The alleyway, narrow and dark, has a sinister air about it. At one end is a large warehouse where all kinds of waste and debris are piled high. “It was once a market, but has since become a stomping ground for drug users,” explains a denizen of the neighborhood. With a population of over six thousand, Mellassine lies just four kilometers from downtown Tunis. Nearby, enormous bags bulging with plastic bottles have been stacked together. A man appears. He does not seem pleased by the sudden intrusion of strangers to this part of town.

The man is named Ahmed. He is 41 years old, and runs a business selling plastic bottles. “I regret the day I threw a rock at a policeman,” he says. This is what Ahmed recalls when prompted to comment about the 2011 revolution.

Waste and plastic bottles collected for resale to recycle centers, Mellassine

At that time, locals clashed with police in Mellassine and other working-class neighborhoods around downtown Tunis. “Ever since, the situation has deteriorated significantly,” Ahmed tells us. “Human rights? Utter one word, one silly word, and they lock you up.” As far as Ahmed is concerned, however, this repressive atmosphere isn’t imposed by the country’s president, but by external enemies. “Arab leaders are merely the puppets of foreign powers.”

Maher is not of the same opinion. We meet this 32-year old furniture vendor in the “El Kherba” market. Maher is critical of the president, who he believes has “an inflated ego and lives in a bubble.” But what angers him the most is police impunity.

Police above the law

According to Maher, relations with the police have not improved since the revolution. In fact, they have only deteriorated. For him, the word “revolution” is a misnomer. “In hindsight, I can say that there was never a revolution here. At the time, our exclusive target was the police. They hate us, and we feel the same. We took advantage of the chaos to ransack stores, feed and provide for our families, that’s it,” he relates.

Faded graffiti which reads “Freedom” in Arabic, Mellassine, post-January 14, 2011

Ever since,” Maher continues, “the police hate us even more. They show up, hit you, take you to the police station only to let you go.”

Repression has only become more strategic. “Racial profiling is inevitable when you step foot downtown. A youth from Mellassine is categorically viewed as a criminal. But they don’t dare get physical with us when there are security cameras around.”

The end of police repression so vehemently demanded by Tunisians during the revolution was wishful thinking. 38-year old Ahlem lost her husband in 2014. He was arrested due to a family conflict that took an unexpectedly dramatic turn. “During his arrest, tension broke out between my husband and the police. They started to hit one another in the street. They ended up completely undressing him right there in front of us. Afterwards, they informed us that he died due to a heart attack. But I went to see him with the lawyer Radhia Nasraoui. His body was covered in bruises.”

Ahlem pressed charges, but the process was so drawn out that she ultimately gave up. She feared retaliation by the police. “They are more threatening than before,” she says with a tone of resignation. This same fear is what deters Ali from seeking treatment to wean off a heroin addiction. “What revolution? What we should be talking about is the powder [heroin]. Me, I’m going to die.”

Ahlem showing a family photo from before the death of her husband, following his police arrest

Ali, with eyes barely open and a troubled gaze, struggles to speak. The 27-year old has a young daughter. He was put on trial for drug trafficking, and his case was closed. But Ali says that he still faces police harassment, and remains on a blacklist of wanted individuals. The SANAD program of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), qualifies this practice as a form of torture.

Since it was launched in 2013, the SANAD program has reported over 900 cases of torture and mistreatment.

Not only has the number of victims increased, the OMCT indicates, but the range of profiles has expanded. Institutionalized violence notably targets individuals blacklisted as constituting a presumed threat to public order.

Torture no longer bears the trashy quality particular to the practices that were carried out in the basement of the Interior Ministry. Today, it takes a more subtle form, one that is also more difficult to document,” observes Hélène Legeay, legal director of OMCT Tunisia, during an interview with Nawaat.

Ali fears that he would be arrested again were he to admit himself to the hospital. In the meantime, he faces a long and painful journey ahead. In Mellassine, the rage harbored by locals against the police is literally spelled out in the public space, with the acronym ACAB graffitied across walls.

A wall in Mellassine graffitied with the acronym “ACAB.”

According to Maher, the police do not want to bring order in this neighborhood oppressed by trafficking and drug use. “They themselves come from working-class neighborhoods rife with drugs which destroy people like them. The latter, however, are not lucky enough to enjoy the same impunity,” he remarks with sarcasm.

