Geopolitics

Lessons For Libya? Tribal Clashes And Dashed Hopes Ahead Of Tunisia Election

As Tunisians head to the polls for the first free vote after the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ and fall of the Ben Ali regime, tribal infighting, strikes and protests are multiplying. The region of Gafsa, the hotbed of a 2008 uprising, is on the verge of chaos.

'Coin chasers' near Metlaoui in Tunisia
'Coin chasers' near Metlaoui in Tunisia
Christophe Boltanski

METLAOUI -- The video of a man's death, filmed on a mobile phone, is being passed from hand to hand in the living room of his family home. His three brothers are here as well as his two young daughters. All are watching over and over again the tiny screen, which shows their brother lying on the ground in a large pool of blood while his attackers celebrate. A crowd has gathered around the body. "Well done guys! Take off his pants," yells an angry woman. The video zooms in on the victim's face. Someone jabs a knife in his left eye.

Ali Kalthoum, an emergency medical worker, was murdered in early June by an angry mob as he was rescuing what he thought was a woman in need. "They trapped him. They called the ambulance to have him come and they attacked him as soon as he stepped out of the vehicle," says his brother Ibrahim. It took the family four hours to retrieve his body. "Every time we got close, they shot at us."

Just on Ali's back alone there were 40 stab wounds, testament to the level of violence involved in the attack. "They were from the Jerid tribe and wanted to avenge two of their own that died the day before. We are members of the Ouled Bou Yahya," says Ibrahim.

In Metlaoui, a mining town in western Tunisia, fear is on everyone's face. During the summer, its two main tribes faced off with stones, hatchets and hunting rifles. One poster was enough to put the two parties at loggerheads. On the poster, the Gafsa Phosphate Company (GPC), the region's only employer, announced it would take care of the area's endemic unemployment. But it also said it would reserve two-thirds of the jobs for members of the native Ouled Bou Yahya tribe. Residents from the area's other tribes – which hail originally from the Nefta and Tozeur oases – reacted angrily to the snub. Fighting broke out. Homes were burned and bulldozed. In the end, the violence resulted in 13 deaths and dozens of injuries.

"We tore down the poster and they attacked us," says one man from the Jerid tribe. Behind him is another Jerid man who points to the scar on his face. A third lifts his shirt showing the slash across his frail torso. Everyone wants to show their wounds, photographs of "martyrs," or horrific videos caught on a cell phones.

As Tunisia prepares to hold its first free elections, the mining basin of Gafsa is at the point of exploding. First there were strikes, then protests and now tribal wars. But the reasons remain the same. Every other adult is unemployed and all feel the country's leaders have abandoned the region.

In Metlaoui, there is still a curfew and tanks have been called in to protect the local headquarters of the GPC. Down the street, retirees on mopeds are blocking a train in protest for better pensions. "We won't leave until we get a positive answer," says Amara Lakhel, a former union leader. "With all the electoral wheeling and dealing, we don't want to be forgotten."

Out of work, short on hope

In Redeyef, a small town close to the Algerian border, young men – all of them unemployed graduates – have been occupying a mining site since July. "We've been asking for work for years," says Omar, who has a management degree. "We still live at home with our parents. We can't get married." Around here the only hope is the GPC. Created by the French in 1896, it once employed as many as 15,000 people. Today, just 5,000.

Ten months after the fall of the country's longtime dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, these forgotten Tunisians say they aren't expecting anything from these elections. "Vote? What's the point?" says Galloul Kleifi, an unemployed industrial maintenance graduate. "Political parties make all kinds of promises. But it's all just a joke." To date, none of the candidates has come to see them. "We were the spark that triggered the revolution and we haven't gotten anything out of it," says Sliman.

It was here in 2008 that the first uprising against the regime took place. What began as a social conflict was later followed by a violent crackdown. Three people died. Hundreds were wounded. The whole region was under siege. Once again, it was the GPC's hiring policies that triggered the problems. Local bigwigs, party leaders, pro-regime unions and the company chiefs handed out jobs to their friends. For more than a year, people stood up against the move through protests and sit-ins, refusing to give in to police raids.

Adnan Hjji, one of the leaders of the 2008 movement, believes nothing has changed since the fall of the regime. "The social demands that started the revolution haven't been met. The policemen who tortured us were never punished. The government decided to pay compensation to the families of the Jan. 14 martyrs (the day Ben Ali fled the country), but here our victims didn't get a dime."

Adnan accuses the authorities of giving up on them. "In Redeyef, there is no local authority. The closest representative is in Gafsa, 70 kilometers from here. We only have four policemen who can't even prevent a fight. Thefts and robberies are increasing."

Other tribal wars have rocked the mining basin as well. In El-Mdhilla, fights broke out recently after someone was spotted in a café drinking a glass of wine in broad daylight. In Essned, tribal conflict erupted following a squabble between two schoolchildren.

Metlaoui residents also feel abandoned. "We know who killed our brother," says Ibrahim as he pulls out a list of about 20 names. "But we don't trust the justice system. We gave them the videos. Only one person was held in custody because he took the blame to protect the others."

Abdessalam Zeybi, a teacher, called the police when the attackers arrived. "They showed up hours later, and didn't do anything. It was as if they had been ordered not to intervene."

Some area residents suspect the clash between the Ouled Bou Yahya and Jerid tribes was sparked intentionally – to disrupt the election process and sabotage the transition. "It was former RCD (Ben Ali's ruling party) members who spread the quota rumors. They want us to miss the Ben Ali era," says one of the GPC directors.

Read more from Le Nouvel Observateur in French

Photo - Keith Roper

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