A crisis had been building in Tunisia for many months. By the end of 1983, the economy was in serious trouble, support-for the regime had been eroding and the International Monetary Fund had proposed austerity measures. Within the government, corruption and personal luxury were rampant. President-for-life Habib Bourghiba was intent on preparations for a lavish celebration of the 50th anniversary of the ruling Destourian Socialist Party, while ministers vied with each other over the succession to the 81-year-old leader.

For over a year, government paralysis had postponed a decision. Finally, in the fall of 1983, a team of IMF economists visited from Washington. On October 9th, Prime Minister Mohamed Mzali persuaded the cabinet to eliminate subsidies on bread and semolina by January 1, a move which would double prices for these basic food items. Mzali sought to co-opt anticipated opposition by legalizing two moderate opposition parties and entering into serious dialogue with the trade unions. The government was optimistic that with such endorsement people would swallow this harsh economic medicine.

In the semi-desert area of southern Tunisia, the poorest region of the country, low prices for the annual date harvest had already stirred protests and anti-government sentiment. On December 29, the state radio announcement of new semolina prices brought angry people into the streets of Kebili, an oasis town bordering the southern desert. Young men and boys chanted against the government and stopped cars. Some demonstrators, armed with rocks and sticks, forced their way into shops and took food and other produce. The few local police, totally unprepared, retreated.

Demonstrations spread south to the oasis towns of Douz and Souk al-Ahad, then west towards el-Hamma near the coast and for a few hours the towns were in the hands of the protesters. The National Guard rushed to the scene with armored cars and heavy weapons. When the protestors gave battle with a hail of stones, the forces of order opened fire. A number of local people were killed and injured. The crowds retreated, but fast-moving groups continued to challenge the Guard.

The uprising spread to other towns in the south. Demonstrators attacked government buildings and set them ablaze. They tore statues of Bourghiba from their pedestals. But it seemed during those first three days that events might be confined to the south, and that the big cities might remain unaffected.

On Sunday, January 1, price increases on bread as well as semolina went into effect throughout the country. In Kasserine, a major industrial center 250 kilometers south of Tunis, youthful protesters poured onto the streets, shouting demands for price rollbacks and fighting police with rocks and sticks. The police gave way and were soon reinforced by the National Guard and the army. Protesters set ablaze shops and buses. Battles continued throughout the day, with many dozens wounded and at least four dead.

On Monday morning, Gafsa exploded in rioting, recalling the insurrection in that city in 1980. Soon two hotels and several government buildings were in flames and protesters gleefully desecrated the fallen statue of the president. While battles raged in Gafsa, phosphate workers marched in the mining town of Metlaoui, attacking government buildings and the homes of the mine managers. In the early afternoon, the large southern port cities of Gabes and Sfax erupted.

Protests in the large cities were denser and more violent than in the far south. Strikes spread quickly through industry, mines, transportation and the ports, as workers led protest marches. When police tried to intervene, thousands of demonstrators gave battle. Barricades went up everywhere. Again and again, troops opened fire on the crowds with automatic weapons. Tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled through the streets, often firing on anything that moved. Many protesters were killed and many more wounded, including women and children.

Mass Anger

The government in Tunis, now extremely alarmed, declared a state of emergency in four southern counties and cut off all phone, rail and road links to the south. Bourghiba called an emergency meeting of top government officials- Prime Minister Mzali, Interior Minister Driss Guiga, Defense Minister Slaheddine Baly and Ahmed Bennour, head of the National Security Police. Their communique denounced the protests as the work of “unemployed, lazy, hostile and harmful persons.” Hinting at foreign provacateurs, they announced an inquiry into the causes of the uprisings. And they quietly reinforced police forces in the capital.

On early Tuesday morning, with the first news of deaths in the south, Tunis exploded. Clashes erupted by the university, in the medina and throughout the city center. Four thousand police quickly proved incapable of containing the extent of the protests. Soon most shops were shuttered. Angry groups of demonstrators roamed the otherwise empty streets, burning cars, attacking stores and screaming slogans against the regime. Their large numbers, and the shouts of support that came from t windows and rooftops, indicated the mass anger at the price hikes. Even the demoralized police appeared to be affected.

As the riot police regrouped and counterattacked, protesters set up fiery barricades with overturned cars, buses and old tires. Shops, particularly food stores and those selling fancy goods in the city center, were emptied and set ablaze. Soon the whole city center was choking with tear gas from the police and smoke from burning tires and buildings.

National Guard forces and army units moved in about midday, firing into the crowds. Armored vehicles took up positions on the main thoroughfares, while helicopters searched for centers of resistance. In the early afternoon, there were more violent clashes in many of the squares around the medina and in the neighborhood of Bab Souika, followed by clashes near the Rades and Bardo technical high schools, as well as in the neighborhoods of Melassine and Jebal Lahmar. Protesters invaded the elegant suburb of el-Menzah. Everywhere there were fires, wrecked vehicles, torn up street signs, broken glass, smoke and thick crowds of angry demonstrators.

Protests and street fighting continued on Tuesday in Kasserine, Gafsa, Sfax and Gabes. The insurrection was still contagious, and spread to other Tunisian cities. Street battles in Kef, a town near the Algerian border, left thirteen dead and more than fifty wounded and the courthouse and supermarkets in flames.

A government decree extended the State of Emergency and curfew to the whole country, and by Tuesday night the army had imposed order on the center of Tunis. Automatic weapons fire continued through the night, and the sky over ‘the capital was lit with the flames of burning buildings. Tunis’ seven hospitals were choked with emergency cases, and their morgues were filled.

