As COVID-19 began to sweep the globe, the Tunisian government implemented strict measures to stem the spread of the virus, knowing the country’s underprepared health system would be overwhelmed by a widespread outbreak. Beginning on March 17, authorities enforced a 12-hour curfew. Days later, 400 were arrested for breaking that curfew. “Anyone who breaks the security rules will be treated as a criminal because failing to respect rules within the context of the pandemic is a crime,” said Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi. Many Tunisians have bristled at what they see as an overly securitized response.

Officers of Tunis' central artery, Avenue Bourguiba, organize a protest in Tunis, Tunisia, Jan. 22, 2011. (Moises Saman/The New York Times)
Officers of Tunis' central artery, Avenue Bourguiba, organize a protest in Tunis, Tunisia, Jan. 22, 2011. (Moises Saman/The New York Times)

The lockdown has deepened tensions between the government and citizens, which predate Tunisia’s uprising. But in one Tunisian city called Medenine, activists and security officials are coming together to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, opening doors to strengthened community-police relations during the pandemic—and hopefully beyond. “We don’t just want to restore order from violence. We are trying to repair community-police relations,” said Kamel Zbaa, a member of the local security forces and head of their union in Medenine, in an interview with the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Cooperation to Overcome Marginalization in Medenine

Medenine is in southeast Tunisia, near the border with Libya. Like many parts of the interior of the country, the city suffers from systemic marginalization. Protesters there have largely remained in the streets since the ouster of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, which has led to growing tensions between citizens and security forces. Violent confrontations have led to casualties and property damage and often led local security forces to respond with further harsh measures that only feed recurring cycles of violence. In many ways, Medenine is a microcosm of the tense community-police dynamic that prevails across Tunisia, with the country under an intermittent state of emergency since 2011.

But, this dynamic was beginning to change in Medenine before the coronavirus crisis. And now the Alliance of Tunisian Facilitators (ATF) has seized the opportunity to bring security forces and citizens together amid the pandemic. Established by USIP in 2014, ATF is a network of peacebuilding practitioners that includes lawyers, journalists, civil society leaders, and other professionals. ATF leverages USIP’s ongoing support and its members’ understanding of local conflict dynamics to resolve underlying conflict through dialogue and to build members’ skills in conflict analysis and prevention and facilitation.

“For the facilitators, it’s the right time to be using the training provided by USIP … We are using this situation to network with local authorities,” said ATF member Tarek Ghazel. These strengthened relations with local authorities are building momentum for ATF’s ongoing work aimed at transforming the cycle of conflict between youth and local authorities in marginalized communities. “This is what ATF is for,” said Ghazel, “to respond to crisis and create new opportunities to build peace.”

“Cycles of violence and retribution between citizens and security forces have entrenched grievances on both sides. ATF’s objective in Medenine and throughout the country is to empower parties in conflict with the skills, platforms, and confidence to engage in constructive dialogue that transforms the relationship from one of violence or mistrust to one of mutual understanding,” said Leo Sibert, USIP’s Tunisia country manager.

Current Situation in Tunisia

In Medenine, USIP and ATF created a local mechanism for communication to stave off violence before it begins by bringing together vulnerable youth, city leaders, unions, and police. ATF members and local partner organizations convened several meetings with youth and security forces separately to better understand why tensions persists. Over the past two years, ATF organized a series of capacity building workshops on topics such as crisis communication, conflict management, community-oriented policing, and rights of detainees. Security forces and youth were brought together in dialogue sessions where they jointly agreed on forming a Conflict Mediation Unit (CMU) whose members could mediate and resolve conflict.

Finding Opportunity Amid Crisis

In late March, as the magnitude of the pandemic became clear, youth members of the CMU provided medical supplies, including hand sanitizer and masks, to the National Guard in Medenine. “The idea to deliver supplies to security forces was something we had thought of with the goal to improve relations between security and youth,” said Taher Hellek, a youth representative of the CMU.

The symbolism of this gesture was not lost on security forces. “It was very appreciated,” said National Guard member Afif Ksiksi. “I would like to see this [cooperation] keep going after the crisis. It has a great impact.”

CMU members said they recognize the danger security forces must confront amid the pandemic. “Volunteering alongside security forces has changed our perception” of community-police relations, said Hellek.

The CMU has pivoted to helping provide assistance to needy families ahead of Ramadan and working with the police to sanitize the most marginalized neighborhoods. But the goal of this work remains the same: to strengthen community-police relations and resolve conflict through nonviolent means.

“There has been an explosion of creativity in establishing partnerships to provide supplies and medical gear,” said Kais Ben Houidi, the head of the Al Hara Association for Development and member of the CMU. Houidi’s organization has conducted a number of activities in Medenine, including spreading awareness on the dangers of coronavirus and the importance of social distancing.

One challenge for many Tunisians under lockdown is that they need government authorization to go anywhere. But this requires citizens to go to local government offices, violating social distancing protocols. So, the Al Hara Association collected the requests for movement from citizens and brought them to the local government to facilitate authorizations. Meanwhile, as Zbaa noted, the fire hoses the police once used to suppress protesters are now being used to clean the streets. Hellek and other youth are distributing goods at night to reduce crowd size. “There is increased compassion and solidarity,” he said. “The police have even stopped us to support us with funds.”

As of this writing, there are roughly 900 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 38 deaths in Tunisia. It has yet to be hard hit by the pandemic, although it’s likely those numbers are higher. This comes at a critical juncture for Tunisia. After months of political wrangling, Tunisia’s parliament approved a new coalition government in late March, led by Elias Fakhfakh. The 2019 elections saw low voter turnout, as many expressed apathy with politics and disenchantment with the country’s leaders. Low growth, high unemployment, mounting debt, and crumbling public services all add to citizens’ widespread discontent. The Fakhfakh government’s response to the crisis will set the tone for the rest of its tenure during a formative period for Tunisia’s transition.

Ghazel believes that ATF can play a critical role at the local level. “The bottom up approach can have a positive impact ... If we were able to contain frustration in [the marginalized neighborhoods of] Medenine, it could work at the national level.” With the already weak economy grinding to a halt, CMU members are thinking about future interventions. “We are anticipating frustration from an economic crisis—this partnership between youth and police could help prevent violence,” said Ben Houidi.

The good will ATF fostered prior to the COVID-19 crisis enabled activists and security forces to understand that they could be on the same side—that the relationship did not have to be adversarial.

“We are very optimistic about getting through this period,” said Ksiksi, a member of the National Guard. “Seeing young people being creative in their response gives me hope.”

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