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Tunisian Students Protest Police Surveillance

Students in Tunisia have called for a boycott of final exams in protest of what they describe as increased police surveillance in Tunisian universities. Some, but not all, of the protesters accuse university administrators of complicity with the police.

The boycott call came from the General Union of Tunisian Students, which demanded that the police stop interrogating students about their political activities and release those they had arrested.

“The restrictions on the activities of the union have increased in recent months, in what appears to be a move to bring us back to the previous era,” Warda Atiq, the secretary-general of the union, which is known by its French abbreviation, UGET, said in a phone call.

Dozens of students were arrested last month after demonstrations in towns and cities throughout the country to commemorate the revolution that toppled former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011. (See a related article, “Students as a Political Barometer of Tunisian Society.”)

Atiq, a 28-year-old student at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Tunis, said she was summoned to a police station because of her student activity. Other students were referred to disciplinary councils and accused of “causing a state of noise and chaos and disrupting exams.”

Universities Penalize Them, Activists Say

Speaking outside the parliament building, Olfa Benouda, the minister of higher education and scientific research, refused to discuss the protests but said the ministry was willing to organize online courses to enable students who were arrested to sit their exams.

Some students believe academic administrators are seeking to prohibit student activity and tolerate security interference in university affairs.

“The university administration uses repressive disciplinary councils or final dismissals for students participating in protests and involved in the student movement as a means of intimidating them and discouraging them from any student activity on campus,” Ghassan Al-Kala’i, a 25-year-old electrical engineering student, said in a phone call.

He said the administration at the University of Jendouba’s Higher Institute of Technological Studies warned him he could be permanently dismissed from the institution if he continued his union activities.

Moreover, he said, “some professors deliberately lowered my scores in some exams in compliance with recommendations and pressure from the administration.”

He described the disciplinary councils as a “setback for freedom of expression that students and the Tunisian and Arab people in general have always fought for.” (See a related article, “Historical Wounds Are Not Healing in Tunisia.”)

Concerns About Universities’ Independence

But Lamis Barhoumi, a 21-year-old student at the Higher Institute of Applied Studies in Humanities in El Kef, ruled out coordination between the police and university administrations in arresting students.

“It is unfortunate that the administrations do not protect students,” she said: “Student work cannot be criminalized.” She called on university presidents to be more effective role in defending students and to stop imposing penalties on activists.

“It is unfortunate that the administrations do not protect students. Student work cannot be criminalized.”

Lamis Barhoumi  
A student at the Higher Institute of Applied Studies in Humanities in El Kef

Some observers believe that the security services are seeking to control the internal affairs of Tunisian universities, both with regard to students and faculty members, as they did before the revolution.

Malek Zaghdoudi, a journalist and researcher into student movements in Tunisia, said student unions wanted to preserve the independence of universities.

“I do not think students will give up the demand to prevent any security agency, whatever it may be, from interfering with universities’ internal affairs,” he said. The students wanted “to ensure their independence and to ensure an educational level that fulfills the aspirations of students and faculty members alike.”

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The University Professors Union has taken no official position on what is happening but Atiq, the first female student to lead the UGET, said “some professors sympathize with us and reject campaigns of arrest and discipline.”

Zaghdoudi believes it will take several months before the conflict is resolved, and said: “It is not clear how things will end and whether the security services will be able to re-impose their control on universities.”

But Atiq insisted that the students would not give in.

“The violations and repressive police measures will not deter us from continuing our struggle,” she said. “On contrary; they will rather increase our determination to work to defend our rights to freedom of expression in all forms on campuses.”


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