In Tunisia, the Hazgui-Ben Mbarek, opponents since independence

Wrapped in a blanket, Monday evening, February 26, in the premises of the opposition party Al Joumhouri, in downtown Tunis, Dalila Ben Mbarek Msaddek, 55, has a marked face and pale complexion

In Tunisia, the Hazgui-Ben Mbarek, opponents since independence

Wrapped in a blanket, Monday evening, February 26, in the premises of the opposition party Al Joumhouri, in downtown Tunis, Dalila Ben Mbarek Msaddek, 55, has a marked face and pale complexion. At her side, her father, Ezzedine Hazgui, 79, places a kiss on her forehead before she is taken into care. On hunger strike since Saturday February 24, the lawyer and activist had to be admitted to hospital a few hours after her health deteriorated.

The lawyer made her decision not to drink water or food after her brother, Jaouhar Ben Mbarek, incarcerated for a year in a case of conspiracy against state security, was sentenced to six months. of prison in the context of another case, for a critical statement on the legislative elections of 2022. The verdict was pronounced without giving the accused “the opportunity to defend himself” and without even informing his lawyer, indicates his counsel, Ayachi Hammami, who specifies that a request for postponement had to be examined by the judge.

The case began on February 11, 2023, when security forces arrested pro-democracy activist Khayam Turki, businessman and lobbyist Kamel Eltaïef and a former leader of the Islamo-conservative Ennahda party, Abdelhamid Jelassi. In the days that followed, several political figures were arrested, including Jaouhar Ben Mbarek, member of the National Salvation Front (FSN), the main opposition coalition to President Kaïs Saïed, arrested and referred on February 24. All are placed in pre-trial detention awaiting trial for “conspiracy against state security”.

Since then, only the opponent Chaïma Issa and the lawyer Lazhar Akremi have been released. The five other personalities imprisoned in the same case began a hunger strike on February 11, after a year of detention. According to the investigation file, they are mainly accused of having come into contact with foreign diplomats. Their defense committee denounces an “arbitrary and unfounded” detention. A situation which resonates with that experienced fifty years earlier by Ezzedine Hazgui, the father of Jaouhar and Dalila Ben Mbarek.

“Plot against state security”

They were not yet born when their father took his first steps as activists. The father of independence, Habib Bourguiba, presided over the destiny of Tunisia and Mr. Hazgui was still a young teacher. First active within the pan-Arab socialist Baath party, he then became closer to the Perspectives movement, which included far-left Marxist-Leninist, Trotskyist and Maoist activists.

While his son Jaouhar was born, he escaped the first major wave of arrests within his movement in 1968. In the excitement of the port city of Sfax, where the French May 68 in France and the Chinese cultural revolution have sparked political and social turmoil, the teacher and his companions often find themselves on the front line.

But in October 1973, Ezzedine Hazgui and hundreds of other activists were arrested for distributing leaflets. He was sentenced to six years in prison for “conspiracy against state security”, the same charge that now weighs on his son. At the same time, repression also fell on Bahia, his wife and mother of his two children, who made the mistake of harboring a wanted activist. She was detained and tortured for three months in the cellars of the Ministry of the Interior before being released.

Released in 1979 after serving his sentence, Ezzedine Hazgui was deprived of his right to teach. He then decided to open a political café in Sfax called La Grotte. The venue, which he describes as the “city’s first co-ed cafe,” is quickly becoming a haven for local activists and artists. Under constant surveillance by the authorities, the café periodically undergoes closure measures. “There were the police on one side of the café and the activists on the other,” recalls Dalila Ben Mbarek, evoking the special atmosphere that reigned in these places.

In their father's footsteps

But political activity is not limited to coffee. The apartment above is also the scene of incessant meetings of opponents, to the great dismay of the mother, responsible for feeding the participants in these lively discussions.

At the end of the 1980s, the family gradually settled in the capital, while Jaouhar and Dalila Ben Mbarek began studying law on the Tunis campus. Committed to the General Union of Students of Tunisia, a powerful union, and the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), the two children follow in their father's footsteps.

In 1989, two years after the coup that overthrew Habib Bourguiba, Ezzedine Hazgui decided to challenge Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali at the polls during the presidential election. But his ambition was quickly stifled after his candidacy was rejected. Harassed and arrested several times between 1989 and 1991, he and his family then escaped the regime's repression.

After the 2011 revolution, Ezzedine Hazgui and his children decided to found the Doustourna movement and run for the Constituent Assembly elections. For months, they worked on a draft Constitution, in which Kaïs Saïed, then little known, also participated. Dalila Ben Mbarek Msaddek invested all her savings in it, but the movement failed to win seats in the Assembly. The blow is hard to take. “I believed it. We put all our dreams into it,” regrets the lawyer.

A deep questioning

The Hazgui-Ben Mbareks continue their commitment on the ground, but the 2019 presidential election marks the appearance of the first family differences. While Ezzedine and Jaouhar support future president Kaïs Saïed, Dalila expresses her disagreement and distances herself. In 2020, Jaouhar Ben Mbarek was appointed minister advisor to the head of government for a few months. The family reunites again following Kaïs Saïed’s coup on July 25, 2021, which the father and son directly describe as a “coup d’état” and a dangerous drift. Delilah joins them in their fight shortly after.

After co-founding the collective Citizens against the Coup d'Etat and the National Salvation Front, the main opposition coalition to Kaïs Saïed, Jaouhar Ben Mbarek was arrested on February 24, 2023. During his regular visits, Dalila, his sister and lawyer , echoes his words: “We have not paid the price of democracy dear enough. If we succeed in this fight, Tunisia will irreversibly take the path to democracy. The fight is worth the sacrifice. »

For father and daughter, this period is also marked by a profound questioning. Ideologically opposed to the Islamist Ennahda movement, they claim to have discovered solidarity activists within it, also hard hit by the authoritarian drift of the new regime. “You find them in the trials, while your own friends are not there,” confides Dalila with emotion. We were wrong, we didn't know them. What is positive today is that we can filter those who are Democrats and those who are not. » An observation which also reveals the evolution of the Tunisian political field.