In 2015, Tunisia’s President Beji Caid Essebsi proposed a draft economic reconciliation law to forgive graft and other corrupt acts committed by civil servants and businessmen under the regime of ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in exchange for closed-door confessions and return of ill-gotten gains. Such economic crimes were a major trigger of the 2010-2011 protests that led to the Tunisian revolution—and Essebsi’s bill provoked a powerful response, a campaign called Maneesh M’sameh (I Will Not Forgive). The campaign’s initial goal was to protect the integrity of investigations of economic crimes by the Truth and Dignity Commission (L’Instance Vérité et Dignité), created in the summer of 2014.
Maneesh M’sameh has gone on to spark debate about the meaning of truth and reconciliation. It has also brought to the fore lingering issues of corruption and structural inequality. On April 29, 2017, the movement called for protests of Parliament’s decision to reconsider a third version of the draft law. The large demonstrations drew the rank and file of opposition political parties and other critics of the controversial bill.
Wassim Sghayr is the Maneesh M’sameh coordinator. Prior to the 2011 revolution, he belonged to the legal opposition Progressive Democratic Party and wrote for the party’s al-Mawqif, a newspaper that was above-ground but heavily censored. Laryssa Chomiak, a political scientist based in Tunis, spoke with him there on August 18, 2016. Hamza Abidi is a young Maneesh M’sameh member. In 2011 he was briefly a member of the left-leaning Reform and Development Party and headed the Tunis branch of the nationwide non-governmental organization Sawti (My Voice). He spoke with Lana Salman, a doctoral candidate in city and regional planning at the University of California-Berkeley, who is in Tunisia for her dissertation fieldwork, on April 12, 2017. The interviews were conducted in French and Arabic, respectively, and translated by the interviewers.
Why was Maneesh M’sameh created?
Sghayr Maneesh M’sameh’s primary goal is to safeguard a sovereign process of transitional justice in Tunisia. The movement is a realistic initiative, in the sense that it took advantage of a political opportunity and was started by a group of young activists with experience dating to the pre-revolutionary period. After the president announced the economic reconciliation bill, the group created an online forum to discuss how best to resist this dangerous initiative. Initial discussions included two components: What are the best techniques for resistance? And, given the alarmingly low youth participation in politics, how can young Tunisians be integrated? The Maneesh M’sameh campaign is anchored in pre-revolution resistance politics and post-revolution instances of radical and progressive political engagement.
Maneesh M’sameh is opposed to all versions of the economic reconciliation bill because of the vast number of economic crimes committed under the previous regime. We believe that the reconciliation processes must happen under the transitional justice framework [Transitional Justice Law 53, which created the Truth and Dignity Commission] in order for Tunisian society to make sense of the effects of this form of economic violence and to heal.
Abidi After the 2014 parliamentary elections, the new assembly drew up its legislative road map. The president put forward an economic reconciliation bill that bypassed the transitional justice legal framework. Many activists, especially those on Facebook at the time, expressed anger about the bill. They started a Google group called Maneesh M’sameh to block it. This group organized demonstrations and the campaign grew out of those. The bill did not pass, but the president responded by pushing for it again. We pushed back, and for a second time we succeeded in blocking the bill.
We are now in the middle of a new phase. The president has put the reconciliation law on the table yet again, and we have mobilized against it in what, on Facebook, we are calling “round three.”
What is the campaign’s strategy?
Sghayr We organized our first protest on September 12, 2015, in front of the [Tunisian General Labor Union] UGTT headquarters in downtown Tunis. The group then marched toward Bourguiba Avenue, where the NGO I-Watch had organized a debate on the economic reconciliation bill, including both proponents and opponents of the proposal, at the Africa Hotel. Maneesh M’sameh was formed to support the opponents.
Following the protest, the coordinating team of Maneesh M’sameh organized an awareness week, which commenced in Sfax, Tunisia’s second largest city, with later events in Mahdia and Sousse. To the surprise of the organizers, the police reacted violently, as they had received orders to stop our movement from spreading. Because of the police reaction, Maneesh M’sameh’s mission expanded from fighting economic reconciliation to protecting freedom of assembly and expression in the post-revolution political context.
For that main September 2015 protest, Maneesh M’sameh worked to unite all of the political factions but also to attract wide participation of young people, especially those who either have not been involved in politics or do not have clear political affiliations, through cultural activities. The fusing of a clear political protest with public cultural activities also signified a new strategy for activism beyond the purely political.
