"We are fed up with the environmental situation, which continues to deteriorate day by day, with no solutions in sight... A year has passed since this nightmare plagued the capital of the south, which had become famous over the years for its excellence in various scientific and practical fields. Today it has become hostage to an environmental disaster laden with diseases that threatens the people of the region. The garbage scattered here and there has distorted the beauty of the area and disturbed its quality of life. The smell of mold is emanating from everywhere and liquids of different colors seep from under the piles of waste, warning of an impending attack by mosquitoes and insects. These garbage piles are a refuge for many animals such as stray dogs, cats and sometimes even pigs!"
Rouaa, 24, a master's student at the University of Sfax, expresses her astonishment and wonder at the method used to dispose of garbage after the landfills reached their maximum capacity; that is, burning the garbage. She notes that the smell of smoke that surrounds the entire region is a heavy burden on the chests of residents, suffocating them, shortening their breath, and causing abundant tears to flow from eyes.
Over the past two months, Tunisia has been witnessing an unprecedented wave of protests in which Tunisians from all types of different backgrounds are taking part
Last year, the governorate of Sfax lost a "martyr" in the name of achieving a healthy environment, Abdel Razzak al-Ashhab, who died of tear gas suffocation during protests demanding the closure of the Agareb landfill, which was under plans to be expanded instead of closed. The forensic report stated his death was from "natural" causes.
History repeats itself and events are repeated for the same reasons and in an even more severe manner, as the residents of Sfax have no choice but to protest and desperately demand their right for a clean environment in order to have fresh air and clean streets.
Rouaa says she took part in the demonstration called for by the labor union in the region, in front of the governorate headquarters. She recounts, "I chanted at the top of my lungs, 'Sfax under environmental bombardment... Sfax under environmental bombardment'. Perhaps my voice, exhausted by the cold that hit me, would resonate in the ears of the officials who have sentenced us to mass execution. I am not one of those who easily engage in protests and marches. But now I am facing a just cause that I’m determined to take part in until a solution is found that satisfies us and restores Sfax's glory."
Taking to the streets to express anger
This period of the year is very sensitive for the Tunisian street, as the spark of the revolution began at the end of 2010. Therefore this period remained firmly rooted in the minds of Tunisians and got closely related to protest and demonstration against state policies. It has become an appropriate opportunity for the people to question successive governments about what has been achieved during the past years.
The individual and collective movements have different goals and objectives, but come together to sum up the suffering of the Tunisian people, who are facing a load full of problems at all levels.
On Habib Bourguiba Avenue in the capital Tunis, Samah waves the national flag and shouts at the top of her lungs, "The play is over! The play is dead! No Qais, no Khawanjia (corrupt politicians)." She advances in the crowd, not caring about the raging stampede amongst the protesters or the police batons that target anyone who breaches the iron barriers, in response to the call of the head of the Free Constitutional Party, Abeer Moussa, to protest on October 15. She then took part in an open sit-in near the Interior Ministry building and went on a two-day hunger strike that resulted in her being admitted to the hospital.
"I am not one of those who easily engage in protests and marches, but now I am facing a just cause that I am determined to take part in until a solution that satisfies us is found"
Samah, a philosophy professor and feminist activist, says she rejects the deteriorating status quo at all economic, political and social levels, adding, "I participated in dozens of protests, especially during the ‘dark decade’ (2011-2021) that was the main reason for us reaching these dark times. Tunisians can no longer provide for themselves. Prices are skyrocketing. Basic items such as milk, sugar and bread are missing. Fuel has seen an unprecedented crisis that has forced Tunisians to queue for hours. The dead bodies of our children and young people are washing up on the sea shores on a daily basis, not to mention the missing people who have left an ache in the hearts of their families. Where are we heading to? Isn’t it the time to take firm action that puts the wrong policies of successive governments to an end?"
