Against Forgiveness: Manich Musamah and the Struggle for Tunisian Transitional Justice

By Alyssa Miller
Submitted to Session P5016 (Transitional Justice in Tunisia and Libya, 2017 Annual Meeting
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
In addition to delivering justice to victims of state crimes, Transitional Justice processes seek to reestablish state legitimacy after a traumatic breach of confidence. However, by emphasizing reconciliation, the political project of “Transition” is often counter-revolutionary in nature, shutting down social movements before they can overturn structural oppressions. When Tunisian President Ben Ali was deposed in the 2011 Dignity Revolution, many of his family members, top bureaucrats, and business associates followed him into exile rather than face down allegations of corruption. Today, in the context of transitional justice, many of these figures are now seeking to launder their public image and return to positions of power and influence.
This paper considers the ethical refusal of forgiveness by examining the independent Tunisian youth movement “Manich Musamah.” Meaning “I do not forgive” in Tunisian Arabic, Manich Musamah declares itself against a culture of impunity in which old regime figures can be rehabilitated without paying the price for their crimes. Using street protests and digital media, they ensure that the names of crony capitalists who profited from dictatorship under Presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali remain associated with their crimes in the public eye. The movement coalesced in August 2015 in response to the Project Law on Economic and Financial Reconciliation, legislation proposed by current President Beji Caid Essebsi. Touted as a way to jumpstart a national economy mired in crisis, the Project Law proposed that crimes of corruption be adjudicated by a closed commission overseen by the executive branch. Stripping the Truth and Dignity Commission of its jurisdiction over crimes of corruption, the law would enable crony capitalists to be rehabilitated without disclosing their crimes to the public.
Manich Musamah’s eponymous slogan has its origins in a Tunisian playground rhyme: “forgiveness is in the courthouse.” This captures the headstrong and ludic sensibility of the movement and its media tactics, which approaches protest as a form of earnest, subversive play. Based on ethnographic research conducted in Tunis in 2015 and 2016, this paper explores how the movement’s creative use of digital tools incites street level participation and facilitates its viral spread throughout the national territory. Without endorsing rightly debunked theories of Tunisia’s “Facebook Revolution,” I argue that Manich Musamah creatively expands the repertoire of digital tactics for which the 2011 Revolution was so justly celebrated.