By Greta Ghacibeh, Directrice, Association Tunisie Media
Two years after the “Jasmine revolution,” Tunisia seems to be the most stable compared to other Arab countries that experienced popular uprisings that led to the toppling of their dictators. But in recent months, with the political turmoil and hostile environment that reached its peak with the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, the situation on the ground never felt more fluid, unstable, and especially chaotic.
Daily protests, strikes, and clashes in the capital Tunis, as well as in the disenfranchised regions; rising anger among Tunisians fueled by what most see as an “underperforming government”; and security concerns in the country, have led to an out-of-control state of corruption.
Corruption itself was one of the driving forces that ignited the popular uprising in Tunisia. Large scale corruption may have decreased, but daily briberies have, on the contrary, increased substantially.
I, myself, experience this lawlessness regularly from Tunisia’s police. A recent incident where a Tunisian girl and her boyfriend who were stopped by a police patrol, who raped the girl and extorted the man, is an extreme example of what happens regularly to unsuspecting citizens.
I am stopped by the police on almost a daily basis, regardless of the area I’m driving through, or whether I’ve been pulled over for allegedly breaking the law or for a routine security check. The fact that I drive a rental car is usually a reason in itself to be “checked”. The first time it happened to me, I was at fault. I was talking on the phone while driving. But, what I didn’t expect was to be given a “choice” by the two cops who stopped me.
After questioning me for ten long minutes, and inspecting my driver’s license and car papers, they proceeded to tell me that they were going to take my driver’s license and my car and send me to court, in addition to paying a fine of sixty Tunisian dinars. They succeeded in scaring and intimidating me. As I was contemplating how to get out of this trouble, both cops grinned and laid out an “alternative suggestion”: “It’s either that, or we split the fine”.
I didn’t get it at first. Both cops gave me ear-to-ear smiles and repeating their suggestion, then one of them whispered to me: “discreetly, we keep it between us”.
Since that day, these kinds of incidents have happened multiple times. The most scary ones are when I am stopped while driving home alone at night.
During the Ben Ali regime, an order was given by the ousted president that “no woman driving a car alone at night was to be stopped by the police, under any circumstances”. No law was needed to execute the presidential desire. A dictator’s order was enough.
When I tell these stories to my Tunisian friends, I get various reactions. Some tell me I should pay them off. Others tell me I shouldn’t give them anything and encourage bribery.
The best advice I’ve received is to pretend not to speak any French or Arabic, and play “dumb foreigner” when I am stopped by a police officer.
So far, it’s working.