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Surveillance in Tunisia – Shadows of the dictatorship

In a surveillance state opponents of the regime are shadowed, spies observe supposedly conspicuous people – a country in which this has long been practised is Tunisia. What is left of this old surveillance state of Tunisia?

What was life like under Ben Ali’s dictatorship, which was overthrown in 2011? Did shadowing play a major role? Anne Françoise Weber asked the journalist and activist Henda Chennaoui these questions. Chennaoui was born in 1983, Ben Ali came to power in 1987: “I grew up in a Tunisia where everyone was afraid of being persecuted and getting into trouble with the police or the regime. Even in the family politics was completely taboo, criticizing the regime was taboo, even in school, university or on the street. And as I got older, I slowly understood that people were really scared.”

Surveillance as Everyday Life

Henda Chennaoui belongs to the first generation to use the Internet in Tunisia – there, too, everything was monitored, much censored, the police under false profiles in social networks on the move. That’s why Facebook data collection doesn’t shock anyone in Tunisia today. Everyone could be monitored, but especially those who criticized the regime, sums up Anne Françoise Weber.

Our reporter also spoke to Ibtihel Abdellatif, a member of the Truth Commission, who describes a special kind of control:

“During the administrative surveillance, people released from prison had to report to the police station and sign daily. Some had to come in the morning and evening, some ten times a day. A man from Bizerte was forced to come with his wife – she was pretty and had green eyes – and he always had to watch her being sexually abused. He felt that he had become a curse for his wife because she had to suffer all these humiliations – and took her own life”.

“The state is like an octopus”

Weber also tells of philosophy professor Zeineb Ben Said, who received a suspended sentence for political commitment under Ben Ali’s predecessor, state founder Bourguiba.

She did not have to go to prison, but was no longer allowed to work as a teacher: “The state is like an octopus. One is released, others are imprisoned, but one is put on the margins of society. I was no longer allowed to work in the public service at all. That was hard. Not only because I couldn’t earn any money – only a few very brave people hired me for a few hours in private schools. I had no health insurance and I was bugged and persecuted. The people who came to me were also persecuted. You are put into a kind of social ghetto so that people are afraid to visit you. Only the close family remains in solidarity. You become socially isolated. That was very hard.”

The country has changed

How’s that today? Does this political police still exist? Do we have to fear further surveillance? “Not to the extent that Tunisia has become another country,” says Anne Françoise Weber. “But last year a Tunisian woman I wanted to stay with was quoted to the police station: The accommodation of foreigners had to be registered – that was a pure intimidation measure, my hostess was active against police violence”.

The journalist and activist Chennaoui doesn’t feel in danger, but told us about the social movement Fech Nestannew (What are we waiting for?), which protested at the beginning of the year against the Tunisian government’s austerity policy: “We noticed that this time the Ministry of the Interior was picking young people out of the poorer neighbourhoods to scare the population. They know very well that when they arrest well-known activists who are well connected, the resistance becomes even bigger – and these people are not afraid, the movement continues. But if they go after these young people who are isolated, whose families have no access to lawyers or human rights organisations, it is much more difficult to learn anything about them. This tactic really worked and stopped the social movement.”

But in the end, Henda Chennaoui finds social surveillance stronger than police surveillance: If you don’t conform, if you do something politically incorrect, you’re dealing with society. Thus a women’s rights activist, with whom Chennaoui and Weber had met in a café in a small town, got into trouble afterwards – her cousin had seen her in the café and complained to her brother.

About Tunisia

The Republic of Tunisia is a state in North Africa bordering the Mediterranean Sea to the north and east, Algeria to the west and Libya to the south. The name Tunisia is derived from the name of its capital Tunis. Tunisia is the most eastern of the Maghreb countries. At 163,610 km², the country is about twice as large as Austria. It is inhabited by more than ten million people. The largest offshore island is Djerba. Tunisia is the northernmost country in Africa and only 140 kilometres away from Sicily.

The gross domestic product (GDP) has risen steadily for 20 years. This was possible due to the political stability and continuity in the country. Tunisia is therefore classified by the OECD as an emerging country and is regarded as Africa’s most competitive country. The greatest economic challenges for Tunisia lie in combating unemployment, which has been high for years, and increasing the level of investment in the private and public sectors. Structural reforms are also considered necessary. The unemployment rate was 15.2% in August 2015. However, unemployment is still significantly higher among young people and academics.

Tunisia, with its 1300 kilometres of coastline, mostly with sandy beaches, and its rich cultural heritage, has great potential for tourism. Since the early 1970s, tourism has also developed into an important economic sector. However, as a result of the unstable political situation and the threat of terrorism, there has been a sharp slump in the tourism sector.