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Manich Msamah and the Face of Continued Protest in Tunisia

Manich Msamah protest in Tunis on 22 July 22 2017. Photo by Fadhil Alsagoff. Manich Msamah protest in Tunis on 22 July 22 2017. Photo by Fadhil Alsagoff.

“Capitalism protects politicians and politicians protect capitalism, and both are cowards.” -- Taieb Henchir, Manich Msamah member, discussing the Economic Reconciliation Law.

On 19 July 2017 the Tunisian parliament approved seven articles of the Economic Reconciliation Act, which was recently renamed the Law of Administrative Reconciliation in response to two years of protests spearheaded by the youth grassroots movement Manich Msamah (“I do not forgive,” in Tunisian dialect: مانيش مسامح). At eight o’clock in the evening on 27 July 2017,  the night before the long-awaited parliamentary vote on the amended facets of the Economic Reconciliation Act, approximately one thousand Tunisians staged a sit-in before the parliament building in Bardo—raising slogans in opposition to the amended law. Manich Msamah organized the event, and some members stood their ground for the entire night. The following morning, government officials announced the suspension of voting until September 2017. 

The Manich Msamah movement took root through the mutual collaboration of a group of activists on Facebook who knew each other through the Jasmine Revolution protests. Unified by one singular purpose, the prevention of the passing of the Economic Reconciliation Law, the movement quickly grew. It began as a small assemblage of approximately twenty activists, disenchanted with the state of their country in the post-revolution era, and transformed into the main vessel for opposition in Tunisia, attracting thousands of people to the campaign from all walks of life.

Manich Msamah’s cohesive purpose and voice sheds light on the way in which Tunisia’s youth are opening up the space to make demands of their government. The actions of Manich Msamah are vital for holding the current government accountable, as their protests have led to three separate delays in putting the new legislation to a vote thus far. Even if the Law of Administrative Reconciliation passes, Manich Msamah has spotlighted the issues that can mobilize Tunisians and has redefined organizational patterns for protest. It has showcased the fact that civil society remains a formidable force in post-revolution Tunisia.

The Economic Reconciliation Law, Protests, and the Question of Corruption

Manich Msamah originated online through Facebook following President Caid Essebsi’s introduction of the Economic Reconciliation Act on 14 July 2015. He put forth the law without any consultation with civil society groups or the transitional justice system framework. The transitional justice system was enacted to dismantle the system of inherent corruption in the Tunisian government, and to form a reparations facet for victims of gross human rights abuses under the previous Tunisians regimes. The transitional justice system resulted in the creation of the Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission, which is responsible for implementing the new legislation.

Established on 9 June 2014 by then-President Moncef Marzouki under the Transitional Justice Act of 2013, the Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission functions as an independent overseer of corruption charges and human rights violations committed by the Tunisian state dating as far back as 1955. The UNDP and UNHCR have supported the commission since 2012. It is laid out as “an independent and neutral body composed of two representatives of victims’ associations, two representatives of human rights defense associations and thirteen independent experts, all elected by a special committee of the National Assembly and appointed by decree. 

The chairman of the Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission requested that the Venice Commission—an extension of the Council of Europe—deliver an opinion on the president’s proposed economic reconciliation law. The commission submitted an interim decision after examining the law, concluding that the proposed reconciliation law was not compatible with the existent transitional justice system. However, the interim decision’s conclusion states willingness by the commission to amend a law, pending the Tunisian government’s implementation of those alterations.

The proposed reconciliation law contained two distinct aspects. First, it would grant amnesty to corrupt business elites accused of crimes such as embezzlement under the Ben Ali regime without requiring explicit records of the accusations to be presented in court. Second, it would drop all open cases against business elites with ties to Ben Ali in exchange for a fee—all of which would occur outside of the public eye.

