This essay is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “'Civilianizing' the State in the Middle East and Asia Pacific Regions.” The series explores the past and ongoing processes of Security Sector Reform (SSR) in Asia-Pacific countries and examines the steps already taken and still needed in the MENA region. See Read more …


Since the intensive campaign of civil resistance that culminated in the January 2011 ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 24 years in power, Tunisia has undergone a political transition that has produced a new constitution, unharnessed civil society, and delivered much-needed political and economic reforms. Although the transition process has also included security sector reform (SSR), Tunisians remain insecure — subjected to a steady, unabated diet of everyday violence.   

Excluded Young Men and Everyday Violence

Against the sweep of events of the past eight years, it is perhaps easy to forget that the Tunisian uprising was spurred by an incident of everyday violence: the police harassment and humiliation of the young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who was slapped across the face after having complained about the authorities’ confiscation of his wares. Since the initial uprising, Tunisian youth have frequently taken to the streets to protest — their slogans and chants bearing a striking resemblance to the demands for dignity that ignited the revolution.

These demands are rooted in the hardships that a large number of young unemployed men face on a daily basis, namely everyday violence coupled with the hostility of and violent clashes with the security forces and the police. Some of the clashes occur during demonstrations, which often result in hundreds of arrests and where those sent to prison fall prey to radicalization. Other, less violent clashes between the young men and the police occur daily, as young men residing in residential quarters are arbitrarily arrested — sometimes picked up merely while walking down the street — and later interrogated. Sometimes the police arrest the young men while they are walking in the streets. At other times, the police intervene following clashes between youth groups from different neighborhoods. A young man explains these daily clashes, which in themselves are examples of everyday violence:

Our district is safe. But when there are problems between our district and another, it is no longer. When you are in conflict with the neighboring district, as soon as you catch one, you hit him! It lasts a week, 10 days, then we are all in jail where we reconcile. After a while, it starts again.[1]

Many of the young men in these residential areas are unemployed and have dropped out of secondary school. They have had trouble with the law and have been jailed for petty crimes. They are caught in a vicious circle because, as one young man attests, “If you enter prison, you’ll often return because whatever you do, you are always at fault.”[2] These young men are often portrayed as a main threat to Tunisian national security because, for instance, of the image of instability that demonstrations generate. But at the same time, they themselves are vulnerable and need security, protection, employment, and new dreams. Indeed, Tunisian youth are more aimless today than prior to the 2010-11 uprising. They feel neglected and lost in the transition process, which they regard as having been hijacked by elites. This pervasive hopelessness leads many youths to feel as though they are left with only two viable alternatives, migration or jihadism.[3]

Normalization of Violence as a Life Condition

Everyday violence generally lies beyond the scope of journalists’ stories and photographers’ lenses, as the media tend to focus on the public demonstrations. In fact, instances of everyday violence in Tunisia take many forms. Tunisian pupils experience daily physical punishment, verbal harassment and stigmatization due to, for instance, their parents’ life situation. Between 20% and 30% of young people surveyed say they have experienced physical violence during the past year; and boys are more affected than girls.[4] A great many girls and women are exposed to various forms of violence. A Tunisian government study published in 2016 reported that 53.5% of the women surveyed stated that they have experienced violence in the public space over the past four years (2011-2015); and 78% said they have suffered from some sort of psychological violence in the public space.[5]

However, it is important to note that everyday violence in Tunisia is not new. Nor has it been triggered by the transition process. Due to the authoritarian nature of the former regime, violence and fear was a constant in many Tunisians’ lives: phones were tapped; young men were subject to arbitrary detention; plainclothes police roamed the streets, tearing headscarves from women; and nightly house searches were all too common.

