TUNIS — In the low-income Tunis suburb of Kram, the building that once housed the police station was torched and ransacked after President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali fled the country two years ago. Its white-washed walls still bear graffiti reading "The Men of the Revolution in Kram" and (in English) "We are always ready to fight." Awnings colored the red of the Tunisian flag flutter over unglazed windows. Inside, it has the air of a well-kept student squat, and a small television is tuned to a political chat show. Photos show some of the eight young men killed by police bullets in Kram during the revolution.
Kram's self-appointed "Men of the Revolution" meet here twice a week to plan their protests, sometimes coordinating with the umbrella League for the Defense of the Revolution which brings together local "committees to defend the revolution" across the country. These grassroots groups, like Kram's, have vowed to block any attempt by old-regime figures to make a comeback and "divert the revolution from its goals." They are in the spotlight this month after allegations they are merely fronts for thuggish militias that use violence or intimidation against anyone challenging the hegemony of the ruling Islamist party, Nahda.
Rising indignation about the violence allegedly instigated by these committees has come from Tunisia's trade-union federation, the General Tunisian Labor Union (UGTT), and Nida Tunis (Tunisian Call), a new political party headed by Beji Caid Sebsi, Tunisia's interim prime minister through most of 2011. Nida Tunis is squaring up as Nahda's main challenger in the parliamentary and presidential elections due to be held later this year.
In the activists' meeting in Kram's former police station last week, at top of the agenda was a protest timed for the Jan. 14 anniversary of the revolution to "show anger" over the lack of progress in prosecuting those suspected of corruption under Ben Ali. The group is also mobilizing around the detention of a number of local men following the chaotic protests at the US Embassy in Tunis on Sept. 14.
Some were arrested "just because they had a beard, no other reason," said Imed Dghij, one of the Men of the Revolution leaders. Trained as a math teacher, he was a political prisoner under the Ben Ali regime and upon leaving prison was barred from teaching. Many of the approximately 16 men attending the meeting have higher-education degrees; only one has a job.
There is evident local pride in Kram's role in the revolution. The neighborhood is positioned between central Tunis and the outlying suburb of Carthage, where Ben Ali governed from the presidential palace.
"We are just two minutes from Carthage," Dghij says, explaining that on that fateful Friday two years ago, those in power "knew that if Kram moved, the regime would fall."
Dghij denies that his group uses violence against opponents nowadays, or that it is affiliated with the Islamists of Nahda, who head the country's three-party coalition government. But the men of Kram would be ready to get physical once more if the old regime attempted to stage a comeback, he says with some bravado. And for Kram's Men of the Revolution, Caid Sebsi's Nida Tunis party clearly represents the old regime.
In that stance, the group is indeed aligned with Nahda. After some internal debate, Nahda's executive committee resolved last fall that Nida Tunis "cannot be regarded as a partner in the construction of a democracy," says Faycel Naceur, the party's vice president of communication. A number of Nida Tunis figures were closely associated with the old regime, not least Sebsi himself, whatever his views on Ben Ali's policies in the regime's later years, Naceur added.
Nahda members in Tunisia's constituent assembly are advocating new legislation that would penalize not just those found guilty of corruption, but also those who, within government or civil service, turned a blind eye to corruption during the Ben Ali years.
"Ben Ali chose his allies very well, in the world of business and media especially. In return for their support, the regime turned a blind eye to corrupt practices," Naceur said. The proposed legislation also includes a ban on the former regime's office holders being candidates for election or for public appointments.
Nahda, for its part, denies any institutional link to the grassroots "committees to defend the revolution," but veterans of Ben Ali's jails, who suffered for their Islamist activism, are common among local committee members. In Gabes, the home town of Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, committee member Nasrallah Abderezzak, a mild-mannered former high-school teacher, said the committee there uses persuasion, not violence: "We try to persuade people that Nida Tunis does not have Tunisia's best interests at heart." He spent eight years as a political prisoner at a time when Ben Ali's party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) permeated society and the state. "There are many former RCD figures still attempting to use patronage" in public-sector bodies in the town, such as the utility company, he said.
The "committees to defend the revolution" trace their origins to the non-party neighborhood self-defense groups that emerged in the days of instability following Ben Ali's overthrow, and to the spontaneous spring 2011 demonstrations that brought down the first post-revolutionary government. Mohamed Maalej, heading the umbrella League to Defend the Revolution, is somewhat shy of the media limelight, but the league has invited anyone alleging that its members use violence to take their evidence to the courts, and denies acting for any political party.
A reporter from Al Mijhar newspaper probing the local committees in Tunis heard that they last year recruited young men to join protests — for example, outside the state-owned TV station — in return for payments of 20-30 dinars ($13-$19). A sturdy physical build was a precondition for being taken on, one young man told the reporter.
In mid-September, a Nida Tunis activist was killed in clashes apparently involving committee members in the southern town of Tataouine. The authorities at first claimed he had died of a heart attack; other accounts suggest he was viciously beaten as opponents stormed his office. Alleging inaction by the authorities, Nida Tunis called for the dissolution of the league and all the local committees and the replacement of the justice and interior ministers by non-party figures. Caid Sebsi claimed the local committees took orders from Nahda and one of its non-Islamist coalition partners, the Congress for the Republic.
"These committees are nothing more than gangs of delinquents and petty criminals whom everyone — and especially the authorities — know," he said.
On Dec. 22, scores of gatecrashers violently disrupted a Nida Tunis public meeting on the island of Djerba, cutting off electricity to the hall.
Meanwhile, tensions between the UGTT trade unionists and the Nahda-led government came to head on Dec. 4, when a gathering to honor the federation's historic founder was violently disrupted. An uninvited group attempted to unfurl banners and chant slogans calling for the removal of figures it regarded as corrupt within the UGTT, recalls eye-witness Kheireddine Bouslah, a former senior UGTT official. The group of intruders included some UGTT members, Bouslah says. They set about the trade unionists with stones, iron bars and wooden batons, with some of the UGTT stewards replying in kind. Maalej told the state news agency TAP that some of his members had been present at the gathering, but denied they had instigated violence. A general strike called by the UGTT to protest this violence, which it said was just the worst in a series of aggressions, was averted after the government and the union agreed that a committee of inquiry would attempt to determine who exactly was behind the violence, reporting back by the end of January.
The use of paid thugs is not new to Tunisia. Under Ben Ali, the regime did not hesitate to deploy crude physical violence. Its bullies-for-hire, drawn from the under-class and dispatched to disrupt opposition meetings or beat up student activists down dark alleyways, were known as clochards, "tramps" in French. If the commission of inquiry manages to ascertain just who has been resorting to similar methods through last year — and why — it will help clarify a political scene that has become increasingly murky to many ordinary Tunisians.
Eileen Byrne is a British journalist who since 2011 has reported from Tunisia for The Financial Times, The Sunday Times, The Economist and The Guardian. She also covers Morocco, where she was correspondent for The Economist from 2001 to 2004, and Algeria, and has previously worked as a journalist in Mexico and Venezuela.