President Essebsi’s vehement dedication to passing this law points to the persistence of corruption in post-revolution Tunisia. In one interview, Manich Msamah members asserted that by repeatedly pushing for this law, Essebsi is fulfilling promises to those businessmen who funded his presidential campaign. These businessmen, with ample resources and connections could be utilized as tools to aid a faltering economy in Tunisia. Essebsi is advocating for the passage of this bill in part to hold onto executive legitimacy, but also to save an economy that has yet to recover from the effects of the 2015 Sousse and Bardo attacks against tourist destinations.

On 28 August 2015, a group of less than one hundred Tunisian protesters gathered in Mohamed Ali Square, which is across from the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT). They silently marched toward Hotel Africa, where a conference organized by منظّمة أنا يقظ (NGO I Watch) was underway to promote the law. The area around the Mohamed Ali Square is symbolic due to its historic significance as a starting place for many marches during the Jasmine Revolution. Manich Msamah also chose this location to intimidate the UGTT into supporting their movement. The group listened to the conference, raised banners, and proceeded to exit the hotel. Subsequent demonstrations between 1 and 6 September 2015 attracted more supporters. However, the state police swiftly and violently shut down these. Human Rights Watch reports the general use of excessive force and tear gas throughout these protests. On 12 September 2015 approximately two thousand individuals took to the streets of Tunis in united opposition to the proposed law. These protests resulted in the postponement of the parliament vote on the law.

Reintroduced in May 2016, the bill again incited Manich Msamah to call for Tunisians to take to the street in the hopes of blocking the passage of the law a second time. Thus the month of July 2016 featured a new wave of popular protests, this time to Essebsi’s second attempt to pass the bill. These protests culminated on 22 July of 2016, when one thousand five hundred protesters descended on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in downtown Tunis. Essebsi reacted to these protests by quietly removing the law from the parliamentary agenda, with the intention of attempting to pass the law at a later date—mirroring the actions of the first forestallment.

Essebsi  introduced the bill once again in May 2017, and once again thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tunis to showcase their opposition. In the wake of these protests, the president pushed back parliamentary voting until after the month of Ramadan was over (24 June), so that it would be discussed in July 2017. However, following the most recent sit-in staged by Manich Msamah, voting was again postponed—this time until September 2017. .

Manich Msamah:  Not Politics as Usual 

Manich Msamah was borne through the jointed efforts of a group of dissatisfied youth in 2015. It was outraged over the initial introduction of the Economic Reconciliation Law, which they interpreted as a guise for the continuation of corruption and a backtracking on revolutionary gains, that served as the impetus. All founding members interviewed for this article had participated in opposition groups and activities during the Jasmine Revolution. [1] They started their campaign with commitment against hierarchy within social movements. Organizing in a horizontal fashion, every decision—no matter how small—is decided by consensus vote. Decisions can range from whether to sell a Manich Msamah t-shirts to setting the date of a proposed sit-in or march. The activists assert that the specificity of their campaign’s goal reflected a country-wide feeling of indignation toward corruption, which was one of the most significant causes of the Jasmine Revolution, and continues to be a rallying point amongst Tunisians today.

Manich Msamah believes that the centralization of their movement around one goal, the blockage of the Economic Reconciliation Law, has attracted thousands of people to the Manich Msamah Facebook page. The page is central to the movement organizes decision-making process and mobilizing sit-ins and protests. The use of Facebook by Manich Msamah differs from the social media use of the Jasmine Revolution in that members use Facebook to centralize coordination efforts and bring efficiency to protest organization, creating event pages for upcoming sit-ins or marches, which are open to the public. Manich Msamah has redefined the way Tunisians organize through social media, from using it as the quick-access news outlet of the Arab uprisings to a systematically efficient space for planning demonstrations.

It is important to note that Essebsi first proposed the Economic Reconciliation Law while the country was in a state of emergency following the 2015 attacks. The state of emergency in Tunisia bans protests of any form. Because of this, Manich Msamah members recall, the group spread information concerning their first march in 2015 through SMS messaging instead of a Facebook event, which is now the norm for Manich Msamah protests.