Not far away, we meet Akram, seated on some stairs in front of a house. He is smoking a joint, and beside him is a 19-year old. His eyes red and heavy-lidded, Akram shares his story in a tone marked by disgust. He once dreamed of joining the army. “I took the tests, and was told I would be recruited. Covid happened, and ever since I haven’t heard a thing.” Akram has a diploma in construction and public works, and says he has submitted job applications to the National Agency for Employment and Independent Work—in vain.

To “pass the time,” he smokes joints. While Akram reports being “satisfied” with cannabis, other youth seek out hard drugs. Heroin is wreaking havok in Mellassine, according to the member of an association that works with users. Discarded syringes cover the ground in lots closed off for the planned construction of a new mosque or cultural center, in parking lots, and in alleyways.

Used syringes cover the ground close to a soccer field

Some of this debris is visible near a preschool. “Watch out for syringes,” a passerby warns us as we approach a spot frequented by drug users just next to an abandoned soccer field.

Crowds of young people form on each street corner. “That’s where drugs are bought and sold,” explains the member of the aforementioned association. Mellassine is a hub for drug trafficking. “If I walk over there right now, I will cross paths with more than a dozen people offering to sell me drugs,” notes 32-year old Selim, a furniture vendor.

On one wall, someone has graffitied “Welcome to the streets of Mexico,” in reference to the country notorious for drug trafficking, the association member points out. In this neighborhood, trafficking is cause for robberies in broad daylight and fights that break out between young people from different neighborhoods.

“Welcome to the streets of Mexico,” written in Arabic.

Dreams of elsewhere

In Mellassine, the key to social mobility isn’t studies, but rather one’s ability to play hard, Selim observes. “If you hope to make it out through academic excellence, if you object to drug use, you’re considered weak, even crazy.”

Studying takes courage and perseverance in this neighborhood, where infrastructure is catastrophic. In some areas, students must walk through puddles, making sure to avoid slipping in the mud on their way to high school. In severe weather conditions, the roads are submerged under water.

Puddles and mud pave the path to the high school

And still for those who do pursue their studies, the future is far from here. “Any country in Europe,” says 20-year old Riadh, a holed of Tunisian Baccalaureate level (comparable to a Grade-12 Certificate). His classmate nods before commenting, “Give me one reason, just one, that could convince me to remain in this country. Our parents’ generation managed, however, today it’s more difficult for us.”

28-year-old Mouna, who works in a small restaurant, is also tempted by the prospect of leaving the country. Evoking the possibility, her face lights up. Divorced and the mother of a little boy, Mouna has been working for years. Beside her, her 14-year old sister listens attentively. “I’m teaching her this profession so that she can work and study at the same time,” she tells us.

The old furniture market at Mellassine

These young men and women report that they neither follow politics nor took any interest in the country’s last elections. Glued to her telephone, Mouna says that she doesn’t “understand” politics. She voted once in her life—in favor of Saied during the 2019 presidential elections, because he is “educated,” she explains. She does not regret her choice: “People say he’s not that bad.”

Ahmed agrees. While he criticizes Saied for “not knowing how to draw money from overseas and counter unemployment,” Ahmed is satisfied with the president’s policy of tracking corrupt officials.

But what am I to gain by the arrest of a certain businessman if I can’t find either sugar or bread?” Maher wonders angrily. This daily struggle is the same for Ahlem, who lives in a single-room home and shares a twin bed with her 9-year old son. She says she voted in the last legislative elections in order to receive 30 dinars distributed by one candidate. But she has no opinion of Saied, “so long as he doesn’t take away the 200 dinars in assistance provided for needy families.

If opinions about the president seem lukewarm, the same appears to be true of the level of interest in public affairs and nostalgia for the era of Ben Ali, as demonstrated by the rate of participation in elections. 68.36% of Tunisians voted in the 2014 legislative elections. This rate dipped down to 41.7% in 2019 and 11.4% in 2022. The trend did not change during local elections on December 24, for which the rate of participation was just above 11%. Soccer alone seems to inspire any enthusiasm among young people. References to Espérance Sportive fan groups are graffitied across walls throughout the neighborhood.

A reference to Ultras fan of the soccer team.

Among those consumed by the day-to-day struggle, those who seek to escape it through self-medicating, and those who dream of life elsewhere, Mellassine’s residents no longer seem to have any hope for politics or the revolution, much less the country. “The neighborhood is surrounded by iron fences. They have been repainted, but still represent prison bars. Mellassine is the prison court, where we are rotting away,” says Selim.