A campaign to repair relations with police has citizens and public figures playing soccer matches alongside policemen.
When Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in a dramatic protest against police harassment in 2010, few would have predicted that his actions would ignite a massive pro-democracy uprising across the Middle East, now known as the Arab Spring.
Three years later, Tunisia remains in the nascent stages of its democratic development, having ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. Ben Ali, who ruled the country autocratically for 24 years, fled the country, paving the way for free elections in October 2011.
The North African state, however, still struggles with police intimidation and harassment, the same type of harassment that forced Bouazizi to take his own life just a few years ago. “The consolidation of human rights protection in the post-Ben Ali era was hampered by the police resorting to excessive force against continuing protests,” reports Human Rights Watch in a 2011 report.
In response, Tunisian activists and community organizers have created a new campaign called “Matadhrabnich” (Don’t Hit Me). The campaign started April 9 and initially was spread online. It now includes statements of support from Tunisian artists and celebrities.
The group’s Facebook page, which currently has more than 8,000 “likes,” includes featured videos and photos of prominent Tunisian artists and celebrities in support of the campaign.
April 9, a holiday called “National Martyrs’ Day,” was chosen as the launch date because it was on the same day last year that police used violence against protesters marching to commemorate those who fought against French colonialism.
The clash arose April 9, 2012 after Interior Minister Ali Larayedh banned demonstrations on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the principal site of protests that led to Ben Ali’s ouster.
While the government issued the ruling in an attempt to restore public order in downtown Tunis, many viewed the decision as an effort to undermine public protest. The ban was put to the test on Tunisian Martyrs’ Day, when thousands of Tunisians marched downtown to commemorate those who died in 1938 protesting French colonialism.
No fatalities were reported, but dozens were injured in the clash with police, seen by many Tunisians as a betrayal of the revolution.
Now, the new “Sport for Reform,” which began May 3, has attempted to repair relations with the police through an organized series of soccer games. The matches created mixed teams of citizens, activists and policemen allowing communities to interact through sports.
In an interview with Tunisia Live, Reform president Bassem Bouguerra said the first game was a success. It was an opportunity, he said, for “policemen to communicate with citizens on another level.”
“One of our goals was to prove that policemen and citizens are on the same team. If one of them loses, it’s the whole team’s loss,” Bouguerra said. The games are to be scheduled weekly and will include national political and civil society figures, Bouguerra said.
It’s not all bad news for Tunisia, though. Rights groups have recorded some improvements in free speech since the revolution. “Tunisians enjoy a greater degree of freedom of assembly, expression and association,” writes Human Rights Watch.