Street art protests in Tunisia
This story was first published on Correspondents.
Ghassan Bouizi, head of the General Union of Tunisian Students, climbed upon the recently erected statue of former President Habib Bourguiba in the center of Tunis and painted „Weldek Fi Darek“ (your children should stay at home).
“This phrase tells the President (Beji Caid Essebsi) to keep his son away from politics and ensure that his family does not interfere in the country’s affairs or Nidaa Tounes party,” said Bouizi who insisted upon his arrest that he was trying to express his opinion, rather than damage public property.
Bouizi’s protest comes as current President Beji Caid Essebsi (90) allegedly sets the stage for the ascent of his son Hafedh to power, as head of Nidaa Tounes party. Nidaa Tounes leads the government in a political coalition with the Islamic Ennahda movement and other small parties.
Bouizi was taken to the interior ministry, where he was investigated and prosecuted before his release. Bouizi claims that security officers escorted him to the courtroom without declaring the charges leveled against him. His lawyer later informed him that he was accused of ‘offense against the head of state’.
When the judge asked Ghassan about his motives the latter answered: „This was meant to send a message to the new rulers that they should no longer repeat the power inheritance practice, and that we will keep defending the principles of the republic and independence of the judiciary.“
Ghassan, who is back at university, believes graffiti reflects the youth’s unabated zeal to stand up against the return of dictatorship to Tunisia.
„This form of expression does not cost money and has a large impact. In addition, it is a modern genre of expression that combines both art and politics and draws people’s attention.“
„By arresting young men for writing on the walls, the authorities aim to restrict their freedom of expression and prevent them from highlighting the deteriorating conditions in the country and sending critical messages to the government in each town, district or neighborhood,“ he adds.
Some activists in these protest campaigns believe that virtual space is no longer sufficient to express opinion, and that graffiti is ‚a genre of street art which is closer to the public‘.
„Laws that incriminate graffiti are unjust,“ says Lina Ben Mhenni, a Tunisian blogger currently being prosecuted on charges of posting leaflets denouncing the reconciliation process of businessmen implicated in corruption cases with the former regime.
Ben Mhenni was intercepted by security officers at night a few weeks ago, along with a friend of hers, for „intending to post some pictures on public property without permission.“
Ben Mhenni said the police officers informed her that the prosecution knew about the incident and ordered to bring her to justice.
Ben Mhenni and her friend have so far not been summoned for investigation again, which raises doubts that the authorities decided to keep opinion cases on hold, to be brought up later to pressurize the opposition.
Using pictures on the walls as a means of expression has widely spread in the country, with the emergence of a group called ‘Zwewla’ (the Poor), whose members have been prosecuted on account of their activities.
Chahine Berriche, a member of Zwewla considers writing on the wall a street battle between revolutionary youth and the government; between those who regard graffiti as a defense of the rights of marginalized people in an artistic way, and others who view it as a threat to the ruling authority.
Chahine still has bad memories of security pursuits. In 2013, he, along with a friend of his, painted pictures on the walls of Gabés Governorate to protest suspected corruption about employment at the state-owned Chemical Complex. They were chased by the police, and were about to lose their lives because the soldiers opened fire on them, but they had luckily escaped unharmed.
The following day, Chahine learned that the police had already launched a large-scale search for him and his friend. They surrendered themselves at the police station, wondering about the reason and were told that they were accused of an attempt to throw bombs and sabotage government facilities. He managed to refute those accusations and convince his investigators that he only tried to use graffiti to express his positions.
Pressure from civil society
Two days after his release, Chahine was surprised to be arrested again. He was informed that the examining magistrate charged him of „unlicensed writing on public property, violating the emergency law, and propagating false news that was likely to disturb the public order.“
He was referred to the court and a lawyer was appointed for him and his friend.
In response to these charges, human rights activists and cinema and theater organizations staged protest sit-ins to pressurize the authorities to release them and respect freedom of opinion and peaceful expression.
Tens of lawyers, who had come to defend Chahine and his friend, attended the court session. Caving into these pressures, the interior ministry only charged Chahine and his friend with minor offenses.