Our Writing Revolution extracts continue from Tunisia and its Jasmine revolution, where Malek Sghiri talks of being a student activist, his kidnapping, imprisonment and detention.
At three in the afternoon I met up with a group of friends and we held long discussions about how we would proceed now the university had been closed down. As in Tala, we reached the conclusion that the battle must move into the workingclass districts.
At 6 o’clock I was with a union activist called Nabil, sitting in a cafe in the Tahrir neighbourhood. Ramzi was in Tadamon, the biggest working-class neighbourhood in the city and when I called him he told me clashes had broken out with the police in Area 105. We immediately set out to see for ourselves.
We reached Intilaqa, in the suburbs of Tunis, by the entrance to Tadamon where we were joined by Bairam, a union activist from April 9 college, and witnessed the security forces preparing to move into the neighbourhood. I phoned Ramzi again and learnt that there was a tense stand-off in Area 105 and it looked very probable that the police would mount another assault. I knew the area well and crossing the security cordon we headed over to where groups of young men stood about, keeping an eye on the situation and ready to respond if the security forces entered the neighbourhood. The police addressed us through a loudspeaker, asking us to vacate the area and when the youths showed no sign of obeying orders the police began firing tear gas. Some of the canisters dropped at our feet while others fell on rooftops, an unprovoked tactic that enraged the local residents.
Then the clashes started. The battlefield was a maze of narrow alleyways and the police suffered heavy losses, surrounded on four sides and bombarded with rocks. Taken by surprise they retreated and we repaired first to the local headquarters of the ruling party, which we regarded as nests of traitors, in order to occupy them and purge them, and then to the police stations. Various battles broke out which ended in victory for the protestors. It was a war between unemployed, frustrated and angry youths who saw the chance to vent their suffering and a police force utterly ignorant of the topography of the battlefield and their opponents’ psychology.
My comrades and I were determined to start political chants calling for the downfall of the regime, like, ‘Down with the Constitutional Party! Down with the executioners of the people!’ and ‘Down with the November 7 Regime: repressive, traitorous, sell-outs!’
This would help them give expression to their anger. We were at the front of the crowds, urging them to resist, because we knew that the tyrant’s throne was shaking and victory was at hand.
Once the neighbourhood had been completely ‘liberated’ of its police presence we got news of clashes taking place in neighbourhoods like Karam, Sidi Hassine and Kabariya and we left. I preferred to stay away from my home because I believed the authorities were sure to carry out a series of mass detentions. We went to the city centre to spend the night following developments from there.
We had been sitting at a cafe in Bab al-Khadra for about half an hour when we were joined by three more friends who lived nearby. There were now six of us in total and we decided to move on after we grew suspicious that the cafe’s patrons included informers for internal security. Almost the instant we left the cafe we were picked up by a patrol.
It was like talking to a brick wall. We told them we were unionists, members of UGET (the General Union of Tunisian Students), while they swore at us and abused the organization. They were clearly tense and one of their number, their resident genius, noticed the Palestinian kuffayah I wore over my shoulders and decided that we must be opponents of the regime, one of the ‘masked bandits’ Ben Ali had spoken of.
The balance of power was not in our favour. We didn’t put up a struggle. We were taken to the Nahj Cologna police station. I had always believed that when one of us was detained it was part of a carefully weighed political strategy, not the spontaneous initiative of individual policemen. But the moment I walked into the station this time, I felt that the authorities were moving in the direction of fire and steel and the new ‘orders’ from above would pay scant regard to the old niceties.
The policemen searched us thoroughly, taking away our mobile phones, handcuffing us then lining us up against the wall. We stayed like that for about half an hour, waiting for the station command to arrive, but in his place we got the head of the political police for Bab al-Bahr, the man responsible for political investigations in central Tunis. He knew us all well. His squad had been responsible for operations against countless student protests, not to mention beating, detaining and conducting surveillance against activists and revolutionaries. He had personally overseen the torture, fabrication of charges and imprisonment of many of our comrades. And we knew him, too. We considered him one of the biggest ‘torturers’ of them all, who thanks to his contacts among senior figures in the Ministry of Interior, enjoyed carte blanche to act as he pleased.
He was not surprised to see us. He congratulated the policemen on capturing such a ‘fat prize’ and walked along the line examining our faces. Gloating and arrogant he pulled a knife from the folds of his overcoat and waved it in front of us. He paused when he got to me and peered into my eyes. I frowned and did not drop my head as he had anticipated but stared back at him with the same cold gaze. He began to seethe and a brief, silent conversation passed between us, from which I understood that this man meant to make an example of us.
After two hours of psychological torture and continuous threats we were taken to the National Security Compound in Bab al-Bahr in the company of the political police chief. During the short trip over I spotted a tank parked in Passage Square, a large public space in central Tunis opposite the Public Gardens. It was the first time the army had entered the capital. I whispered in the ear of one of my companions on the back seat that things were coming to a head and that our fate was in the hands of the victor: either the people or the dictatorship. If the people were triumphant then we would be heroes, but if the dictatorship won out we would be among the first to lose our lives.
The moment we arrived we were met by members of the Crime Fighting Unit and roughly handled. Cuffed, we sat on cold metal chairs linked in a line: six of us to four chairs and we stayed like that for nearly two hours until we were led off for individual interrogation. I had thought that we would be brought to trial on trumped-up charges as a lesson to other protestors and the only thing that bothered me was the thought of my family and how they would cope with the idea that I was a prisoner.
At times such as these the mind remains perfectly clear, capable of thinking calmly in the face of all one’s fear of the unknown. I did not lose my cool in front of the policeman who tried to extract a confession from me that I had burnt and destroyed police stations and ruling party buildings, that I had distributed inflammatory material and made speeches calling for the downfall of the regime.
My companions and I went through some very personal experiences. Knowing that they were determined to frame us we became linked by a unique bond: more than mere friendship or companionship, it was a profound kind of solidarity that perhaps stemmed from the fact we were facing a common fate out of love for our country and that we were ready to sacrifice ourselves for its sake. And now, the time for sacrifice had come: the test of the principles and values for which we had fought. We would steal glances at one another and smile, charging ourselves with the positive energy of resolve, determination and courage.
At nine in the morning they led us out again, shackled hand and foot. This time, I thought, we are going to the Bouchoucha detention centre, but when we had climbed into the police car the head of internal security turned his head and told us: ‘You are going to be punished most severely. Most severely. See you later.’
It was a line taken word for word from Ben Ali’s second speech, which he addressed directly to the ‘masked bandits’.
Ten minutes later we were in the Interior Ministry, that mysterious, sinister, imposing building that squats in the middle of Avenue Habib Bourguiba, receiving blows to every part of our bodies.
Tunis, November 2011. ■
Translated from the Arabic by Roger Moger.
Malek Sghiri is a 25-year old student of Contemporary History at the April 9 College of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Tunis. He is a political activist, blogger, trade unionist and leader of the General Union of Tunisian Students. He founded the movement Jil Jadid (New Generation), participated in student demonstrations in Tunis, in the revolt of Thala, and in the mass protests against the rule of Ben Ali that took in place in Tadamon. He was arrested and detained at the Ministry of Interior on 11 January and later released on 18 January 2011.
Image courtesy of Zero Silence.