Tunisia: Martyrs’ Day leave many wounded by police repression

The ‘troika’ unveils its real nature

On Monday 9 April in central Tunis, horrific brutality was used by the Tunisian police to repress peaceful protestors. This is undoubtedly the worst police crackdown for months in the country.

What is already being called ‘Black Monday’ brings to light the real character of the new tripartite coalition in power (the ‘troika’), a coalition prepared to reinstate the worst methods of Ben Ali’s dictatorship to deal with opposition to its fragile- rule.

Different demonstrations and rallies were taking place in the capital on that day to commemorate the anniversary of ‘Martyrs’ Day’, a reference to the bloody repression of pro-independence demonstrators by French colonial troops in 1938.

This occasion was seized upon by many to protest against the present Ennahda-led government, to honour the dead of last year’s counter-revolutionary killings, as well as to defy the ban on demonstrations in the Bourguiba Avenue imposed by the Interior Ministry in late March. Some of the marchers had walked for several days from the inland regions to demonstrate in the capital.

People started to gather in the centre of the capital from early morning, the biggest rally assembling on Mohamed V Avenue. As it marched to the main Bourguiba Avenue, the thousands-strong crowd, including children and the elderly, was rapidly met with brutal repression by the police. A massive amount of tear gas was unleashed into the air, rubber bullets were shot and savage baton, cudgel and even electric baton cracks were meted out to all around.

The scene soon became a field of indiscriminate revenge by the police, with people fainting and suffocating due to the tear gas, police vans and motorbikes with masked police thugs driving into the crowd, and tens of people beaten up, including passers-by, lawyers, journalists and opposition members of the Constituent Assembly present on the march.

Many people were sent to hospital with serious injuries and an unknown number of arrests took place as well. These arrests and beatings particularly targeted well-known left-wing activists. A young protestor, victim of a cerebral hemorrhage following harsh beating by the police on the head, is still between life and death in hospital.

Added to that are many reports and pictures giving evidence of the presence of armed civilian militias helping the police in chasing protestors and ‘cleaning’ the nearby streets, using methods of street violence not far different from fascist groups. Most people suspect the thugs backing the police in their dirty task are notorious Ennahda supporters.

Civilian thugs carried on a police car

Government lies

The Interior Ministry, echoed by other government voices, has made up truncated charges against the protesters, pretending that Molotov cocktails had been used by them. While there is numerous evidence of the police’s violent provocation, nothing of the kind can be found to back such claims.

In a similar vein, President Moncef Marzouki has condemned the “unacceptable degree” of violence “on both sides”, putting on equal terms the arbitrary aggression of a heavily armed police force with the supposed ‘violence’ of civilians, the most ‘violent’ of them being angry young people throwing stones at the police in reaction to the force’s brutal behaviour. Those who still thought that Moncef Marzouki’s legacy as a human rights activist could guarantee against repression will be left with few doubts after such disgraceful declarations.

“Tunisia is not threatened by dictatorship, it is threatened by chaos,” Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader said, putting the blame on what he describes as “Stalinist anarchists” who want to spread chaos in the country. These political covers for the police’s actions betray the fact that what happened on Monday is not at all accidental but engineered by those in power in an attempt to intimidate and discourage the most active layers from pursuing their aspirations for change.

This is supposed to serve as an ‘example’ for those who dare to challenge the government, whose incapacity and unwillingness to meet these aspirations is becoming clearer by the day in the eyes of the masses. But the success of such an exercise by the new authorities is another question.

A turning point

This repression followed attacks on another march organised by the UDC (Union of the unemployed graduates) on Saturday, with the central demand of the right of a decent job for all. The response from the police was along similar lines, with several people arrested or injured as a result, a sort of ‘general rehearsal’ for Monday’s events. Last week, a protest attended by the casualties of the revolution and families of martyrs in front of the headquarters of the Ministry for Human Rights (!) was also viciously attacked by the police. We reported in February about the raids that took place against the trade union federation UGTT’s offices as well.

But this new surge in repression represents a turning point. Although Monday’s demonstration was small, the effect of its repression is already large and is likely to help radicalise a broader layer of people against the Ennahda-led government.

This will strengthen the growing understanding that the ruling parties are enemies of the aims that working people and youth had for the revolution, and have no answer but repression to people’s demands. There is a widespread acknowledgement of a return to the traditional methods of Ben Ali’s police, and of the dangers of attempts to move towards a new dictatorship. Many will not fail to notice the ‘double-standards’ of the government, whose complacent attitude towards hard-line reactionary Salafist groups sharply contrasts with the brutal crackdown imposed on left-leaning and trade union actions.

Photo by Touiti Photography

Throughout the country the climate is now particularly tense and this repression could backfire; several solidarity protests (notably in Monastir, Sousse and Sfax), as well as clashes of young people with the police, have already taken place up and down the country since Monday as a result. A general strike has taken place in Ktar (in the Gafsa region), another one is underway in Sidi Bouzid and Ennahda’s offices have been burned down in several areas. A strike of all students and school students has been declared in Sousse, and other actions by the student union, the UGET, are also under discussions.

On 11 April, a Council of Ministers decided to lift the ban on demonstrations in Bourguiba Avenue. This shows that the government is not that confident to engage in a frontal assault on the revolutionary youth and workers and fears a wider reaction which could get out of control. The immediate shock and subsequent popular reactions this repression has provoked in many areas have pushed the government into this climb down in an attempt to calm the situation.

General strike in Sidi Bouzid paralysed the city

After what happened on Monday, this small victory is significant. The harsh repression used by the regime still resulted in it conceding on one of the main demands of the protesters: to reclaim their avenue, a hugely historic symbol of the revolution which ousted the dictator Ben Ali in January of last year.

However, the events of the last days clearly indicate the direction in which the new regime wants to move. New attempts on its part to counter-attack will necessarily arise. A new period of fierce battle is only starting. The UGTT and the UGET might have to consider the possibility of organising a one-day national protest strike as a warning to the government that any move to erode democratic and social rights will be faced by serious resistance from workers, students, the youth and all those who want the revolution of ‘freedom, jobs and dignity’ to fulfil its aims.

The CWI denounces the rising police repression and harassment of political and trade union activists, demands freedom of speech and assembly for all, an immediate removal of the continuing state of emergency, as well as the immediate release of all the protesters arrested over the last few days. An independent inquiry should be led by the UGTT, the UDC and other popular movements to determine who was responsible for the police violence that took place over the weekend and on Monday.

We express our solidarity with all those fighting for their rights in Tunisia and will make sure that everything is done to expose the real visage of the supposedly new, ‘democratic’ Tunisia, and to assist as we can revolutionary activists in what is going to be a drawn-out struggle against attempts to affirm a new regime of authoritarianism and oppression.

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