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Greetings to the Dawn (Tunisia)

Our Writing Revolution excerpts shift focus to Tunisia and its Jasmine revolution as Malek Sghiri recounts his experiences as a student activist, including his abduction, incarceration, and detention.

Planning The Next Steps After University Closure

In the afternoon, I gathered with a group of friends to strategize our next moves following the closure of the university. Similar to our discussions in Tala, we decided that it was imperative to shift the focus of our efforts to the working-class neighborhoods.

At 6 o’clock, I found myself in a cafe in the Tahrir neighborhood with a union activist named Nabil. Meanwhile, Ramzi was situated in Tadamon, the largest working-class district in the city. When I contacted him, he informed me of clashes erupting between protesters and the police in Area 105. Without delay, we headed out to witness the situation firsthand.

We arrived at Intilaqa on the outskirts of Tunis near the entrance to Tadamon, where Bairam, a union activist from April 9 College, joined us. We observed the security forces preparing to enter the neighborhood. Upon calling Ramzi again, I was informed of a tense stand-off in Area 105, indicating the likelihood of another police assault.

Being familiar with the area, we bypassed the security cordon and approached groups of young men who were monitoring the situation and prepared to respond if the security forces intervened. The police used a loudspeaker to instruct us to leave the area, but when the youths refused to comply, the police resorted to firing tear gas. Some canisters landed at our feet, while others hit rooftops, an unwarranted action that angered the local residents.

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Unrest Erupts In Maze-like Alleyways

Clashes erupted in a labyrinth of narrow alleyways, resulting in heavy losses for the police who found themselves surrounded on all sides and bombarded with rocks. Caught off guard, they retreated. We initially targeted the local headquarters of the ruling party, which we perceived as bastions of betrayal, aiming to occupy and cleanse them before moving on to police stations.

Several skirmishes ensued, ultimately resulting in victory for the protesters. This was a conflict between unemployed, frustrated, and enraged youths seizing the opportunity to express their grievances and a police force unfamiliar with their opponents’ terrain and psychology.

My fellow activists and I were resolute in initiating political chants demanding the downfall of the regime, such as “Down with the Constitutional Party! Down with the oppressors of the people!” and “Down with the November 7 Regime: oppressive, treacherous, collaborators!”

Empowering The Crowd Amidst Turmoil

This enabled them to express their anger. We stood at the forefront of the crowds, urging them to resist, knowing that the tyrant’s grip on power was weakening and that victory was imminent.

Encouraging the crowd to resist, we believed that the tyrant’s grip on power was weakening and victory was within reach. Once the neighborhood was free of police presence, we received reports of clashes erupting in areas like Karam, Sidi Hassine, and Kabariya, prompting us to depart.

Fearing mass detentions by the authorities, I chose to avoid returning home and instead headed to the city center to monitor developments throughout the night.

Encounter With Surveillance In Bab al-Khadra

After spending approximately thirty minutes at a cafe in Bab al-Khadra, three additional friends from the vicinity joined our group, increasing our number to six. Suspecting that some cafe patrons may be informants for internal security, we opted to leave. However, almost immediately after departing the cafe, we were apprehended by a patrol.

It felt futile trying to reason with them. Despite informing them that we were unionists and members of UGET (the General Union of Tunisian Students), they responded with insults and disparaged the organization.

Clearly agitated, one of them, whom they seemed to regard as their intellectual leader, noticed the Palestinian scarf draped over my shoulders and concluded that we were opponents of the regime, aligning us with the “masked bandits” referenced by Ben Ali.

Unfamiliar Shift In Power Dynamics

The power dynamic was not in our favor, and we did not resist. We were escorted to the Nahj Cologna police station. Previously, I believed that detentions were part of a calculated political strategy rather than the impromptu actions of individual officers. However, upon entering the station this time, I sensed that the authorities were adopting a more aggressive approach, with new directives paying little heed to previous norms and protocols.

The policemen conducted a thorough search, confiscating our mobile phones and handcuffing us before lining us up against the wall. We remained in that position for approximately thirty minutes, anticipating the arrival of the station commander. However, instead of the expected official, the head of the political police for Bab al-Bahr arrived, responsible for political investigations in central Tunis.

