Under Tunisia’s Humorless Autocrat, Satirists Wonder Who Will Get the Last Laugh

For a decade, comics and cartoonists have lampooned the political elite, but under President Kais Saied, the mirth is fading fast

Under Tunisia’s Humorless Autocrat, Satirists Wonder Who Will Get the Last Laugh
When Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni visited Tunisia in June, the cartoonist “Z” depicted Kais Saied welcoming her with open arms — and closed borders for a crowd of migrants drowning in the sea. The police officer says “learn to swim,” recalling a real-life instance when police taunted a drowning man with the same words. (Courtesy of the artist “Z”)

The young men in the TikTok video can barely contain themselves. Sitting side by side on an old sofa in a sparse room, they periodically burst into little fits of giggles as they sing a darkly comedic song about life under the Tunisian police state. The lyrics are grim: A tale of a young man’s house being raided by police looking for drugs and planting evidence, the chorus echoes parents searching every police station unable to find their arrested child. But sung with twisting, turning puns to the theme tune of the children’s cartoon Babar the Elephant, the song exemplifies Tunisian humor, which lightens the darkest of subjects with acrobatic wordplay. Watching the video, you see the young men’s delight at their sendup of the system.

But the system they pilloried saw the song as no laughing matter. The young men were arrested and charged with “insulting others through communication networks” and “attributing incorrect claims to a public official.”

The end of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s oppressive regime in the 2011 revolution saw an explosion of humorous political expression through blogs and street art that launched the careers of satirists and cartoonists. In the 10 years that followed, activists and journalists used humor to try and keep politicians in their place and hold back authoritarianism. However, two years on from President Kais Saied’s consolidation of power, that humor is being stifled by both economic hardship and a return to heavy-handed authoritarian control. New laws are limiting freedom of speech and the media, and the laughter is dying as satirists are silenced.

“It’s the last day of freedom in Tunisia and we need to talk about this,” says Mohammed Ali Bouchiba, founder of the association Bloggers Without Chains and a lawyer with long experience defending online activists and bloggers in trials. He has just returned from the coastal city of Nabeul, where he was assisting the lawyers for the two young TikTokers who were arrested. He says that since the election of Saied, the number of those charged with criticizing, or worse still satirizing, the authorities has begun to snowball. “I’ve got court hearings nearly every day.”

Bouchiba says it’s not the first time that young men have been dragged in front of a judge for songs poking fun at the police. In recent years, a string of rappers have been arrested for lyrics that speak to the harsh realities of over-policing in Tunisia. But this case caught the attention of the media, and a major backlash on social media followed, even from some of Saied’s closest supporters.

The young men were eventually released. Bouchiba firmly believes the president directed the judge to rule not guilty because “it was such a big deal in the press, it was on France 24, the BBC.”

The youths’ trial followed the interrogation of star political satirists Haythem El Mekki and his co-host Elyes Gharbi, from Tunisia’s most popular politics radio show. More than 1 million Tunisians tune into the Midi Show daily to hear Mekki, whose wry takes on the day’s headlines can be compared to the likes of Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah.

As I watch the tail end of the Midi Show through the studio glass, the presenters appear animated and are apparently enjoying the usual banter. From the studio, Mekki gives me a nod but when he comes out to greet me the effort to smile appears painful. Normally, he cuts a dash with sharp suits and an impish smile, but today his skin is ashen, his tired eyes framed by dark circles, shoulders hunched as if weighed down by recent events. His exhaustion is palpable, but the fire in his belly is not out yet.

In a show following the shooting of two Jewish pilgrims and two police officers by a member of the National Guard on the island of Djerba in May, during the Jewish festival of Lag B’Omer, Mekki and Gharbi laid into the police and the way that security officers are recruited.

“I said, ‘Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, how many thugs are incorporated into the police? How many thugs wear uniforms?’” Mekki says, stabbing the air with his fork. It was this comment that landed Mekki in hot water with the authorities.

“I said this on the radio on a Monday; it was sent to the police squad on Wednesday for a hearing on Friday, it was that fast,” he explains.