The woman, who chose the street to express her anger, asserts that her main motivation for protesting was not the parties' calls to demonstrate, but rather her fear and concern for the future of her children and the Tunisian people, "which all indicators confirm will be difficult", according to her assessment.
She stresses that she only engages in peaceful protest movements that aim to uproot rights and change the situation for the better, but on the other hand, she condemns "all movements that witness violent escalations, whether by protesters or security forces."
Rising popular tension
Over the past few months, Tunisia has been witnessing an unprecedented wave of protests in which Tunisians from all types of different backgrounds are taking part. The 59th anniversary of Evacuation Day (marking the departure of the French army) was an opportunity for many parties in opposition to President Saied to demonstrate and call on their supporters to protest in various streets of the capital. The marches organized by the parties coincided with a state of tension in the country, which was translated into social tensions and protests in various regions, especially Zarzis in the southeast of the country and the Ettadhamen neighborhood in the capital.
The people of Zarzis carried out a general strike on October 18, which caused a complete paralysis of all facilities, following the tragic sinking of the "Harqa" boat, an illegal migrant boat that the entire region mourned for. 18 people had been on board.
The local authorities deliberately buried the victims of the boat in the "cemetery of strangers" — a cemetery for the graves of hundreds of nameless migrants who lost their lives trying to cross the sea — without bothering to properly identify the bodies, which has caused great tension among the people of the area. The opposition considered the act a state crime, while the families of the missing persons call on the official authorities to make greater efforts to search for the bodies of their relatives.
The local labor union in Zarzis organized a local general strike on November 24 and 25, to protest against the tragic sinking and the high level of tension in the region, in addition to the use of violence against the residents of the region during their peaceful march towards the island of Djerba, the venue of the Francophonie Summit.
Commenting on what happened, President Saied told the people of Zarzis, "Whoever is working to ruin this summit should know that they have failed. Patience, people of Zarzis, the truth is coming."
The return of night protests
Ettadhamen neighborhood, Tunisia's largest popular neighborhood, has also experienced protests for several days in a row, which turned into clashes between protesters and security forces who were forced to use tear gas to disperse protesters.
Hassan al-Hishri, a blogger and civil society activist in Ettadhamen neighborhood, tells Raseef22 that the incident of Malek Selimi dates back a few months, but has left an impact on the region. The young man had been with two friends on a motorcycle (without identification papers). When he realized the presence of a security patrol, he tried to escape but he fell and suffered fractures in his back and spinal cord that left him completely paralyzed.
Al-Hishri says that Selimi’s friends had contacted him through his page on social media, and told him that their friend was assaulted by security forces, which caused him to fall. So he published pictures of the victim in the hospital. And since then, protests have broken out in the Ettadhamen neighborhood to condemn the attack on Malek Selimi.
Ettadhamen neighborhood, Tunisia's largest popular neighborhood, has also experienced protests for several days in a row, which turned into clashes between protesters and security forces.
He adds, "A month and a half after he went into a coma, Selimi died. His family and friends tried to defend him through the local media, because if he had not been beaten, he would not have jumped off his bike. For its part, the Interior Ministry denied the story and protests erupted. We closely followed the events on the first night of their outbreak, and their aim was to shed light on the case. The ministry confirmed that it had opened an investigation and that the involved agents were suspended. However, after that the incident became politicized and coincided with the general state of suffocation in the country and the opposition going out to demonstrate. The protests stopped in al-Intilaka neighborhood, the area where Malek Selimi used to reside, but continued for four consecutive nights in the Ettadhamen neighborhood. Incidents of hit-and-run took place between the security forces and the protesters from the area, who sent me videos and asked us as civil society to intervene on behalf of the young people who were arrested in the centers. As for us, we are clinging to the rights of Malek, his family and friends, whose goal was to combat the media blackout and raise the issue and turn it into a public opinion issue. They believed that after their voices were heard and the Ministry of Interior interacted, the issue would be followed up by law. But the protests have gone out of context. Most of the young people protesting today have problems with the security forces and have found a suitable environment to create chaos".