He was familiar with all of us, as his unit had been involved in numerous operations against student protests, as well as in the harassment, detention, and surveillance of activists and revolutionaries. Personally, he had overseen the torture, fabrication of charges, and imprisonment of many of our comrades. We regarded him as one of the most notorious “torturers,” benefiting from his connections with high-ranking officials in the Ministry of Interior, granting him unchecked authority to act as he pleased.

Confrontation With The Political Police Chief

He showed no surprise upon encountering us and commended the policemen for apprehending what he deemed a valuable catch. As he walked along the line, inspecting our faces with a smug and arrogant demeanor, he brandished a knife taken from the folds of his overcoat. Pausing in front of me, he locked eyes with me, expecting me to avert my gaze in submission. However, I met his stare with a determined frown, refusing to back down. This seemed to infuriate him, and through our silent exchange, I realized that he intended to use us as a deterrent example.

After enduring two hours of psychological torment and relentless threats, they transported us to the National Security Compound in Bab al-Bahr, accompanied by the political police chief. During the brief journey, I noticed a tank stationed in Passage Square, a significant public area in central Tunis opposite the Public Gardens. It marked the first instance of the army’s presence in the capital.

Quietly, I murmured to one of my companions in the back seat that the situation was reaching a critical juncture and our fate hinged on the outcome: either the victory of the people or the dictatorship. Should the people emerge triumphant, we would be hailed as heroes, but if the dictatorship prevailed, we would likely be among the first to face dire consequences.

Harsh Treatment Upon Arrival At The National Security Compound

Upon our arrival, members of the Crime Fighting Unit greeted us and handled us roughly. With our hands cuffed, we were made to sit on cold metal chairs arranged in a line, squeezing six of us onto four chairs. We remained in this position for nearly two hours until they took us for individual interrogation sessions. I had anticipated that they would subject me to a sham trial orchestrated to serve as a warning to other protesters. The only concern weighing on my mind was the impact of my imprisonment on my family.

During such moments, the mind retains its clarity, enabling calm and rational thinking despite harboring apprehensions about the uncertain future. I maintained my composure in front of the interrogating policeman who attempted to coerce a confession from me, alleging that I had participated in the burning and destruction of police stations and ruling party buildings, distributed provocative materials, and delivered speeches advocating for the overthrow of the regime.

Deepened Solidarity Amid Adversity

My comrades and I underwent deeply personal ordeals, knowing full well that authorities were intent on framing us. Through this shared experience, we forged a bond that transcended mere friendship or companionship.

It was a profound sense of solidarity, born from our shared fate driven by love for our country and a willingness to sacrifice for its sake. As the moment of sacrifice approached, it became a test of the principles and values we had ardently fought for. We exchanged knowing glances and smiled, drawing strength from each other’s resolve, determination, and courage.

At nine in the morning, we were once again escorted outside, this time with our hands and feet bound. I presumed they were transporting us to the Bouchoucha detention center. However, as we boarded the police car, the head of internal security turned to us and ominously declared, ‘You will face severe punishment. Very severe. Until next time.’

Parallels With Ben Ali’s Speech And Brutal Treatment At The Interior Ministry

Ten minutes later, we found ourselves at the Interior Ministry, a foreboding and enigmatic structure in the heart of Avenue Habib Bourguiba.

Here, we endured relentless physical abuse, reminiscent of the threats uttered by Ben Ali in his second speech directly targeting the ‘masked bandits’.

Tunis, November 2011.

Translated from the Arabic by Roger Moger.

Malek Sghiri, aged 25, studies Contemporary History at the April 9 College of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Tunisia. Malek Sghiri actively engages in politics, blogging, and trade union activities and holds leadership positions within the General Union of Tunisian Students. He founded the movement called Jil Jadid (New Generation) and participated in several student protests in Tunis, including the Thala revolt and mass demonstrations against the regime of Ben Ali in Tadamon. Authorities apprehended and detained him at the Ministry of Interior on January 11; he was released on January 18, 2011.

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Prakriti Paudel
Prakriti Paudel
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