by Rosie Alfatlawi
“What are we waiting for?” asks the catchy slogan at the heart of recent protests in Tunisia.
Graffitied on walls, held up at protests and even written on Tunisian currency, “Fech Nestannew” is the ubiquitous name of an ongoing campaign against price rises.
Noting its success, and keen to exploit the considerable power of social media, Tunisia’s interior ministry has since launched its own counter hashtag.
The clunkier “don't ruin your country, Tunisia needs you” was posted to the ministry’s official Facebook page on Tuesday.
The hashtag is intended to encourage peaceful demonstrations, following Tunisian media reports of riots and looting.
Yet, for many, the message is a cynical one, amid accusations of authorities' own violence. “The joke of the day” is how @Sonia_Bjm described it.
“A death yesterday among protesters opposed to new taxes and endemic inflation,” she added, referring to Khomsi Yefrni who died in Tebourba on Monday.
“The government's response: a hollow patriotic message to try to unite tired Tunisians #Tunisia.”
Confusion surrounds Yefrni’s death, which police insist was related to his chronic respiratory problems. Tear gas had been fired to disperse protesters in the town 30 kilometers from the capital Tunis.
Yefrni’s brother Mohamed, however, has insisted that his brother was not ill, and that he was instead hit by a vehicle. Medical examiners had identified broken ribs on Khomsi’s body, he told Mosaique radio. Activists have also shared images online purporting to show him being run over.
Police have reportedly dispersed peaceful protests in the country, and have been criticized for detaining “Fech Nestannew” activists, including for spraying slogans.
EuroMed human rights monitor has called the arrests “a clear violation of the right of demonstrators to peaceful assembly, as guaranteed by both international conventions and the Tunisian constitution.”
The “Fech Nestannew” movement itself has issued a statement online condemning what it called the “hysterical” arrests of more than 30 young people who were “practising their right to peaceful protest.”
EuroMed also suggested that authorities had used violent means, including batons and gas canisters, to crackdown on demonstrators.
In this context, many saw the hashtag as hypocritical. “The interior ministry has moved from hitting to launching hashtags... so cute,” tweeted @bel_abria in response to the official slogan.
“Beautiful words,” wrote Imen Lazrek on Facebook in response to the Interior Ministry.
“But but you should also stop your clampdown (...) because at the beginning of the demonstrations, there was no violence and looting.”
The policeman in the picture who is hitting the civilian [...] he is the one who launched the hashtag.
The demonstrations, which began last week, come in response to the 2018 Financial Act which will increase VAT on some items by 300 percent. The rise in prices will see Tunisians spend an extra 120 dollars per month, according to GardaWorld.
Despite concerns about police force, many Tunisians have nonetheless got behind the slogan, condemning violence in some areas.
“Those who steal and loot have no relation to the legitimate demands of the protesters [...] I hope that a distinction is drawn between the protesters and the saboteurs,” wrote @afefgharbitv on Twitter.
@khaoula_Morata challenged those who were mocking the hashtag, asking “do you like stealing, destruction, chaos and road closures?”
The government has insisted that it respects the right to protest. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said Tuesday that rioting was "outside of the law.”
"We are in a democracy, and those who want to protest can do it during the day, not at night," he said.
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