On Wednesday, January 4, protests continued in Tunis neighborhoods and in sections of cities and towns elsewhere. Other towns, such as Jendouba, joined in belatedly. The government announced increases in payments to widows, orphans, retired persons and invalids. It also announced that workers’ wages would be increased and that special work projects would begin for the unemployed. But none of this quelled the popular upsurge. Battles again broke out in the Tunis medina, by the nearby supermarket and in some of the neighborhoods, including Ettadhamen and Mellasin. In Kram, near the port of La Goulette, fighting continued all day and the police station burned to the ground. Nearly every factory and other worksite was on strike. Nothing moved except the army and the knots of demonstrators.

By Thursday, the state’s response had claimed at least 150 lives and thousands of wounded. A tense calm prevailed in most cities. The government had not fallen, but neither could it impose normality. The standoff was finally broken late Friday morning. President Bourghiba gave a brief televised address announcing that the prices would be rolled back. Soon, the protests turned into celebrations and the army slowly withdrew. There remained the tasks of cleaning up the cities, healing the wounded and mourning the dead.

On early Sunday morning, January 9, the Tunisian government claimed that an oil pipeline in the south had been blown up by Libyan saboteurs, though it provided no proof. This seemed to be an effort to shift attention and blame for the riots to Colonel Qaddafi. On Tuesday, January 11, General Vernon Walters, the US “roving ambassador,” arrived in Tunis with offers of additional US economic and military aid. The immediate convulsion had passed, but Tunisia’s economic and political crises had only been postponed. And by this date a similar sequence of insurrection, repression and concession had already begun to unfold nearby in Morocco.

Morocco’s Turn

The regime of King Hassan II was also under heavy pressure from the IMF to take further austerity measures — on top of those already introduced in the summer of 1983. As in Tunisia, the Moroccan government made an opening towards the legal opposition in an effort to build consensus. And Hassan, like Bourghiba, was preoccupied with a lavish occasion — in this case the Islamic Conference scheduled for Casablanca in early January.

In Morocco, in addition to higher prices for basic commodities, the government decreed a steep rise in a fee paid by high school students. This was the fuse that set off the insurrection there. High school students all over the country went on strike on Tuesday, January 5, after several days of feverish preparation. In Marrakesh, the clashes with police were particularly violent. By the afternoon, the protests subsided, leaving many students injured, arrested and angry.

Marrakesh, the “capital” of the south, smoldered for three days. On January 9, the high school students struck again. The protests immediately broadened and escalated, drawing in thousands of poor and unemployed. Marchers took to the streets, shouting against the regime and painting slogans on the walls. The police and other security forces were fewer than usual, as many had been reassigned to Casablanca for the Islamic Conference. As the protesters became more daring and violent, the police panicked and began to fire into the crowd. Barricades rose. Stores, banks and government buildings were set ablaze. All shops closed and there were spontaneous strikes in most factories and offices. The protests spread quickly to surrounding towns and villages. Special anti-riot forces and army intervention units rushed to the scene, opening fire with machine guns from armored cars. The battles lasted for three days, leaving more than a hundred dead, thousands injured and many more arrested.

As news spread of events in Marrakesh (and in Tunisia as well), student strikes and wider protests fanned across the country. In Rabat they were quickly contained. Casablanca, with its enormous security forces, remained relatively calm. But battles raged in dozens of other cities, towns and villages throughout the country.

The protests then leapt into the north, with its extreme poverty and history of insurrection. On Wednesday, January 11, the port city of al-Hoceima began to stir, as police moved in and beat students sitting down in the al-Badissi High School courtyard. The next day, when students went to the city center to continue their protest, they were joined by fishermen, sailors, port workers and many others. They fought police with staves and stones. When the police opened fire, some protesters sought to capture arms from the local Marine armory.

The fighting in al-Hoceima went on into the next day. Barricades had gone up throughout the city. Vehicles and stores were set ablaze. Units of the army and national security police arrived, escalating the violence still further, and protesters fled to the hills behind the city, pursued by police and soldiers. In the nearby market town of Tamasint, people attacked the quarters of the local Auxiliary Forces in an effort to capture arms. By evening, ten or more were dead in Tamasint and some 40 dead altogether in al-Hoceima and vicinity.

Four days of tense calm then prevailed throughout most of the country. On Thursday the 19th, the two major northern cities of Nador and Tetouan exploded. Some 60 died in Nador and hundreds were wounded. In Tetouan the clashes were still larger and more violent. Here also, high school students began the protests which soon enveloped most of the poor neighborhoods of the city. The crowd attacked the Hay el-Barriou police station and the military barracks, seizing arms with which to defend themselves. Fury against the king was particularly striking, evident in the slogans and wall signs. For the first time since Morocco’s independence, the king seemed to have lost his position “above politics,” and people were daring to attack him directly.

Five thousand or more army troops, airlifted in to reinforce local police, themselves pillaged local food stores and angrily fired into the crowds. The fighting went on for three days before Tetouan was at last tensely subdued. The dead were estimated there at more than 150. Many more were very badly wounded. Some 9,000 persons were arrested and crowded into a makeshift jail in the airport. Interrogations and searches went on for many days.

Tetouan was subdued on Saturday. On January 22, King Hassan claimed in his nation-wide television address that the riots were “a plot remote-controlled from abroad by Iran, the Zionists and the Marxists.” Hassan rolled back the price increases, as Bourghiba had done. Here there was little rejoicing though. The crisis in Morocco was too deep for that.


Sources : Le Monde, Libération, La Croix, Le Matin, Le Figaro, France-Soir, Afrique-Asie, Agence Prance Presse.

How to cite this article:

James Paul "States of Emergency," Middle East Report 127 (September/October 1984).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This