The second coordinated round of activities was called Wanted. The idea was to choose a photo of a notoriously corrupt businessperson from the Ben Ali period, write “Wanted” over the image and plaster it across public space overnight. The goal was to shock the public the next morning. The first posters targeted “Ab-Ab” [Abdelwahab Abdallah], a close adviser to Ben Ali who held various ministerial posts. His photo was accompanied by [tongue-in-cheek] mention of a 1,000-dinar reward. The second batch went after Slim Cheiboub [a businessman married to Ben Ali’s daughter] and the third Mohamed Ghariani, former secretary-general of the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), Ben Ali’s party.
In 2016, the president reintroduced the economic reconciliation bill, so Maneesh M’sameh mobilized again with a new, two-pronged strategy that included writing letters to each of Parliament’s 270 members and assembling files that detail each type of economic violation. These activities were accompanied by a cross-ideological protest in downtown Tunis.
Can you say a bit about your history of activism?
Abidi I had a teacher from 2003 to 2005 who was active in the Progressive Democratic Party, the only legal opposition party that existed back then. After high school we remained friends; we met regularly to discuss politics throughout 2008 and 2009. Then the Sidi Bouzid events [the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi and the subsequent protests] occurred in December 2010. I started demonstrating, taking pictures with my phone to document events. That period was one of despair among young people. We witnessed corruption and acts of violence against us every day. I was a soccer fan then, and used to go to the stadium regularly to watch games. The police attacked and beat us in the stadium, too. All the slogans of the revolution that we would hear later, the ones about freedom and dignity, we had started singing in the stadium.
In 2011, I joined a party, Development and Reform, from the leftist milieu—we participated in the 2011 elections but did not win. The elections reconstituted the political landscape, as new alliances were formed and parties merged. We formed an alliance, too, the Democratic Alliance of Mohamed El Hamdi [a journalist and owner of two TV channels] and Mehdi Ben Gharbia, who is currently the minister responsible for relations with civil society and human rights. Ten parliamentarians represented the alliance.
But this experience shifted my intellectual and political outlook. The most important realization was that a political party is not a vehicle for change—my friends and I came to view party politics as defunct. So I joined civil society, first Sawti, an NGO present in five of Tunisia’s governorates. I headed the branch in greater Tunis, and then left to engage in activism on my own.
At the end of 2011, I helped to put together the campaign called I, Too, Burned Down a Police Station (Hatta Ana Haraqt Markaz), in response to the arrest of many young people who had participated in the revolution. We followed up with the campaign Make Them Accountable (Hasibhum), and now we are in the midst of Maneesh M’sameh.
We discovered that this form of activism—a campaign that distances itself from formal politics—is a better way to attract participants…. As a campaign, we are critical of certain public policies, but we are not interested in narrow party politics. Add the fact that we are all young people who speak the same language; we know and trust one another.
How does Maneesh M’sameh fit into the broader political landscape in Tunisia?
Sghayr Maneesh M’sameh is one of many campaigns, including I, Too, Burned Down a Police Station, or the effort to grab cameras and other equipment from journalists who were misreporting, to be formed by committed young activists.
But Maneesh M’sameh has a pre-history, in terms of both leadership and strategy. Before the January 14, 2011 revolution, resistance to Ben Ali’s regime was united—the opposition split only after he fell. Maneesh M’sameh…was the first organized effort to reunite the opposition since 2011. It is led by groups that have experience in political activism and is composed of groups and individuals representing the center-left, labor unions, progressives and the left.
Maneesh M’sameh is tied to a rich experience of youth movements, including leftist student movements and other creative campaigns during the Ben Ali era. Globally, it links up with youth movements for an alternative politics, particularly Occupy and initiatives in Spain and Greece, transcending the political party establishment.
How does Maneesh M’sameh compare to other social movements in Tunisia? Are there alliances? Fissures?
Abidi What differentiates us from other social movements, I believe, is the way in which we communicate our goals: Our message is contemporary (mutajaddid) and addresses the concerns of young people.
The list of participants in our demonstrations and events spans several political parties and associations. We have organized discussion forums with opposition parties such as Democratic Current [a social democratic-progressive party], the Popular Front [a leftist-communist party] and the Republican Party [a centrist-liberal party]. We did the same with NGOs such as I-Watch, al-Bawsala and others.
But mostly it is our thematic focus on the draft reconciliation law that differentiates us. You will find other organizations that work on the topic alongside other issues. The reconciliation bill is not the only item on their agenda, and they address it from different vantage points, such as transitional justice or the anti-corruption law or even economics. We, on the other hand, cover all these vantage points but talk only about the reconciliation law itself, whether from a political point of view, or from economic, social or transitional justice perspectives.
Some social movements accuse you of elitism.
Abidi The issue is not specific to Maneesh M’sameh. In my opinion and based on my experience, there are broader ideological differences among young activists today—the conflict between activists and militants. Let me explain.
