests and the government’s response, and the possible outcomes.

Domestic triggers/drivers of the Sbeitla protests

  • Increasing tyranny among the security forces: Some observers report that municipal police have been poorly treating marginalized groups in Tunisian society. In their view, the Sbeitla protests are not the first response to this treatment, nor will they be the last. The protests are fuelling popular anger, which has led to growing calls among the media for an overhaul of the relationship between the police and citizens.[4]
  • Broad opposition to the Security Forces Protection Act: The protests in Sbeitla coincided with Parliament’s postponement, at the request of the government, of a controversial bill to “protect” the police forces. The bill contains 15 chapters and sets out penalties for attacking the police during the course of their duties, in particular when facing an imminent danger. This postponement follows pressure from political parties and groups, trade unions, and civil society organizations, which see the bill as a violation of constitutional provisions guaranteeing citizens’ freedom of expression and right to peaceful protest. They also feel that it promotes discrimination among the Tunisian people, which they see as contrary to the right to freedom of expression and opinion guaranteed by international human rights instruments.[5]
  • Overlap in powers between municipal councils and the central authorities: Although two years have passed since the last local elections were held, municipal councils are still unable to understand what their role is and when they should intervene. There is still an overlap between the powers of municipal councils and those of the central authorities, represented in the position of the governor, meaning that neither side is willing to accept responsibility for failure while both claim credit for any successes. This has given rise to uncertainty among citizens and even among the heads of the municipal councils themselves, the results being that citizens’ interests are ignored, development grinds to a halt, and no projects are carried out. This has led to social tension and dissatisfaction regarding the performance of the municipal councils in general.[6]
  • Unbalanced development: Sbeitla is one of several cities in the Tunisian interior that does not enjoy the same level of development as the country’s main cities. Frequent protests have called for job opportunities and greater investment. The city also has a higher unemployment rate than other cities in Tunisia, and its deteriorating health care facilities have been unable to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. Some people have even argued that government policies have directly led to the systematic impoverishment and marginalization of the city,[7] with one analysis declaring it the most underdeveloped province in the country. “Shadow economies” are also prolific along the governorate’s border with Algeria, which are fed by the tacit alliance between smugglers and local authority members.[8]

The government’s approach to handling the protests

  • Following the escalation of protests in Sbeitla, the Tunisian president Kais Saied held a meeting with Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi to discuss the general situation in the country, and in particular the incident in Sbeitla. President Saied stressed that all parties involved needed to accept liability and that the law applied to everyone, regardless of their responsibilities.[9]
  • At the same time, Interior Minister Tawfik Sharaf al-Din and Minister of Local Affairs and the Environment Mustapha Laroui visited Sbeitla to provide material and moral support to the family of the deceased man. Sharaf al-Din said that he had been instructed by the Prime Minister to convey his direct instructions to the local authorities to conduct a serious investigation into the incident. He added that a team had undertaken to investigate the incident in order to determine who should be held responsible and refer the case to the courts, as only the courts had the constitutional and legal authority to issue a fair and final judgment on the case.[10]
  • In order to calm the protests, the Prime Minister dismissed several officials, first and foremost the governor of Kasserine,[11] the local commissioner for Sbeitla, the chief of the national security district, and the chief of the municipal police station.[12] The official spokesperson for the Kasserine local authorities, Riyad al-Nubawi, announced that the chief of the municipal police station had also been arrested.
  • Meanwhile, military reinforcements were deployed to the city to protect public facilities and vital buildings, in coordination with local security units. According to Ministry of Defense spokesperson Mohamed Zakri, the government feared that the situation would escalate out of control, after an official government vehicle and rubber tires were set on fire, stores were destroyed, roads blocked, stones thrown at security forces, and a number of government buildings were stormed.[13] The army was later forced to cordon off the city.[14]

The positions of social groups and civil society organizations

  • On social media, the “Bring the Prefect Back” campaign is calling for Kasserine’s former wali [prefect] to be reinstated. A physical protest was also organized to call for the decision to be overturned, in which representatives of the taxi unions and the regional federation for industry and commerce participated. Protestors described the prefect as “the best that Kasserine has had since independence,” adding that, “since his appointment 14 months ago, he has made great efforts to resolve the problem of stalled projects and to achieve development.”[15] Similarly, several local government employees informed the visiting Interior Minister of the need to retain the prefect, asking him to convey their request to Mechichi.
  • In a statement, the local law association also denounced the government’s decision to dismiss some of its members from their posts, decrying the decision as a populist response to public outcry rather than a genuine attempt to address the root of the region’s development problems. The association called on the government to take urgent measures to introduce a clear development strategy that would put an end to rising poverty, unemployment, and marginalization in the region.[16] 
  • COVID-19 patients in the Kasserine COVID-19 centre have declared a hunger strike in protest at the prefect’s dismissal, saying that the prefect used to visit them regularly to check how they were doing.[17]

