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The state stands accused: Tunisian region lodges marginalisation complaint

A complaint has been filed against the Tunisian government, not on behalf of an individual, but in the name of the region of Kasserine
A young Tunisian walks the streets of Thala, in the Kasserine governorate, in January 2012 (MEE/ Paolo Kahn)

A new chapter has opened for transitional justice in Tunisia, a political process that has been initiated for over a year to try those responsible for multiple crimes committed under the past dictatorship. Based on the outcomes of the 2011 revolution, the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC), has been created exclusively to shed light on human rights abuses committed by previous governments, from 1956 to 2013.

This political institution is an exception in the Arab world. According to the organic law of 24 December 2013, the TDC is in charge of "dealing with past human rights violations by revealing their truths, and holding those responsible accountable, providing reparations for the victims and restituting them in order to achieve national reconciliation".

The transitional justice system intends to create exceptional courts: "Specialised judicial Chambers should be created by a decree [...], and shall consist of judges chosen among judges who have never participated in trials of political nature," as mentioned in the first paragraph of Article 8 of the Organic Law.

Currently, more than 13,000 cases of Tunisians claiming to be victims of the former government have been filed to the Truth and Dignity Commission, according to Mohamed Ayadi, a member of the Reparations Commission. So far, the TDC is in the process of receiving and reviewing the entrusted files, but no trial has been held as of yet.

Recently, and for the first time, a complaint was filed by two organisations, the FTDES (Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights) and Lawyers Without Borders (LWOB), not on behalf of an individual but in the name of a region, that of Kasserine. Long relegated to the miscellaneous section, this town located in Tunisia’s central-western region comes back as the focus of debates concerning the issue of social and economic marginalisation.

Indeed, besides cases of torture and political killings, the TDC should also, as part of its mandate, address crimes of economic and social nature that are directly related to the marginalisation of inland areas. Accordingly, the FTDES filed a complaint on behalf of the people of Kasserine region against the Tunisian state, which they accuse of imposing territorial inequalities by having given for decades of preferential treatment to the coastal areas, to the detriment of regions inside the country.

Systematic marginalisation

Located some 40km away from the Algerian border, Kasserine is a crossing point for a major smuggling network (weapons, drugs, fuels), bestowing on the town a reputation of being a dangerous area. Such a stigma has been reinforced since 2012, as many terrorist attacks have been listed since then. Indeed, the surrounding mountains offer shelter to rebel groups who cross the border.

In the centre of Kasserine, one can notice the contrast resulting from varying speeds of development undertaken by the state during the Ben Ali and Bourguiba eras. The administrative district’s white walls contrast with the crumbling facades of Hay Ezzouhour, a slum neighbourhood whose infrastructure hasn’t been maintained since the country's independence in 1956.

The area, both a hub for drug traffickers and a hot spot of violent suppression of protests in January 2011, has a record number of the revolution's martyrs’ families: more than one third of the total number of the injured and dead during the insurgency hail from Kasserine. In January 2011, the city’s outskirts were surrounded by Ben Ali’s elite police troops, who did not hesitate to open fire at the funeral processions in order to suppress the inhabitants’ uprising, who are reputed to be "anti-establishment".

Since then, time has stood still, and the violence of the repression is still present in the minds of Kasserinians. Some of those injured during the revolution have become beggars who aimlessly roam the streets because they failed to obtain an official status, which entitles them to compensation and support from the state. Their presence serves as a reminder of state violence. The confusion is such that it sometimes turns into anger. Some of the injured during the revolution have gone to Syria to join the ranks of the Islamic State (IS).

"Whether for the victims of the revolution or terrorism, the situation is still the same. We remain the marginalised. Because after the shock and emotion, nobody cared about the people of Kasserine anymore," Hatem Salhi, a local journalist who was the first to cover attacks by militants in the Chaambi mountains in December 2012, told MEE.

Kasserine, the last on the Tunisian development scale

To objectively quantify the level of marginalisation of the region, development’s measurement indicators have been used and matched with the national average by the FTDES. The finding is striking: in most categories listed in the survey, the Kasserine region systematically comes last, which is proof for those who filed the complaint that a deliberate exclusion has been taking place.

Long overshadowed by the stakes of the political transition (elections, new constitution, terrorism), the social question is still struggling to take its place on the national stage. "We need to objectively understand what happened. How authoritarian rule has developed a series of nested processes that produced widespread poverty," Lotfi Sayhi, telecom network engineer in Kasserine, explained to Middle East Eye.

For example, in Kasserine, the unemployment rate reaches 26 percent, while the national average is set at 17 percent. Only one candidate out of 10 obtained a baccalaureate in 2015. Only 27 percent of Kasserine’s inhabitants have access to water and one third (32 percent) are illiterate. "The marginalisation and exclusion have been institutionalised processes for decades," says Alaa Talbi, project manager at FTDES.

Despite the democratic opening that was initiated four years ago, the persistence of corruption stops attempts to reduce regional imbalance. 80 percent of the national industrial complex is located on the coastal area. "In some cities, local decision-makers trace routes based on business interests," says Olfa Lamloum, sociologist and author of a field survey of 500 inhabitants of Kasserine on the issue of security.

Despite the scale of the challenge, the Truth and Dignity Commission remains optimistic about the complaint submitted on behalf of Kasserine residents. "This is a bold and smart move. This file is the responsibility and competence of the TDC, especially since southerners have very high expectations. This will set a precedent because anyone can file a complaint on behalf of a city or a marginalised region," said Mohamed Ayadi, representative of the TDC, during a press conference on 16 June in Tunis.

However, with the rise of regionalism that has increased since the revolution, the FTDES warns against an approach of victimhood competition: "We must overcome the ‘spoils of war’ mentality," warned Abdel Jelil Bedoui during a press conference held by the Tunisian NGO. The filing of the complaint aims to place the issue of regional development and the fight against marginalisation at the centre of national debate. Therefore, according to the FTDES, this initiative emphasises the symbolic recognition of the damage inflicted more than it seeks to offer a financial compensation.

Though they have been scheduled as a top priority political goal in the 2014 Constitution, decentralisation and territorial reforms are progressing slowly, which for several months have caused a radicalisation of social movements seeking a better redistribution of wealth. Regularly, the great cities of central and southern regions are shaken by demonstrations, mostly led by young unemployed graduates who demand that the state develop their region. All are faced with police repression.

The inability of policymakers to address social demands, the same ones that led former dictator Ben Ali to flee, reflects the absence of a social project in line with social realities. "I feel that my region has suffered during the two regimes of Ben Ali and Bourguiba. It has been marginalised, and I could easily notice this fact during my first visits to other regions, like the Sahel coast. Art, sport, culture ... everything is lacking. It was believed that after the revolution there would be a change through the affirmative action programme. But soon after, the dreams were gone," said Seif Eddine Saadawi, a young photographer from Feriana in the Kasserine governorate.

The complaint filed to the TDC serves as a reminder of the necessity of fairness and justice that had strongly resonated from the rural town of Sidi Bouzid one day in December 2010.

The question is whether the Tunisian decision makers will assess the gravity of the situation. For in a fragile security environment, the rebel movements thrive on the anger of an idle youth, since social exclusion is a fertile ground for radicalisation. But in the era of "national reconciliation" advocated by the current president of the Republic, Beji Caid Essebsi, which results in pardoning those who have benefited from the Ben Ali regime, it is the process of a transitional justice that appears to be under threat.

This piece was originally published on Middle East Eye's French page (translation by Ali Saad)

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