Some of the youth who consider themselves militants accuse activists of being, well, activists—in the sense of having relationships within civil society motivated by biases and foreign funding. Also, by definition, being a militant means that you fight for a cause over a long period of time, whereas we at Maneesh M’sameh are mobilizing specifically against the draft reconciliation law. If we are successful in having the draft law dropped, the campaign will end. Militants take a longer view of political change and the cumulative effects of struggle.
But despite these differences, militants support us and participate in our campaign. That includes the Tunisian Student Union and the UGTT, which even changed the cover photo on its Facebook page to Maneesh M’sameh! At the beginning, some organizations were reticent and concerned that we were poaching their members. People imagined that Maneesh M’sameh would have its own electoral lists, for example, though that is not our current project. It took us months to explain to these organizations that Maneesh M’sameh is not partisan; it is a focused campaign whose mission will end when the reconciliation bill is dead.
Why would you rather be in a movement like Maneesh M’sameh than, say, run for election or be active in a party?
Abidi Let’s first agree on what we mean by civil society activism. When I talk about being an activist in civil society organizations, I don’t mean it in the classical sense of activism mediated through NGOs. To my mind, any citizen who walks out of the house, finds the neighborhood littered and heads to the municipality to express his anger is active in civil society.
As for political parties, let’s think of the issue simply: You hear about this or that party, which everyone knows to be involved in corrupt deals with businesspeople, but which ends up winning elections anyway and getting a majority in Parliament. Then you hear about another party, one whose discourse is commonsensical, honest and pro-poor…but no one has ever heard of it.
My position is that in Tunisia you need two things to be successful in party politics—money and the media. This media-money combination means that you have to protect narrow interests, partake in corrupt deals and then defend them. Today, parties are forming alliances and then offering themselves for sale to the highest bidder—for example, the Tunisia Project of Mohsen el Marzouk. They do not even deny it.
I simply do not believe in politics that is party politics. I adopt a vision that Kais Said [a specialist in constitutional law who made key interventions resolving many conflicts during the drafting of the Tunisian constitution] discussed in terms of inverting the hourglass, meaning a bottom-up approach to gaining power. This vision translates into a different type of elections, not top-down elections of the type we have witnessed so far. Rather, it consists of forming local councils, out of which are formed regional councils, and from those national councils. This vision calls for a simultaneous reorganization of political and administrative power.
In our minds, this is how we could enshrine Article 7 of the constitution on decentralization: You turn to your local community rather than a political party. Political decisions in Tunisia are hyper-centralized, and parties are integrated automatically into that system. Parties have branches across the nation’s territory, but the local branches have no leaders until 30 days before elections. So the relationship between regional party branches and voters is strained. The parties reach out to local communities in the month before an election, but then stop as soon as the election is over.
I believe in and adhere to a pyramidal structure of power that does not require you to join a party; it asks that you focus on your own neighborhood. The election law that would support such an organization of power would rest on the election of representatives at the smallest possible spatial scale—not on the basis of the electoral lists of political parties. So you would no longer vote based on partisan politics, but based on the integrity of particular people who are your neighbors. Your neighbor can’t possibly promise that he will create 500 new jobs. You know him—he is your neighbor, and you know what he can and can’t do…. If you had a new local governments law that prioritized local representation over the national parties, you could prevent all the chicanery, all the false promises.
Do you think that Maneesh M’sameh has been successful?
Sghayr Yes, it has been successful on many levels. Most importantly, it blocked early efforts at passing the economic reconciliation bill. But as a horizontal campaign, the movement is difficult to break up. The campaign reunited activists who previously had worked together, but it also attracted new people who had not engaged in activism previously. The two phases—the protests against the economic reconciliation bill and the Wanted posters—each had a public shock effect but also effectively blocked the introduction of the bill to Parliament.
Abidi Maneesh M’sameh blocked the reconciliation bill on two occasions. We consider that a victory. But we failed to get the draft law dropped once and for all. I attribute the lack of success on that front to the fact that the various parties who opposed the law did not have a consistent position vis-à-vis the transitional justice framework, including the Truth and Dignity Commission. The campaign’s position was to oppose the reconciliation law, and that’s it, whereas we should have been both against the reconciliation law and committed to the transitional justice framework. It is true that the transitional justice framework has problems, but I think that there is more awareness now that may be our only refuge. Some also fear that proposals for changes brought to the transitional justice law could be coopted by Nida’ and Ennahda [the two parties in the coalition government]. Those in power keep trying to update the reconciliation bill, making use of this lack of consensus about the transitional justice framework.
How do you see the movement evolving in the coming years?