Potential outcomes for Tunisia

  • “Relative” expansion of the protest area: The protests in Sbeitla have continued for three days, to varying degrees, driven by the “permeability effect.” While the army and police forces may succeed in temporarily controlling the situation, internal tensions are unlikely to dissipate.[18]
  • Reorganization of the municipal police: Ways need to be identified to uphold the law without having a negative impact on marginalized groups. Extremist and terrorist groups are quick to exploit such loopholes, especially as several such groups are hiding in the mountains of Kasserine Governorate.[19]
  • Increased coordination between local and central authorities in managing public affairs and in law enforcement: This can be achieved by limiting the overlap in jurisdiction and responsibilities between local and central authorities, with a view to providing improved services throughout Kasserine Governorate and in Sbeitla in particular.
  • Sustainable development plans to achieve interregional development equality: Efforts need to be made to strengthen regional development and reduce the gap between the authorities’ declared policies and the expectations of local communities. These plans need to be time-bound and should cover the entirety of Kasserine Governorate, including Sbeitla.[20]

Conclusion

The Sbeitla protests have shone a light on key problems in Tunisian society, primarily the arbitrary nature of the municipal police in their dealings with marginalized groups and the continued imbalance in development between major cities and peripheral regions since the country’s independence. New visions will be required to tackle these problems. Although the protests in Sbeitla may die down over time, they could flare up again at any moment if the driving factors persist, especially social marginalization in the face of the State’s increasing financial difficulties and its poor response to protesters demands, which would allow extremist and terrorist groups to exploit tensions and threaten national stability.

References

[1] “الشرطة هدمت كشكه وهو بداخله.. احتجاجات في تونس بعد مقتل شخص”, Al-Hurra, 13 October 2020. Available at: https://arbne.ws/33Y7qw1

[2] “القصرين التونسية تعيش وقائع مقتل بوعزيزي آخر”, Al Bayan, 13 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3iZPqWi

[3] Sarah Yerkes and Zeineb ben Yahmed, “Tunisians’ Revolutionary Goals Remain Unfulfilled”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 7 December 2018. Available at: https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/12/06/tunisians-revolutionary-goals-remain-unfulfilled-pub-77894

[4] Noha Mahmoud, “واقعة القصرين ليست الأولى.. تعسُّف الشرطة قنبلة موقوتة في تونس”, Al-Hurra, 13 October 2020. Available at: https://arbne.ws/34Tb6OQ

[5] “البرلمان التونسي يرجئ النظر في مشروع قانون يحمي رجال الأمن” RT Online, 13 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3nTiMcH

[6] “بعد أحداث سبيطلة.. هل تضطر تونس لمراجعة الحكم المحلي؟”, Erem News, 13 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3nR5UU9

[7] Jasser Aid, “شيراز العتيري من القصرين: بعد سنوات من التهميش لا بد من سنوات من التمييز لتحقيق التوازن”, Radio Express FM, 6 July 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2IpPEcA

[8] Dalia Ghanem, “Algeria’s Borderlands: A Country Unto Themselves”, Carnegie Middle East Center, 27 May 2020. Available at: https://carnegie-mec.org/2020/05/27/algeria-s-borderlands-country-unto-themselves-pub-81881

[9] “رئيس تونس يدعو لتطبيق القانون باحتجاج سبيطلة وسط انتشار الجيش”, Al Arabiya, 13 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3iZqOx0; “الرئيس التونسي يؤكد ضرورة تطبيق القانون على الجميع”, Shorouk News, 13 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2H9O3H9

[10] “وزير الداخلية يؤدي زيارة إلى القصرين”, Al-Chourouk, 13 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/377Gwnk

[11] “تونس.. المشيشي يقيل والي القصرين بعد حادثة صاحب الكشك”, Sky News Arabia, 13 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/34Tjpu0

[12] Al-Munji Al-Saeedani, “احتجاجات عنيفة تطيح مسئولين في الحكومة التونسية”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 14 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/34oSqax

[13] “تونس: احتجاجات عنيفة في سبيطلة والجيش ينشر مدرعاته”, Nabd, 13 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/375yVFO

[14] “الجيش التونسي ينشر المدرعات لحماية المنشآت في مدينة سبيطلة بعد اشتباكات بين الأمن والمتظاهرين” (video), Sky News Arabia, 13 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2SW8sCg

[15] “دعوات لإبقائه في منصبه.. احتجاجات تضامنية مع والي القصرين المقال”, Achahed, 14 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/378Kcp2

[16] “الفرع الجهوي للمحامين بالقصرين: عزل بعض الموظفين هو قرار شعبوي”, Shems FM, 14 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3lLkGKs

[17] “القصرين: مرضى كوفيد-19 يدخلون في إضراب جوع احتجاجاً على إقالة والي الجهة”, Djerid FM, 14 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2H7FSes

[18] “تونس.. اتساع الاحتجاجات في سبيطلة وأنباء عن فرار رئيس البلدية”, Erem News, 13 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2H5JVYO

[19] “وزير الداخلية التونسي: سنهزم الإرهاب من ولاية القصرين”, Shorouk News, 15 May 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2SSYK3J

[20] Larbi Sadiki, “Regional development in Tunisia: The consequences of multiple marginalization”, Brookings Doha Center, 14 January 2019. Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/research/regional-development-in-tunisia-the-consequences-of-multiple-marginalization/

 

Latest Briefs