On Sunday, January 22, a group of friends set off to Jbel el Faouara in the hills of Hammamet, where they were threatened by security forces at the service of wealthy businessman Mohamed Ayachi Ajroudi, who is expanding his palace in the foothills, illegally. The following Sunday, residents of Hammamet organized a picnic protest recalling their right to access the green space they love.
Picnic protest: residents react to agression against young hikers in Jbel el Faouara
The gathering was set for 11am on Sunday, January 29. Several dozen Hammamet residents meet in front of the blue tower close to the train station before getting in their cars and setting off in the direction of the natural reserve Jbel Hammamet, also called Jbel el Faouara, which overlooks the city and sea. As the road steepens, most park their cars and continue by foot. A bit later, some twenty cyclists from the bike club arrive, breathless from the climb. The organizers pull out provisions for the picnic, which takes place in the same spot where three young men from Hammamet were assaulted one week earlier.
Ezzedine, Bassem et Yassine had decided to go for a walk at Jbel el Faouara. They had parked their car and were taking pictures of the landscape when two 4x4s surrounded the car. Assuming it was blocking the road, the young men went to see what was going on. The men driving the 4x4s, employees of businessman Mohamed Ayachi Ajroudi, ordered them to leave the hill. The young men protested, arguing that the zone belongs to everyone and that they had every right to be there. One of the three called the National Guard, which did not impress their interlocutors: «You can call the National Guard, Mehdi Jomaa, or even Essebsi for all I care. You have to leave! » They began to push, insult, and threaten two of the young men. «Get out of here, before I put a hold in you!» Observing the escalation, one of the friends began filming the scene, and the video of the assault was widely diffused on social media. In contrast, the recorded events found no echo in the media. The National Guard, for its part, never showed up.
The kitsch palace of a powerful businessman with political aspirations
From the hillside is a stunning view of the forest and plain that stretches to the horizon, but also of construction underway, buildings of questionable archictectural taste. One of these—half luxury residence, half fortress—is complete, and distinctly overladen with arches, balconies, columns and terraces embellished with crenels. The other building, an imposing, four-story concrete cube, also decked out with crenels, is under construction. The property is guarded by barking dogs whose voices carry over to where people are gathered for the picnic.
These buildings are the property of businessman Mohamed Ayachi Ajroudi, native to Gabes. After five years in the merchant marine and engineering studies, Ajroudi began his career in the oil industry and mechanical engineering. He then bought and founded several companies—Sadeg promotion, Aquatraitements énergies services, Objectif pertinence, Razin Contracting Saudi Arabia, SNCFIME, Ferrara Ltd, etc.—in railway, real estate, civil engineering, telecommunications, water treatment and international trade, based primarily in Cannes (France) and Saudi Arabia, where he has lived for the past 25 years. He also collaborated with large French companies such as Suez and Constructions industrielles de la Méditerranée (CNIM).
In Tunisia, he used a privatization law to purchase the freight transportation company Sogetram in 1995. In 2010 he signed a partnership agreement with the National Sanitation Bureau (ONAS) to create a mixed company, ONAS International, and to « export ONAS expertise » overseas, particularly to the Gulf countries. After the revolution, he tried his hand in politics: in 2013, he created a « centrist, moderate, and united » party aptly named The Tunisian Movement for Liberty and Dignity, and, in the same year, bought the station Al Janoubiya TV. He finally pulled out from the election campaign shortly before the 2014 legislative elections. But since September 2016, he is president of the Sports Association of Hammamet, the handball club…
Ajroudi maintains a solid network of contacts, likes to be photographed with politicians, and cultivates strategic friendships with diverse actors, from Saudi and Bahreini princes, to negotiators of large contracts, or even to the apologist of security ideology in France, Alain Bauer. He also installed video surveillance cameras all around his « palace. »
A « soldier of Tunisia » …who acts like a bandit
Mohamed Ayachi Ajroudi works hard to pull off his image as a noble patriot who struggles for the interests of the people, both by calling for obsequious articles and through declarations broadcasted on his television station or posted on his Facebook page. When he pulled out of the electoral campaign in 2014, it was to not be part of the « the conspiracy unfolding against Tunisia and its people. » For New Years, he addressed a prayer for 2017 from Beverly Hills: « All cultures and colors combined, we can together unite the breath of God which is in each one of us, in order to respect one another and live peacefully in accordance with the universe which welcomes us. »
He also presents himself as ardent defender of the environment. We read on his site that he « struggles against desertification in Africa and the Middle East. » He participated at the COP21 climate summit in Paris, where « [his] competency and know-how assembled the representatives of states, civil society, and scientists to bring together points of view on climate change, global warming. » He took advantage of the occasion to meet with John Kerry for a discussion concerning « bilateral relations between Tunisia and the United States » in the security sector, though the breadth and depth of this conversation remains unknown.
This facade of environmental concerns did not prevent his building, illegal expansion after expansion, on forest land. According to forestry regulations, authorization is required before clearing and construction can take place:
Any individual who wishes to clear forests belonging to him and not submitted to the forestry regime must submit a written request to forest district headquarters at least three months in advance in order to obtain prior authorisation, which will be issued upon receipt of his request.
— Article 52 of Law 88-20 of 13 April 1988 amending the forest code
An authorized source from Nabeul’s Regional Commission for Agricultural Development confirmed that Ajroudi’s construction was undertaken without authorization. Persistant rumors hint that Ajroudi approached the governor to « regulate his situation » after the fact.
In the meantime, he uses henchman to threaten hikers and intimidate those who are willing to raise their voice to denounce his illegal buildings in the middle of forest land or to defend themselves against threats endured. But this time, one young victim of such aggression, Ezzedine Mrad, filed a complaint and made the affair public.
« Jbel el Faouara belongs to everyone »
« We can’t keep quiet, we have to assemble, » says Ezzedine Mrad, who had heard about other complaints filed by neighbors that have remained without follow-up. « We have to challenge social injustice. » « It’s not just because someone has money and power that he can control access to the area, » volunteers one of his friends, a motocross lover.
It is the apparent impunity which Mohamed Ayachi Ajroudi appears to enjoy that has prompted the picnic protest, which aims to put limits on the underhanded dealings and climate of intimidation. « They threaten people so that they can do whatever they want. This grassroots action today is to reestablish a certain justice. After all, we are in a democratic republic, » Ezzedine persists.
What’s more, Hammamet residents are attached to the place, which they frequent from an early age to explore by foot, bicycle, or motor bike. « Jbel el Faouara in Hammamet is the place where people go to be outside, it’s the green space that belongs to everyone, » explains Ezzedine. While mass tourism has disfigured Hammamet—hotels have taken over the seashore and villas have destroyed the flora and fauna at the outskirts of the city—Jbel el Faouara constitutes the last place where people can go to enjoy open air. For residents of Hammamet, Ajroudi’s manoeuvres in this space are one step too far.