Convinced that if the hearing took place that Friday he would be arrested and remanded to pre-trial detention, Mekki’s lawyer moved to delay the hearing until the following week. On Monday, May 20, Mekki arrived at the criminal investigations unit for questioning as a massive crowd rallied outside the building to support him. Activists, union members and 30 lawyers came to render support. After hours of questioning, Mekki walked free, but could yet stand trial any day.

“I am a journalist and I have no business being in a criminal court. This doesn’t mean I should not be held accountable for what I say, but it is the press laws that should apply,” he says, referring to the detailed legal framework for the free press in Tunisia. Yet as he goes on to explain, the justice system never uses these laws.

Trials for defamation continued even after the fall of Ben Ali, under Tunisia’s old French colonial law, the penal code of 1913, which is rife with criminal defamation articles, including for insulting a public functionary or demoralizing the security services. Saied continues to employ this colonial cudgel, but has also promulgated a new cybercrime act that includes a loosely worded clause on cyber libel and prohibits any criticism of the state authorities or the president. In effect, it is a license for Saied and the police to crack down on whomever they dislike.

“It was already hard for journalists to do their job, but for satirical journalists it is even harder,” says Mekki. Previously, whenever I’ve spoken to or interviewed Mekki, our conversations have been a volley of jokes, but today he seems irritable. He is struggling to concentrate and tiring rapidly, but says resolutely, “Satire is the most radical form of freedom of speech, but the time for political journalism has come to an end.”

I usually catch the Midi Show riding in taxis, often laughing along with the driver at Mekki and Gharbi’s satirical romp through the headlines. Known for their biting and acerbic wit, tearing into Tunisia’s vain and often pompous politicians, the banter was quick and the energy high. But the news has grown darker over the past year, with stories of food shortages, increased femicide and the freely elected politicians they once ridiculed being put behind bars as political prisoners.

“Now, I can’t manage to be funny,” Mekki said. “The episodes I made last week weren’t funny at all.” An admirer of the wit of George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain, he worries that in the current climate of absurd political brutality, where even a joke or song will see you in prison, humor is no longer a useful weapon of opposition. “If you laugh about it, you normalize it.”

Richard Winfield, co-founder of both the International Senior Lawyers Project and its Media Law Working Group, which supports the legal defense of activists and journalists worldwide, points out that the criminalization of freedom of speech, and humor in particular, is widespread across the Maghreb. It seems leaders like Saied, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt and Abdelmadjid Tebboune in Algeria really cannot take a joke, and many have created what Winfield calls “cyber libel” laws or “cynically titled patriot acts to crack down on subversive humorists.” He says he fears that online critics of politicians are now humorless, “and for good reason: We have only now begun to grasp just how total and powerful the crackdown on freedom of expression is.”

Mekki and Bouchiba believe Tunisia is returning to what the satirical cartoonist “Z” calls “ZABA-iedism.” It’s a portmanteau of “ZABA,” the zingy acronym of Ben Ali’s initials, with “Saiedism.” Z says that Tunisia’s dictators may change, but the Ministry of the Interior and its policemen never changed. Like Mekki, he began his public satirical oeuvre in the last gasps of Ben Ali’s regime.

After the 2011 revolution, talented satirists like Mekki were snapped up and made national stars by Mosaiq FM radio, while Z remained in the shadows, drawing his caustic lampoons of authority figures and politicians, which collectively narrate Tunisia’s political evolution for his digital audience. His alter ego — a bug-eyed, capricious, beer-swilling flamingo — is a constant feature alongside the ghostly figures of obese police officers and the bulbous-faced Ben Ali.

“My drawings are a form of activism,” said Z. “My real inspiration comes from my anger at what I see happening in Tunisia. I’m fed by this anger and the dictator is an inspiration for a person like me.”