Commenting on the events in Ettadhamen neighborhood, the head of the media office at the Ministry of Interior, Faker Bouzghaia, confirmed, in a statement to a local radio station that some of those he described as "infiltrators" participated in the protests in both Ettadhamen and al-Intilaka neighborhoods for political purposes and to carry out theft and break-ins. He also claimed that the money that was to be distributed to the protesters was seized, pointing out that what is being circulated about the young Malek Selimi being assaulted by security agents "contains many inaccuracies".
For his part, President Kais Saied, while overseeing the commemoration of Evacuation Day, said that “a new evacuation will take place in Tunisia until all those who want to undermine its independence, deal with the outside, or be traitors and agents of colonialism, are eliminated," adding that he will accept nothing but "success and the state being saved from the clutches of those who tamper with it."
The anger of the female farmers
After years of marginalization and impoverishment, Tunisian female farmers have decided to break their silence and protest against the poor working conditions that have caused dozens of them to die on the way to work in ‘death trucks’. In front of the municipal theater in the capital, Zahra, a woman in her fifties from Kef Governorate, spoke about her daily struggles to earn a living, "Rural women in Tunisia are outside the circle of concern of successive governments. The promises are many but our situation has been the same for years. There is a lack of health insurance and social coverage, and we earn a meager wage equivalent to half of what a man earns, in addition to the trucks that have caused the death of many of us... How long will this situation last?"
Speaking to Raseef22, Zahra adds that she wakes up at four o'clock in the morning. She barely has time to prepare breakfast for her three children. Then she rushes towards the main road to wait for the truck that takes her and her colleagues to work. The roads are usually rough and the fields are far away, and it takes an hour or more to reach them. "To be a woman farmer, you must possess many qualities, the first of which is the courage to face the difficulties that will come your way, and the second is patience under the scorching sun in the summer and the cold breeze in the winter," she says, then goes on to add, "My arduous profession and harsh working conditions has drawn premature wrinkles on our faces and deep cracks on our hands. We work non-stop, and if we do stop for family reasons or because of an illness, we won’t have our daily sustenance. We get paid just 15 dinars for working a full day from six in the morning until four in the evening, while a man earns 25 dinars. We are tired of discrimination and marginalization and will continue to protest against the violation of our rights."
Unemployment has "drained us"
Taking to the streets and protesting acts an outlet for Tunisians who are revolting against the economic, social and political situation, which continues to deteriorate day after day. And although the outcome of protests are often disappointing and do not attract the attention of the concerned authorities, clinging to the right to protest has become a firm and unyielding principle for Tunisians, who consider that rights are earned not given.
This year, the unemployment rate has declined slightly, reaching 15.3 percent, yet the percentage of unemployment among young adults is very high, which has prompted many of them to protest and demand decent work opportunities that preserves their dignity. Najwa al-Bakkoush, a journalist who graduated from the Institute of Journalism and News Sciences in Tunis, confirmed that she is one of the founders of the Coordination of Unemployed Graduates of Journalism, a group that includes a number of journalists who were referred to unemployment after years of precarious work, and who fought all forms of struggle and protested to demand their right to work.
"We carried out a protest and wrote to the presidency of the republic and the presidency of the government through a petition signed by a number of journalists, in which we demanded assignment in state institutions in a press attaché plan. We also carried out a protest on the sidelines of the National Syndicate of Journalists Conference in September 2020. As a result, an agreement was reached with the presidency of the government to mandate us on December 8, but it has not been implemented so far. We also had a sit-in at the Journalists Syndicate headquarters in August 2021, but it was dispersed after some pressures."
Al-Bakkoush adds that the group was dispersed because of the syndicate evading the duty of defending the right of journalists to work. He also states that "with the current government, whether you protest or commit suicide, no one cares," stressing that the group will not give up and will come back even stronger to demand its right to employment.