Research has demonstrated that when large groups of people within a society lack influence, and are marginalized, humiliated, and stripped of their dignity, violence ensues. In such circumstances, violence becomes a means to survival. Danielle Celermajer argues that when “state agents routinely inflict violence against people over whom they have unilateral and legally sanctioned control, the harms are deep and wide: to the individuals who are tortured, to their families, friends, and communities, to the bonds of trust between communities and state institutions, to the legitimacy of state institutions, to the rule of law, and to the institutions that become saturated with a culture of violence.”[6]

The repression and the everyday violence in Tunisia under the authoritarian regime generated a culture of distrust and fear. Thus, violence is so incorporated into the Tunisian people’s everyday life that it is barely perceived as violence but rather as a premise of life. Violence has been normalized.

The Emerging Field of Urban Violence Studies and Tunisia’s Everyday Violence

“Urban violence” studies have gained ground since the mid-1990s. Caroline Moser notes that ‘for more than 20 years now, academics and practitioners alike have considered urban violence […] a critical constraint on development for cities in the Global South […].  By the early 2000s, some researchers — many rooted in the realities of Latin American cities — had begun […] to describe urban violence.”[7] Urban violence research initially focused on defining the phenomenon, and subsequently on understanding its relationship with poverty and inequality.[8]

It is striking, however, that despite this presence of violence in many forms and at many levels in Tunisians’ everyday lives, Tunisia is not featured within the research field of urban violence and everyday violence. (For that matter, neither is the Maghreb or the wider Middle East.) The absence of such studies in the case of Tunisia is due to mainly three factors.

Firstly, before the uprising, Tunisians did not talk about violence and fear. The very foundation of former president Ben Ali’s regime was based on state violence, surveillance and crackdowns — with some instances occurring in full public view and many others performed surreptitiously. Tunisia was a state of fear, where people kept silent about their personal experience of repression for fear of reprisal. A female member of the then-illegal Ennahda Party explained that when she would pass her party colleagues on the street, they refrained from greeting each other or even making eye , lest they evoke suspicion by other passersby,[9] who might be on the state payroll as informants. Only after the uprising have Tunisians begun to talk openly about their past experiences of everyday violence.[10] To some extent, however, the subject of everyday violence is still taboo, especially the domestic violence experienced by women and their children as the family and what happens within the home is considered a strictly private matter. 

Secondly, researchers have only to a very limited extent carried out field work about and documented everyday violence and violence by state actors perpetrated prior to the Tunisian and other Arab uprisings. In the case of Tunisia, there are very few such studies.[11] This can be explained by constraints imposed by authoritarian regimes on those seeking to conduct field research. Janine Clark has concluded that, “When questioned as to the greatest difficulties encountered in the field, respondents overwhelmingly reported issues that directly or indirectly were a result of the authoritarian political climate.”[12] Clark further observes that many researchers have faced difficulties carrying out qualitative interviews because of “the political sensitivity of the topic and interviewees’ willingness to speak openly due, most commonly, to political repression […] interviewees’ mistrust and nervousness in speaking frankly to researchers for fear of political repercussions.’[13]

Finally, while research in Tunisia is lagging in the field of urban studies in general, poverty and inequality are issues which have passed almost unnoticed by scholars in the case of Tunisia. To a large extent, the former regime successfully maintained the façade that the country was prosperous and growing economicallye.[14] It came as a shock to many Tunisians after the uprising to discover that certain urban areas and regions of the country were poor.  Documenting this poverty and its wider implications, including its relationship to for urban violence, is an important task — and one that has yet to be undertaken in earnest.

Towards a Holistic Approach to Everyday Violence

Violence and insecurity in Tunisia is structural and systemic and places constraints on the lives of ordinary citizens and on their ability to become full and active participants in Tunisian democracy. Today, eight years after the uprising, large segments of the Tunisian population still lack the influence to affect their everyday lives. They experience marginalization, conditional on geography as well as political and financial exclusion. As a result, the society is further exposed to the culture of violence. Tunisian researchers and civil society actors in Tunisia are deeply worried that the use and experience of everyday violence by young people will lead to further rebellion and unrest, which will not only disrupt the Tunisian transition but destabilize the country and possibly the entire region.