Abidi We are thinking about the future. Some members want to continue working beyond the reconciliation law, so we are thinking about both the political and organizational vision of the campaign. We live in a context [after Ben Ali] where there is freer airing of political and ideological differences. Maneesh M’sameh is not a monolithic movement. It includes members from various backgrounds and all walks of life, and we need to accommodate that diversity. But now that the president has put the reconciliation bill back on the table, we have decided to postpone discussions about the future of the campaign.
In my opinion—and I want to emphasize that I am not speaking on behalf of the campaign as a whole—the campaign should end once the draft reconciliation law is canceled. I say that given my own experiences with attempts to transform youth movements into more institutionalized entities, which failed miserably. I really want to let history remember the victory of Maneesh M’sameh as a narrowly focused campaign.
At present, our institutional organization is completely horizontal. Suppose Lana decides that “she is not forgiving” (manhash m’samha). She can join the campaign and suggest organizing a demonstration to other members. She then presents a detailed proposal, and if there are no objections—which must be supported with evidence—then the demonstration takes place as she planned. So the campaign has no leaders in that sense. On our Facebook page, you find contact information if you have questions, but otherwise, anyone can speak for the campaign in the media after consulting with the community. That’s why the campaign has persisted, precisely because we don’t have the organizational structure of five leaders with mustaches and four young people who are always out on the street doing the activism.
But that structure also raises challenges for transforming the campaign into something else. That’s why I think it should end once the draft law is dropped.
Are you hopeful about Tunisia’s future?
Abidi In the past, I straddled hope and despair. But I gave up both for clarity about the phase we are in. If the immediate situation is clear to you, you no longer think about hope or despair because you focus on what needs to be done. The hope I still have, though, is not blind hope, all pink and happy. The hope I have is connected to clarity. Look, for 60 years Tunisia has been ruled by corrupt governments. We can’t make a revolutionary change in five or six years. We have a lot of work ahead of us, and we have time for it, especially the up-and-coming generations.
The generation that is currently in power will die soon—actually, that’s the only solution, to wait until they die…and they don’t want to die! [Laughs] But I am sure that we are on the right path, because we are vigilant watchdogs. What has been achieved since 2011 was achieved because of the pressure exerted by civil society. Don’t forget: Our constitution almost included a clause on shari‘a, and it is not there today because of civil society opposition. There is vigilance. So I do have hope, but it is realistic.
What do you want outside observers of Tunisia to notice?
Abidi Post-revolution Tunisia has witnessed a whole new market of political rhetoric, and all the new terms floating around serve to fragment opinion when the media picks them up. Let me give you a very simple example—the term “democratic transition” (al-intiqal al-dimuqrati). Not one youth who participated in the revolution used that term. Not one. But now you hear it a lot.
To my mind, we don’t need these complex terms. The classic definition of a revolution is replacing the old with the new. That has not happened in Tunisia. What happened here is that elections were held based on an outdated framework. And the trajectory that Tunisia took after the revolution is a direct consequence of that outdated framework, which brought an outdated parliament to power and created the outdated political landscape you see today. So these other terms don’t capture what is really happening.
In our opinion, those currently in power were involved with the old regime. They still finance political parties, and still, in effect, rule the country. There isn’t one party in power today that has proposed a 20-year vision for Tunisia, or any vision for that matter…. There isn’t one party that has put forth a road map, with operational phases and procedural requirements. Our demands today are not for jobs or resources. Our demands are to have a date, a horizon when promises will be delivered. There is none of that. There is an endemic lack of vision, and that is why social movements have so much legitimacy. Anyone interested in what is going in this country must support the social movements in Kef, Tataouine, Kasserine, Karkenah, Kairouan and Jbeneina.
I don’t know if you heard about the successful strike [on April 11] in Tataouine… They kicked out the government delegation that had been dispatched there because they knew that the delegation was there to do some anger management and nothing more. The same thing happened in Meknassi.
To my mind, the term we should use today is “straightening the trajectory” (tashih al-masar). We need to pull the rug out from under the feet of the lobbies that are stripping away our resources. We should seriously discuss Tunisia’s future and unite around a national project with clearly articulated prerogatives, deliverables and deadlines.
I want to insist on one final point: That powers that be don’t have the slightest interest in pushing this country forward, and, believe me, the topics that are debated at that level have nothing to do with the reality people are living. All you hear is, “The son of the president did this, his sister did that, this businessman did this and that.” I mean, the people governing are subject to investigation for money laundering! The article in Inkyfada [a progressive investigative journalist collective in Tunisia] on the Panama Papers shows what our political landscape is made of. So the problem is not with particular persons; it is with the system. The current conflict, at that level, is fake (ghalit). The parties trading accusations, the schisms within parties because so-and-so did not get the ministry he wanted, who should participate in the Pact of Carthage and what they would get in return…this is a fake conflict. It is no longer about splitting up the cake. It has become a filthy game…and that is why we are mobilizing today.