The lack of adherence to party ideology of any kind is another way in which Manich Msamah distinguishes itself from other contemporary opposition movements in Tunisia. Due to sensitivities toward specific parties, many citizens will not attend a march or protest organized by a particular political party due to general distaste for that party, or an affiliation with a group that opposes them. The 2014 elections witnessed low voter turnout among the country’s youth. Manich Msamah attributes this dynamic to a lack of appeal from either party to the young population. When asked to elaborate in an interview, Manich Msamah member Taieb Henchir states that, “The participation of young people is really low because they didn’t trust parties, because neither party offered a package that really attracted young people. So when they proposed the law again, it was something worth moving against. When you centralize the cause, you get more support.”

Undoubtedly, the success of the movement has altered the landscape of political opposition in Tunisia. More than thirty organizations and seven political parties support the campaign openly. The Popular Front and the Democratic Current, two major forces in the Jasmine Revolution, were present at the September 2015 protests - but only with the permission of Manich Msamah, according to an interview with some founding members of the campaign. The two opposition groups are represented in the current government, and have voiced opposition to the draft law. However, the majority of lawmakers tied to Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes have supported the reconciliation law, asserting that it would speed up the transitional justice process and encourage investment to bolster the suffering economy. 

Future Prospects and The Possibility of Another Revolution

Leaders of Manich Msamah have adamantly denied the possibility of transforming their movement into a political party. In short, they believe that this would be political suicide. In a country with a fragmented history of civil society framework, Manich Msamah has extended the power of the street from the Jasmine Revolution to today. However, members acknowledge that the campaign cannot continue to sustain its assumed role in civil society forever.  “It is (protecting the country from corruption and deviation) not the role of a political campaign, but the role of civil society. In Tunisia democracy is young and we don’t really have a traditional civil society or a civil society with experience, and the role of the street is still very important - and that is why Manich Msamah is playing this role now, but it’s not for eternity,” says Hachem Sghiri, a member of Manich Msamah.

For the time being, Manich Msamah will continue to play its role in attempting to hold the government accountable and maintaining the gains made vis-à-vis corruption in post-revolution. The continued attempt by the Tunisian government to pass the Economic Reconciliation Law and, in turn, the overwhelming response of the street, has transformed this struggle into a symbolic fight. Commenting on the psychological aspects of this struggle and the significance of the proposed law, Manich Msamah member Azza Derbali says, “If the law doesn’t pass, it’s going to convey the message that the street can do something. (The Tunisian government) can’t lose this battle now—they started it.” 

If the amended law passes, the campaign will still have made significant gains. These gains are demonstrated by the fact that Manich Msamah-led protests have delayed the passage of the law thus far. “We gain many things even if we lose this - people are back to the streets, we started that. In 2015 people were still disappointed so the streets were empty. Even if the law passes, we’ve changed things that we can build on to make something bigger,” says Azza Derbali, another member of Manich Msamah. 

While Manich Msamah has succeeded in displaying the important role that popular mobilization still plays in Tunisian civil society, the passage of the reconciliation law would nevertheless deliver a significant blow to the people, and to the idea of democracy in post-revolutionary Tunisia. While some have speculated that the protests over the Economic Reconciliation Law could potentially lead to another revolution, Manich Msamah members do not agree. They maintain that there would have to be many other contributing factors. However, with the continued problem of youth unemployment, the related rise of protests in the southern oil region, and the problematic anti-corruption campaign currently being run by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, the issues that mobilized the country in the Jasmine Revolution are again piling up. Another revolution might not be as far-fetched an idea as some may think. The campaign demonstrates that the main concerns of the Jasmine Revolution still hold the ability to mobilize the masses, and that the Tunisian people will continue in their fight against the continuance of corruption and unraveling of democracy in their country.

[1] For the purpose of this article those members interviewed are referred to as founding members because all were present within the first weeks or months of the movement, but in accordance with the organization of the campaign, members prefer to be referenced simply as members, with no distinguishing additions to title that could lead to the possibility of a hierarchical structure.

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