Tunisia has undertaken some reforms of the security sector during the transitional process. While the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and some of the foreign support to security sector reforms in Tunisia tend to focus on ‘hard changes’ such as training of security sector personnel, border control and providing of equipment, other initiatives have also been launched which focus on ‘soft changes’; among these dialogue, community policing and local security councils. However, there is a risk that the desire for stability and security expressed by both the Tunisians and the West will be exploited by the old Ben Ali elite to strengthen the latter’s power.

The complexity of violence and security in Tunisia with its economic aspect, inherited structural and systemic culture of violence, youths’ disappointment with the political elite indicates that security sector reform and a security sector focus alone cannot change the state of violence and the current security climate in Tunisia. There is a need for a holistic approach which links and documents the complexity of everyday violence and security and the deeper causes of migration and radicalization, not only in Tunisia but in the wider Maghreb. Everyday experiences of violence are a burden to many ordinary citizens in Tunisia and the Maghreb region and constitute a root cause of pending social and political challenges for — at least in the case of Tunisia — further progress in the transitional process and in the development of a participatory democracy.

 

[1] Adnen El Ghali, Yassine Turki, and Ahlam Chemlali, “A Study of Urban Security in the Medina of Tunis,” Dignity Publication Series on Torture and Organised Violence, Praxis Paper, No. 21 (2018): 55, .
 

[2] Ibid., 44.
 

[3] 56% of Tunisians ages 18-35 (including the highly educated) consider migration. See Afrobarometer, . Furthermore, it is estimated that more than 27,000 Tunisians have tried to become foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria while, however, only 2,900 ended up in the conflict zone. See Aaron Y. Zelin and Jacob Walles, “Tunisia’s Foreign Fighters,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), Policywatch 3053 (December 17, 2018), .
 

[4] El Ghali, Turki, and Chemlali, “A Study of Urban Security in the Medina of Tunis,” 55.
 

[5] Republic of Tunisia, Ministry of Women, Family and Childhood, Center for research, Studies, Documentation and Information on Women (CREDIF), “La violence fondée sur le genre dans l’espace public en Tunisie,” 2016, .
 

[6] Danielle Celermajer, The Prevention of Torture. An Ecological Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018) 3.
 

[7] Caroline Moser, ”Foreword,” in  Jennifer Erin Salahub, Markus Gottsbacher, and John de Boer (eds.), Social Theories of Urban Violence in the Global South: Towards Safe and Inclusive Cities (London and New York: Routledge, 2018) xv.
 

[8] Ibid.
 

[9] Interview with an individual who prefers to remain anonymous. Jerba, May 2011.
 

[10] See for instance Doris Gray and Terry Coonan, “Notes from the Field: Silence Kills! Women and the Transitional Justice Process in Post-Revolutionary Tunisia,” The International Journal of Transitional Justice 7 (2013): 348-357.
 

[11] See, for example, Béatrice Hibou, La force de l’obéissance: Économie politique de la répression en Tunisie (Paris: Découverte, 2006); Vincent Geisser and Éric Gobe, “Des fissures dans la ‘Maison Tunisie’? Le régime de Ben Ali face aux mobilisations protestataires,” L'Année du Maghreb 2005-2006, II, Paris, CNRS-Editions (2007): 353-414; and Oliver Schlumberger (ed.), Debating Arab Authoritarianism. Dynamics and Durability in Nondemocratic Regimes (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).
 

[12] Janine A. Clark, “Field Research Methods in the Middle East,” PS: Political Science & Politics 39, 3 (July 2006): 418.
 

[13] Ibid.

[14] Rikke Hostrup Haugbølle and Francesco Cavatorta, “The End of Authoritarian Rule and the Mythology of Tunisia under Ben Ali,” Mediterranean Politics 17, 2 (July 2012): 179-195.