Over the years, he’s created not only a signature style of drawing but a whole lexicon of visual cues and jokes. His drawings are littered with humorous details and layers of meaning. During the years of the transitional democracy, the focus of his vitriol was dissembling politicians and “the Islamists” — the Muslim democratic party, Ennahda — whom he often depicted as giant, fat, hairy-legged Salafists. Now Saied has become Z’s anti-muse, rendered as a ghoulish parody of the hapless American everyman Homer Simpson, with an unblinking, crazy stare.

Z has elevated toilet humor to a refined art form, creating a whole new vocabulary to describe Saied’s version of ZABA-iedism. Set in a garish and arid “Absurdistan,” the quixotic figure of Saied writes laws on toilet paper, a plumber’s plunger on his head. “Fascists always talk about cleaning up” — like Trump saying he would “drain the swamp.” “Saied says the country is in the shit, so he’s cleaning the shit up, et voila!” says Z.

Unlike Mekki, Z is less pessimistic about the continuation of satire. “I don’t think there is any shortage of artists, but I think it will become more clandestine, increasingly it will go underground.” Still, he warns of the “king’s fools”: the propagandists who fawn over and clown for Saied, proclaiming their patriotism and love of the president in the digital agora of Facebook and spewing poison and ridicule at his enemies, spinning slanderous stories to denounce “conspirators” which then result in arrests and prosecutions.

According to the political analyst and author Hatem Nafti, the history of satire in Tunisia has mostly been “clandestine and subtle.” He recounts that Tunisian leaders have always been vain, thin-skinned creatures, intolerant of any form of mockery. “The great humorist Salah Khemissi sang a song parodying [former President Habib] Bourguiba which landed him in prison.” Under Ben Ali, “theater plays criticized the regime but used coded language and played to the elite.”

After the 2011 revolution, political humor blossomed. Nadia Khiari’s satirical cartoon “Willis in Tunis” — a world of naughty felines rebelling against the police and patriarchy — rose to iconic status as its kitties cropped up everywhere from underpasses to T-shirts. A Ramadan comedy show, Chams Alik, pranked public figures who were still secretly loyal to Ben Ali by fooling them into believing the deposed president had casually called in to speak to them on the show. When the reveal finally came — that it was just an actor mimicking Ben Ali — everybody laughed.

But under Saied, comedy has been retreating back into bland sitcoms to elicit chuckles from a mass audience, and it seems real satire is retreating fully to the margins.

Nafti says that many activist satirists have left Tunisia, including Nadia Khiari and Wajdi Mahouechi, who had regularly made video skits and sketches sending up the authorities since before the revolution.

“Now, I believe that in Tunisia, criticizing Kais Saied and the police is more dangerous than cursing God,” says Mahouechi, who is now in self-imposed exile. He says that neither of Tunisia’s two previous post-revolution presidents, Moncef Marzouki and Beji Caid Essebsi, ever filed complaints against those who poked fun at them. “But now if anyone satirizes Kais Saied they will get put in jail, because Saied is a god.”

“I’m a big fan of Z,” he says, “When I was in jail he did a cartoon about me. I encourage Z to stay anonymous, because if he shows his face he will be in danger,” warns Mahouechi.

Mahouechi spent time in jail for one of his video polemics, criticizing the public prosecutor for not taking legal action against a Tunisian imam who had published a video encouraging others to go out and commit murders in the same vein as that of the French school teacher Samuel Paty in October 2020. The imam walked free but Mahouechi served 13 months of a two-year prison sentence, and was released only after extensive pleading by Bloggers Without Chains and Winfield of ISLP and garnering international support.

“In Tunisia, we are either for liberty of expression or we are not,” says Bouchiba, who was previously Mahouechi’s defense counsel. “The president says one thing, but on the ground you find it is not the case; there is no freedom of expression anymore. Now I am really afraid, as they’re now arresting lawyers who defend freedom of speech cases.”

Bouchiba worries that as figures such as Mekki are eliminated one by one in court, this leaves only one voice, which is Saied’s. He shows me his list of court appearances again, counting out the names. “There’s a trial nearly every day, and what are we left with? Just Kais Saied doing his one-man show on TV.”

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