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Tunisian MPs begin hunger strike over violence in parliament

Brawl during session on women's issues left MP Samia Abbou unconscious
Samia Abbou was allegedly attacked by members of the al-Karama coalition during the parliamentary brawl (AFP)
By
Yasmina Allouche

Four Tunisian MPs have begun a hunger strike in protest against a brawl in parliament that left one of them unconscious.

Samia Abbou, who was caught up in the violence on 7 December, began her strike on Monday, followed the next day by her Democratic Bloc colleagues Amal Saidi, Mounira Ayari and Zied Ghanney.

A violent brawl between representatives of Tunisia’s rival political parties erupted on 7 December during a session within the women's committee overseeing issues related to women workers. The violent scenes sparked public outrage and led to an online campaign calling on President Kais Saied to dissolve parliament.

Abbou on Monday described the fracas as "a shock to Tunisian women" and a disgrace.

Previous comments made by al-Karama coalition MP Mohamed Afess, allegedly referring to women's rights as debauchery and suggesting that single mothers were prostitutes or had been raped, is believed to have provoked the incident.

'We cannot entrust the interests of Tunisians to this assembly, which is full of smugglers and tax evaders'

- Samia Abbou, MP

Video of the incident shows Abbou on the ground in distress. Al-Karama MPs have been accused of causing her harm, but deny they were involved.

Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi condemned the incident. However, Abbou has accused Ghannouchi of encouraging a “culture of violence” with his "inertia", and has vowed to continue her hunger strike “until the head of parliament assumes his responsibilities” and publishes a “statement condemning the violence and the aggressors".

“We cannot entrust the interests of Tunisians to this assembly, which is full of smugglers and tax evaders," she said, referring to the president of the Qalb Tounes Party, Nabil Karoui, who has been implicated in cases of money laundering and tax evasion, as well as the head of the al-Karama bloc, Seif Eddine Makhlouf, also accused of tax evasion.

According to a report by al-Bawsala, a human rights NGO that monitors activities in parliament, between November 2019 and July 2020 there were a number of attacks against female politicians at the assembly, including misogynistic remarks and death threats.

In 2014, the rate of female representation accounted for 31 percent of parliament. By 2019, however, the number had decreased to 26 percent, with only 23 percent of parliamentary committees being chaired by women, according to the rights group.

'Exceptional protection' 

The Democratic bloc, which has 38 MPs and is supported by other blocs and a number of independents, has spent the last month holding a sit-in at the parliament to express fears over their safety there.

Ghannouchi and his Ennahdha party have been accused by the bloc and the Tunisian General Labour Union of providing “exceptional protection” to members of al-Karama, who have denied any responsibility for the ruckus in parliament.

The Democratic bloc has lodged complaints against several al-Karama MPs, including Makhlouf, Affes and Zied Hechmi. 

While Article 68 of Tunisia’s constitution states that “no civil or penal legal proceedings can be brought against a member of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, nor the latter be arrested or tried, because of opinions or proposals expressed or acts carried out in connection with his parliamentary functions”, physical and verbal attacks are not protected by the parliamentary immunity enjoyed by MPs and are liable to legal proceedings. 

The sit-ins and hunger strikes have added to Tunisia's political problems, which also include the postponement of an imminent cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi on Monday.

President Saied, who held a meeting with Abbou on Monday to discuss the situation in parliament, has said he was not consulted in regards to “this imminent reshuffle”.